Sharing Waikiki With World Leaders (and Their Security Details)

By Tom Koppel, photos by Annie Palovcik

Hawaii travel

It was not exactly the Hawaiian holiday we had anticipated. The normally bustling boulevards were barricaded, lined with police cars and olive-drab Humvees and empty of traffic. Thousands of police and soldiers patrolled the sidewalks and beaches. Helicopters clattered low overhead. Sinister mobile military watchtowers with searchlights overlooked the yacht harbor. Coast Guard cutters with guns on the bow cruised back and forth just offshore, enforcing a maritime exclusion zone. Canoe clubs had to cancel weekend races. Even the surfers were barred from their favorite spots.

Waikiki Hawaii security

Welcome to Waikiki, where, for a week in November, aloha met the new normal.

The massive uniformed presence was aimed at ensuring the safety of leaders and economic delegations from 21 Asia-Pacific countries, including their host, President Obama.

My wife and I found ourselves smack in the middle of a security zone that extended for many blocks, cordoned off within a fenced perimeter monitored by checkpoints and sniffer dogs. Our condo hotel, the seaside Ilikai, housed temporary offices, where delegates and media people had their photos taken and credentials issued. Our balcony faced the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where Obama and his entourage were staying. On our other side, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his large entourage were housed next door at The Modern.

We were free to walk around and use some of the beaches, but warned to carry photo ID and proof that, registered at the Ilikai, we belonged in the area. We could cross the wide boulevard, but not if a convoy of VIP limousines was about to pass by. At such times, soldiers and police formed human shields at the crosswalks.

One evening, returning from dinner, we were halfway across to our hotel when soldiers on the pedestrian island suddenly stopped us. Something was happening. Standing patiently, we gawked as a motorcade with flashing lights was assembled in the nearest side-street. After five or ten minutes, it suddenly zoomed out into the boulevard and took off. There were police escorts, SUVs (presumably full of bodyguards), and an ambulance just in case. In the middle was a long, black limousine flying the Russian flag and carrying Medvedev to a banquet.


The motorcades were frequent. A fellow Ilikai guest, Howard Nelson from Chicago, told us he had waited 30 minutes to cross the street to buy snacks at a convenience store, and another 45 minutes to get back. Coming to the hotel annually since 1968, he had never before experienced such security. One time, Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos had arrived with numerous limos and mountains of luggage. He had strutted through the lobby with a phalanx of bodyguards and taken over the entire eleventh floor. This was mainly to have space for his infamous wife Imelda’s thousands of pairs of shoes, Nelson quipped. But other residents had not been inconvenienced.

Read the full story on Perceptive Trave webzine: Locked Down in Waikiki

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