Visitor industry on the lookout for sex trafficking, gambling in Waikiki

Waikiki’s visitor industry and other community stakeholders that have worked with Honolulu police for years to combat sex trafficking now say they will be looking out for illegal gambling too.

Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said sex trafficking is a problem that Hawaii hotels, along with hotels across the nation, have worked hard to end.

“HLTA has hosted sex-­trafficking seminars. We’ve had training. We’ve brought in speakers like we did for this year’s Visitor Public Safety Conference,” Hannemann said. “HPD and other law enforcement entities have our full cooperation on this.”

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard also wants Waikiki’s cooperation in fighting gambling, which she said is a growing problem throughout the islands, not just in Waikiki.

Hannemann said he met with HPD after Ballard spoke at HLTA’s Visitor Public Safety Conference on Tuesday and that he and other community organizations stand ready to support police initiatives.

“We were very pleased that Chief Ballard wants to get out ahead of this. We know from her reports and reports we are hearing that there are some gambling houses that are trying to establish a major foothold in Waikiki,” Hannemann said.

Ballard told tourism and community leaders that overall crime in Waikiki dropped last year as the pandemic torpedoed tourism arrivals. But she said police expect gambling and sex trafficking could happen more frequently in Waikiki.

“What are we looking at in terms of emerging crime or things that we see may start happening more down in Waikiki? Sex trafficking or human trafficking,” Ballard said. “Also what we’re seeing now a little bit more than we ever have before is gambling moving into Waikiki — whether it’s from rental apartments or some of the houses that are out in that area, because the gambling is becoming wider and wider spread throughout the island.”

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Hannemann said Ballard’s concerns will become increasingly important as the tourism industry rebounds.

As visitors return to Waikiki, hotels will have a greater role to play in ensuring they aren’t renting rooms to those involved in sex trafficking. Ballard said police rely on visitor industry members to alert them to bad situations, as most sex-trafficking crimes are now facilitated via websites and other digital platforms hidden from public view.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times sex trafficking involves juveniles who are coming from maybe a bad situation and are easily coerced,” she said. “This isn’t what we want for the kids in our community or anywhere in the United States.”

Amanda Leonard, coordinator of the Missing Child Center of Hawai‘i and a speaker at HLTA’s public safety conference, said those working in the visitor industry can do much to protect missing and exploited children.

“The reality is that a lot of our reported runaways are attracted to Waikiki, Ko Olina and similar tourist areas across the state,” she said. “We’ve seen them blending into the homeless population and we’ve also seen them be targeted by predators and traffickers.”

Leonard said her office relies on hotel security staff as well as the Hawaii Hotel Visitor Industry Security Association to be the “eyes and ears ” of law enforcement in terms of sighting vulnerable children and teenagers in and around hotels.

Ballard said Tuesday that while some may dismiss gambling as a petty misdemeanor, “it brings a lot of folks that you don’t want into an area.”

“It brings crime into the area; it brings guns into the area,” she said. “And so we are always on the lookout, and if we identify any of the gambling houses in Waikiki or anywhere on the island, we take action. The crime that they bring in is what really destroys our community.”

HPD declined to provide the Honolulu Star-Advertiser with specifics on the Waikiki gambling cases Ballard referenced; however, police last year conducted at least three gambling raids in Kapahulu on the outskirts of Waikiki.

In December, officers seized more than a dozen gambling machines and cash during a raid at an illegal game room on Kapahulu Avenue, later arresting a 54-year-old woman on charges of promoting gambling and possession of gambling devices. Eight other people were arrested for violating COVID-19 emergency orders in effect at the time.

In July, police executed search warrants at two illegal game rooms on Kapahulu Avenue, where they recovered more than a dozen gambling machines, cash, drugs and a firearm. A 30-year-old woman was arrested for promoting gambling and possession of a gambling device.

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