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Obama’s visit a holiday tradition in Hawaii

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It’s raining again, and business is slow at Island Snow in Kailua. The few patrons are more interested in the beach garb for sale than frozen treats that Cheyne Vincent stands ready to dispense behind the counter.

Vincent isn’t worried, though. The forecast calls for sunnier weather in the days ahead, which should draw more foot traffic from the nearby beach.

More important, “Uncle Barry” is coming soon. President Obama is set to join his wife and daughters here, after his delay by the late surge of congressional action.

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The yearly visit by Obama to his birthplace of Hawaii has become its own holiday tradition here, as has the guessing game about what restaurants he might dine at, and when he’ll stop by Island Snow for “shave ice.”

But there is no longer the same level of excitement about the native-born president returning. Instead, longtime friends say that following a bruising year politically, what the president needs most is respectful distance so he can recharge.

“We know he’s coming, and we certainly have our share of gawkers,” said Mufi Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor and a friend of the president. “But it’s part of our culture, we just respect the fact that he’s here, want to give him space, privacy.”

In Kailua, the east shore beach town where the Obamas will spend the next week, there was little indication of a coming presidential visit beyond the security barriers erected on the street leading to the winter White House, a beachfront estate that has become a favorite of the Obamas.

In the tourist-heavy Waikiki, a sign on one hotel welcomed the Hawaii Warriors football team, not the commander in chief. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported last week that Obama trinkets are harder to find this year, and what few items are on store shelves are heavily marked down.

Leaders here say the more muted reaction is predictable, and part of what draws the first family back year after year.

“When he comes out here, he recognizes these are people that are full of the Aloha spirit for him,” said the state’s new governor, Neil Abercrombie, who boasts perhaps the longest relationship with Obama, having befriended his parents during graduate studies at the University of Hawaii. “He can come out here and go anywhere he wants, and there’s no problem.”

Tourism remains the state’s top industry, generating $11.1 billion in revenue this year, said Mike McCartney, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Business has been down as cash-strapped mainlanders opt for cheaper destinations.

But Obama’s visits, and his decision to host the APEC summit here next November, provide a priceless boost to that trade.

“There’s always going to be a sense of excitement when he comes, but more than that, he demonstrates that Hawaii is a place that you can vacation and also do business,” McCartney said.

Places he is known to frequent like Island Snow will inevitably see an increase in business when he arrives. Vincent, a supervisor at Island Snow, says some patrons will mill about the store for hours in the hopes that they will catch the man they still affectionately call Uncle Barry.

The attention his visits have drawn were a large reason why the store expanded with a 20-foot addition, as well as the purchase of three new machines to crush the ice.

All year, visitors from across the world come just to order what has become known as the “Snowbama” — flavored with lemon-lime, cherry and guava syrup. It’s been the president’s exact order each visit.

“He’s a purist,” Vincent said.

Travel agencies now offer Obama-specific tours in addition to other historical and scenic packages, though interest in them has fluctuated over time. Polynesian Adventure Tours initially offered a guided tour of landmarks of Obama’s youth seven days a week, scaling it back last year to just once a week, before increasing it back to three a week this year.

“You can’t beat the positive views that come out of Hawaii when he’s here,” said Hannemann, now president of the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Assn.

Alan Wong, owner of an eponymous restaurant that has been a regular stop for the president, says he, of course, hopes for another visit. But more than that, he hopes Obama’s trip is a welcome respite from the battles he faces in Washington.

“Coming home is always grounding,” he said. “And I think that it’s important for him to get grounded, to get recharged, and get refreshed again so that you take on the next challenge.”

mmemoli@latimes.com

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