Merrie Monarch is the hottest ticket in town, but there was a time when organizers couldn't imagine they'd ever fill the more than 5,000 seats— now tickets are gone by the end of the first day they're available to the public.
It's grown from humble roots in 1963 to an international phenomenon.
"I'm amazed that so many people worldwide want to come see it," said Luana Kawelu, the Festival Director. "This year we got requests from Switzerland, London, France, Germany, Singapore, the Philippines – all over it's just amazing. And it's through this festival that people are getting to know hula— which I'm happy, I'm happy about."
Aunty Luana, as she known to all, has followed in her mother's footsteps, Aunty Dottie Thompson, as the Festival Director.
"I wish my Mom and Uncle George were here to enjoy it, because they're the ones who worked hard to bring it to where it is," Aunty Luana said with a smile. "And that's the reason why this year's Ho'ike focuses upon the Halau that were there from the start—the early, early halaus— Robert, the first kane winner, Waimapuna—you know these men and these halau paid the price at the time nobody wanted to come, yeah? We had a hard time selling the buttons for one dollar before and now it's just so popular, but it was through their dedication to hula that has brought us to where we are today and I'm so grateful that I could be a part of it."
Aunty Dottie Thompson and Uncle George Na'ope are credited with re-invigorating the Festival when they introduced the hula competition in 1971. Aunty Luana says there's no way her mother ever imagined Merrie Monarch would become what it is today.
"She told me that she wanted to recreate what King Kalakaua wanted to do by bringing back the traditions, bring back hula, bring back the arts and crafts. So when we first started in Hilo, we use to sell buttons for a dollar. Nobody wanted to buy the buttons—it was so hard to sell," described Aunty Luana.
That's no longer the case.
"This year, I think there are about 7,000 people we turned away because we had so many requests and it's painful because, you know - we don't know who they are ," said Aunty Luana, before describing how someone from Singapore flew in to make sure she got tickets only to be told she needed to mail them in, with a postmark no earlier than December 26.
While Aunty Luana knows there are bigger venues on outer-islands that could accommodate more people, her reaction to any discussion about moving the festival is swift.
"Read my lips— no way!" Aunty Luana said. "It was Hilo's to start with, I want it to be Hilo's."
As grand as it continues to grow, Aunty Luana is guided by an important kuleana, or responsibility, she cherishes above everything else.
"It has become more than a competition. It's a sharing of our culture and tradition," said Aunty Luana.