This expression briefly became a popular catchphrase
in American culture
during 1990. As most fads do in this era, it came from television
At the dawn of the last decade of the 20th century, competition between long distance telephone carriers was heating up. Price wars began, and many incentives and angles were devised to attract and retain customers. AT&T produced a TV ad campaign focusing on their "old reliable" image, including several spots touting their policy of giving "instant credit" for wrong numbers.
One of these spots featured a long distance customer in their home carefully dialing a phone number that they were reading from a scrap of paper. When the call goes through, the ad cuts to a heavy-set Polynesian man wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He's standing under an open air beach hut near a ringing telephone. With the glittering waves crashing in the background behind him, he answers the phone with "Bula vinaka, beachside!" spoken very quickly. Cut back to the caller, who makes a puzzled expression and hangs up.
The AT&T customer then dials the number again, and once again the Fijian gentleman answers, "Bula vinaka, beachside!" The caller asks "Is this (...some place he's trying to call)?" to which he gets the reply, "No, you've reached Fiji."
If you never saw the ad, this description may not strike you as being terribly funny. The humor lies in the way "Bula vinaka, beachside!" is pronounced. Almost nobody could understand what this guy was saying. Nevermind that your average Joe or Jane Citizen in Des Moines has no idea that "Bula vinaka" is Fijian for "hello, thanks" and is their customary greeting when answering the phone (much like "Aloha" is in Hawaii). In the commercial, it sounds like the Fijian was saying "Boolaminakapisai!" or "Halomanakapisai?"1
Such fascination arose over the mysterious expression used in this ad that people frequently brought it up in discussion. Calling out your interpretation of the phrase could often encite laughter in crowds of people. For a short time, it was even popular among some to answer the phone this way — as a joke, of course.
Eventually the ad ended its run and people focused their short attention spans elsewhere. However, it is a testament to effective advertising that bringing up this phrase again, even a decade later, will often evoke memories2 of the ad and almost always a correct association with the advertiser.
1 Sylvar's interpretation — and he's a linguist!
2 Responses may vary. Will not work on stupid or forgetful people. Use only as directed.