Editor’s Note: “Tourism’s Tipping Point” is an ongoing Civil Beat series that looks at the future of the vacation industry in Hawaii, its impact on our lifestyles and environment, and its sustainability.  

On the surface, these are heady times for the tourism industry.

This year, Hawaii is expecting to draw a record 10.2 million visitors, with continued growth expected in the future. The industry now accounts for 125,000 jobs — roughly one in five jobs in Hawaii. Airlines are expanding flights into Hawaii.

But understanding where the industry is headed is more complicated. Visitors are spending less per capita than three decades ago, including on places to stay, often choosing vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. And they’re increasingly opting for cheaper activities like hiking. And as crowds grow, so too does the possibility of a public backlash, according to recent surveys.

Here’s a look at Hawaii tourism by the numbers:

Visitors to Hawaii soared during the 30-year span from 1960 to 1990, rising to 6.7 million from less than 1 million. Over the next two decades, visitor counts grew modestly before taking a dive because of the Great Recession. Now the numbers are rising dramatically with no end in sight.

As the number of visitors to Hawaii has grown, so have the number of jobs that depend on the industry. No private sector industry is more important. In sheer numbers, government jobs rival the leisure and hospitality sector. So does a sector called “retail, trade, transportation and utilities,” the bulk of which are retail jobs. But when factoring in the number of retail establishments that cater to tourists, the tourism industry’s importance becomes even more enormous.

In 1939, just 520 passengers came to Honolulu on trans-Pacific flights, according to Robert C. Schmitt’s “Historical Statistics of Hawaii.” Back then, a round-trip ticket between Honolulu and San Francisco cost $556, more than $10,000 in today’s dollars. It’s no wonder passenger numbers were small. It took nearly 30 years for the air passenger count to reach 1 million.

Since then, the numbers have grown exponentially. And while the bulk of visitors still come from the western U.S., as they did during the days of Pan Am’s first flights to the islands, Hawaii’s roughly 10 million visitors come from all over the world.


A striking statistic is that even as Hawaii’s visitor count has risen significantly, the number of people staying in traditional hotels — or the number of hotels — hasn’t grown much. So where are these millions of additional people staying?  In vacation rentals, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority

But the category of “vacation rentals” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s yet another hard-to-count category, the properties advertised on sites like Airbnb, which the authority calls “individually advertised units.” These totaled 30,000 statewide, according to a lengthy appendix to the authority’s inventory of visitor accommodations. The growth in vacation rentals and individually advertised units is noteworthy because people staying in those accommodations tend to spend less overall that other visitors, HTA has reported.

Despite ever-growing visitor numbers, Paul Brewbaker, an independent economist, has long pointed out a less positive trend. When adjusted for inflation, visitor expenditures now are only where they were in 1989, even though we have about 2.5 million more tourists than we had then. That means more side effects — stresses on roads, reefs, trails and beaches — to generate the same economic benefits.


It’s not surprising that visitors renting Airbnb or other vacation houses spend, on average, less for lodging than people staying in hotels. But according to HTA, they also spend less on food and beverages, shopping and other entertainment and recreation. In fact, people staying in hotels spend more across the board.


Industry officials say the recreational interests of visitors are changing.

One example: a rising popularity of hiking to Instagrammable trails and a decline in the popularity of golf. Back in 2002, visitors from Hawaii’s most popular market, the U.S. West, golfed about as much as they hiked. Just under 20% hit the links then, while 21% hit the trails. But by 2017, the percentage of golfers had declined by about 50 percent, while the percentage of hikers increased by about 36 percent. The trend is consistent across most of Hawaii’s markets.

It’s significant not just because it shows travelers have less expensive tastes. Golfers tend to pay large fees, which go to using and maintaining courses; hikers typically pay little or nothing to maintain the trails they use.

Hiking And Recreational Area Rescues (2016-2018)


One of the presumed costs of all the tourists hitting the hiking trails is the cost of rescuing them.  As the interactive map above shows, trails that seem to attract large numbers of tourists — even easy ones like the paved path up Diamond Head and the mostly gentle trail to Manoa Falls trail — have the most rescues.

HFD statistics show at least 130 rescues at Diamond Head from 2016 through 2018. That amounts to more than one per week. In three years alone, there were 995 rescues with more than a tenth occurring on Diamond Head alone.


As the crowds grow and the impacts on beaches, roads and once hard-to-reach places are felt far beyond Waikiki, locals have grown more wary of the state’s most economically important industry. A significant, but declining majority still agree that tourism provides net benefits to Hawaii. But an even stronger majority believe the island is now being run for tourists at the expense of locals.

“Tourism’s Tipping Point”  is part of Civil Beat’s year-long series, “Hawaii’s Changing Economy.” That work is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.


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