Even as the numbers of visitors plummeted in 2020, Oahu hotels continued to consume substantial amounts of electricity and water, a study released Monday by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says.

Produced by DBEDT’s Research and Economic Analysis Division, the report underscored something that was painfully – and expensively – obvious to hoteliers during the pandemic: even without many guests, a hotel couldn’t just turn off the lights, air conditioning and water and leave.

DEBDT put it in more technical terms.


Waikiki Hotels
Waikiki Hotels, pictured here in August, used large amounts of electricity during the pandemic in 2020, despite a significant decline in numbers of guests. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat /2021

“The elasticity of electricity demand and water demand for tourism is small,” the agency explained. “In other words, when we decrease visitor arrivals and thus visitor days, the savings on electricity and water are small.”

The flip side of this idea is that hotels need a lot of power and water no matter how many guests they have.

To illustrate, DBEDT compared 2020, during the pandemic, to 2019’s tourism peak.

Hotels used 536.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020, or 8.7% of the electricity consumed on Oahu that year. Per visitor hosted, that was more than twice what an average resident used: 42 kilowatt hours of electricity per visitor per day versus about 17 kilowatt hours per resident per day in 2020, according to DBEDT’s data.

But the “inelasticity” of demand means that the hotels’ consumption of energy increases at a slower rate than visitor increases.

In 2019, before the pandemic, hotels used 765.8 million kilowatt hours. That amounted to about 30% more energy use during a time when there were about 226% more “visitor days.” The result: energy usage at hotels amounted to about 18.4 kilowatt hours per visitor per day in 2019. That was a bit less than the overall 18.7 kilowatts per resident per day in 2019.

In both 2019 and 2020, hotels ranked fourth among energy users, according to Hawaiian Electric, trailing homes, shopping centers and retailers, and public safety operations, and ahead of commercial users like industrial operations and warehouses, transportation terminals, wastewater facilities and hospitals. In 2019, hotels used more electricity than office buildings and schools combined, Hawaiian Electric said.

Some 2.5 million gallons of water was consumed in Waikiki during the pandemic versus 3.5 million in 2019, the report found.

Senator: Tourists Use Far Less Electricity Than Residents

The report comes out as resident sentiment toward tourism remains at an all-time low. Hawaii hosted more than 10 million visitors in 2019, a record, which amounted to about 250,000 visitors per day for a state of 1.4 million residents. But those numbers plummeted in 2020 because of travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and a continuing lack of visitors from Japan.

All of this has caused the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, but it hasn’t changed attitudes among residents. In late 2020, 57% of residents who responded to a Hawaii Tourism Authority survey completely or strongly agreed that Hawaii was too dependent on tourism, up from 37% in 2019.

Some 67% completely or strongly agreed that their “island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

In an email, Hawaii Sen. Glenn Wakai said the report was prompted by concerns “that ‘over tourism’ was stretching Hawaii’s carrying capacity.” He worked with Honolulu City Council member Radiant Cordero to get the report in the works.

According to Wakai, the results of the study show visitors have far less of an impact on electricity — as well as water, sewage, and solid waste — than residents.

“The state still needs to address plummeting resident sentiment, but can no longer fault visitors for siphoning off resources,” Wakai said.

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