Big Island Tourism: Fastest Growing in the Islands

Sep 20, 2017

Inaugural flight of JAL's Narita to Kona service. September 15, 2017
Credit Governor David Y. Ige / Flickr

This week, we’ve been looking at the tourism industry throughout the state, in our series “Traveling Money: Managing Hawai‘i’s Tourism Future.”  Today we get an update about Hawai'i Island, where tourism is the best it’s been in a decade. HPR contributing reporter Sherry Bracken has more from Kona. 

Ross Birch, Hawai'i Island Visitor Bureau Executive Director, says tourism figures are strong.

“We’re 14% up in arrivals year to date, but we’re 20% up in spending. $1.8 billion was spent on the island from tourism, this year we’ll be closer to $2.25.”

One big reason for the increase in Big Island tourism: more airline flights.

“Direct routes from Japan is opening up the whole international market and we’re going to see a huge influx in international across the board, accessibility through having Customs and Border Protection in Kona again. Flights from the mainland, our direct access into the island has increased 50% over the last three years. More seats, more accessibility, more direct routes.”

Birch said that despite the increase in numbers, there is still empty hotel space.

“Occupancy for the island is still relatively low, versus the rest of the state. We went from 62% to 72% so we still have almost a 10% gap in occupancy, we can still catch up to the rest of the state.”  

Visitors, if not crowding the hotels, are staying somewhere—and that somewhere is private rentals. But how much, and where?  

“Now with VRBO, Air BnB, FlipKey, Home Away, all these different internet housing sites, we have no idea how many actual units are out there.”

Tourism definitely gives a clear economic boost to Hawai'i County, but there are also costs. Those include wear and tear on infrastructure, more use of lifeguards, more use of parks. For Hawai'i County Mayor Harry Kim, recent legislative action that capped the counties’ share of the Transient Accommodations Tax is an issue.

“The TAT was formed by the state legislature to help the neighbor islands pay for costs incurred because of the tourist industry. They said, 95% should go to the counties, 5% to the state. This Act 4, $103 million to be shared by the counties, is in perpetuity.  All of a sudden, from 95 to 45%, to 22%, in short, that ‘in perpetuity’ condemns us to less and less.”