Known for its sandy white beaches, turquoise blue water and lush vegetation, Hawaii is to many a vacation paradise. Millions of tourists flock each year to The Aloha State’s eight tropical islands: Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai, Nihau, Kahoolawe and Hawaii (the “Big Island”). Together the archipelago stretches 1,600 miles in the Pacific and boasts 750 miles of coastline, putting it fourth in the U.S. after Alaska, Florida and California.
With its very own time zone, Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that is located outside of North America (instead, it’s part of Oceania geographically), and the only one surrounded entirely by water. While it does indeed offer consistently warm weather, postcard-perfect swimming beaches, world-class surfing and incredible scuba diving, the state has more to offer than what is plastered on travel brochures. Volcanoes, lava flows, waterfalls and coffee and macadamia plantations are also worth exploring.
Each island has distinctive features. Oahu is the destination for urban amenities. Hawaii (the “Big Island”), an agricultural powerhouse, is home to the longest active and erupting volcano in the world as well as its famous Kona coffee. Molokai, once a place for defeated warriors and those with leprosy, is thought to have originated Hula dancing. And Maui is perhaps best known for its heavy concentration of upscale resorts in Lahaina and Wailea.
With a population of 1.4 million people as of 2015, Hawaii is in the bottom ten states population-wise, yet it is the 13th most densely populated state in the country. Approximately 38% of Hawaiians are Asian (highest in the U.S.), 23% are multiracial (highest in the U.S.), 9% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (highest in the U.S.), 9% are Hispanic and 25% are white (lowest in the U.S.). As a result, Hawaii is a bastion of diversity and one of the four majority-minority states in the U.S. along with California, New Mexico and Texas.
Containing more than 65% of Hawaii’s total population, Oahu is home to the state capital of Honolulu (a city of over 387,000 people) as well as the Honolulu Harbor, which facilitates all imports and exports for the islands. History was made on Oahu when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at Waikiki Beach on December 7, 1941, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. Today the naval base there, as well as the USS Arizona and USS Utah (both shipwrecked during the bombing), are national historic landmarks, and the state remains an important site for military installations. As of 2013, more than 49,000 military personnel were stationed in Hawaii.
After Oahu, the next most populated island is Hawaii (the “Big Island”) with over 185,000 residents, followed by Maui with more than 144,000 and Kauai with more than 66,000. One of the eight islands – Kahoolawe – is unpopulated.
With a median household income of $67,402 in 2015, Hawaii ranks as one of the top 10 wealthiest states in the country. However, a fairly high income is required here as CNBC has named it the most expensive state to live in due to the fact that most consumer goods and construction materials must travel great distances to reach the islands. The cost of living in Honolulu, for example, is an astonishing 65% higher than the national average, and the city claims the highest cost of living of any metro area in the U.S.
As for real estate prices, they’re a major factor in the steep cost of living. The median home value statewide as of 2015 was $591,586, while the median rental price was $1,918. For Honolulu, the median home value was even higher at $641,016, and that’s after home values in the city fell approximately 17% between 2005 and 2015. Hawaii has one of the lowest home ownership rates in the country as a result of its extremely expensive housing market, with only 55% of residents owning homes in 2015.
Maui has traditionally been the most expensive real estate in the archipelago, while the cheapest island to live on is the Big Island. A look at the two island’s most populous cities shows the contrast. In 2015, the median home value in Kahului, Maui’s biggest city, was $618,407, while in Hilo on the Big Island it was relatively a bargain at $378,217. Regardless of location, affordable housing remains a serious challenge for the islands. In 2015, Hawaii declared a state of emergency as a result of its burgeoning homeless population, which grew 23% between 2014 and 2015 reaching approximately 7,260 people, the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the U.S.
Sugar cane was once a major source of revenue for Hawaii, ever since the early 1800s when sugar cane was first harvested. Production of sugar cane grew from two tons in the late 1830s to nearly 13,000 tons by 1876. By the mid-1980s Hawaii was producing an average of one million tons of sugar each year. Sugar cane, however, was eventually eclipsed by smaller crops such as coffee and papaya. Today only two sugar cane plants remain. Similarly, the iconic pineapple industry has declined dramatically due to cheaper labor in other pineapple-producing regions. Dole, Del Monte and Maui Gold have all ceased cultivating pineapples in Hawaii.
Since the 1990s, Hawaii has had to find creative ways to compete economically because tourism – a more than $10 billion dollar industry – alone does not support the islands. Much of the tourism revenue goes back to investors from the mainland U.S., Japan, Europe and Southeast Asia who have plowed billions of dollars into Hawaii's buildings, resorts and tourism. In fact, large sectors of Hawaii's economy are owned by outside investors, and Hawaii spends more on imports than it collects in export revenue given that it imports 90% of its food and energy. Recently, the state has focused its efforts on science and technology, including oceanographic and horticultural research and plant-based development of pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.