Hawaii population growth to come from U.S. mainland, world


Hawaii will see more deaths than births over the next four to five years, and any population growth across the islands will be driven by new arrivals from the U.S. mainland and other places around the world, the state House Finance Committee was told Wednesday.

“In the next four to five years, we will have more death than birth, ” state Chief Economist Eugene Tian told the committee. “The population growth will be coming from in-migration, either from the U.S. mainland or from international.”


Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, told the committee the islands will continue to see “population loss ” of kamaaina to more affordable states.

How much — and how many new residents from outside the islands will replace them — will depend on the same factors already driving local residents out, Bonham said, including “the high cost of living, ” the quality of schools, the cost of housing and the quality of jobs that all will combine and will factor “into play whether people will relocate here.”

The forecast underscores the ongoing efforts by Gov. Josh Green and a growing momentum ahead on the eve of the 2024 legislative session to make Hawaii more affordable and cost-effective to local residents through tax breaks, wiping out student debt for health care workers, providing affordable housing options, and other ways designed to make living across the islands more cost efficient for working families and kupuna to keep them from relocating to cheaper communities on the mainland.

At the same time, the number of tourists is expected to continue to rebound from 2019, prepandemic levels of more than 10 million tourists to a forecast this year of 9.8 million visitors before rising to 10.1 million in 2025, Tian said.

Both Tian and Bonham told the House Finance Committee that their earlier, gloomy economic forecasts in 2023 were overshadowed by the ongoing demand for Hawaii tourism following the Aug. 8 wildfires that killed at least 100 people on Maui.

“From these estimates, the impact on Maui wildfire is actually smaller than we expected, ” Tian said.

Bonham said that UHERO’s latest economic forecast was much more rosy “compared to our really pessimistic forecast after the wildfires.”

Maui’s economic re ­covery has been widely predicted to drag down the state’s overall optimistic economy.

Instead, Bonham said, the “initial recovery has been faster than expected. … It was quite a bit more pessimistic than now.”

From a kamaaina perspective, Tian said that, “Hawaii’s population has been aged. We are the sixth-oldest state in the nation.”

Residents 65 years and older represent 25.1% of the total state population, he said.

The ages of new residents will depend on where they come from, Tian said.

“People coming from mainland tend to be younger and from international tend to be older, ” he told the committee.

In the near term, Tian and Bonham see economic hope on Maui.

Following the wildfires, weekly initial unemployment claims on Maui surged to 8, 800 as of the week of Sept. 16, representing 10% of Maui’s labor force.

Then the number of claims fell as Maui workers found new jobs.

“Very likely these people who lost their jobs … have found work elsewhere on Maui because the labor on Maui was so incredibly tight before the fire that every business on Maui was looking for workers, ” Bonham said. “That doesn’t mean that those people were as well off before the fire. … But you have work.”

Bonham said that half the workers who lost jobs after the wildfires are now employed.

“That’s very positive, ” he said.

Before the fires, Maui welcomed 40,000 to 45,000 tourists a week — a number that plummeted to 10,000 in the aftermath, representing a drop of 75%, Bonham said.

But as of the week of Dec. 30, visitor arrivals to Maui were only down 16% compared to the year before.

“It’s pretty astounding, ” Bonham said. “Any way you cut it, the tourism picture on Maui is not as bad as we thought it was going to be. … Visitors have come back faster than expected.”

“The good news is that we were wrong.” Bonham said.

Despite mixed messaging and confusion over travel to Maui, “they really keep coming, ” Bonham said.

UHERO now forecasts 2024 tourism spending of $200 million but Bonham said, “My guess is that this is still pessimistic.”

Post-COVID-19 era travel concerns and the value of the Japanese yen compared to the U.S. dollar remain barriers to Japanese travel to Hawaii, keeping them closer to home.

Japanese tourism to Hawaii now represents about half of pre-pandemic levels and won’t rebound “any time in the next four or five years, ” Bonham said.

Instead, he said, “the U.S. visitors are spending just as much as the Japanese visitors are.”

“The reason that Hawaii is continuing to grow is because of the spending by U.S. visitors, ” Bonham told the committee. “Right now, U.S. visitors make up three-quarters of all the visitors in the state. … So almost all of our eggs are in that one basket.”

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