The economy of West Hawaii – like the State of Hawaii – is primarily driven by the visitor or tourism industry. With more than 6,000 hotel, resort and condominium rooms to fill, West Hawaii is host to more than a million visitors annually and this translates into a large number of jobs – about one in 10 – directly working for hotels and resorts. Additionally, many of the service and retail businesses, accounting for perhaps another 40% of the workforce, directly or indirectly interface with this vital industry.
A whole host of new services, ranging from cellular phone providers to physical fitness centers, and from computer stores to video outlets, investment firms and healing arts professionals have grown up in the last decade in response to the burgeoning population growth here – currently estimated at 56,000 plus persons in West Hawaii. This population growth has also fueled the establishment of big box retailers (Costco, Walmart, Home Depot) and Mainland U.S. chain stores in Kailua-Kona.
Agriculture, real estate, communications services, healthcare and construction make up the other significant – though much smaller – segments of West Hawaii’s economy. In agriculture, Kona coffee, macadamia nuts, tropical fruits, plants and flowers and other specialty and diversified food crops are helping slowly expand the agricultural base here. Healthcare, in response to both an aging population of newcomers and interest in alternative therapies, is one of the fastest growing areas of the economy. This is also true of construction, which is currently experiencing a building boom in private residential construction due to the influx of newcomers attracted to living in West Hawaii. In any case, the vast majority of businesses in both West Hawaii and the Big Island are small: the estimated 1,800 Big Island employers average about 11 employees each; only about 20 Big Island employers have more than 200 workers on their payrolls.
Currently only limited manufacturing, processing and similar industries are operating in West Hawaii. At the same time, most County and State workers are located in Hilo on the east side of the Big Island. Research and development enterprises, with both government and private sponsorship, are beginning to contribute in a more substantial way to the West Hawaii economy. These include the astronomical observatories atop Mauna Kea as well as the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority on the Kona Coast where businesses are bringing ocean related products to the marketplace.
The unemployment rate for the Big Island has hovered around six percent; at the same time, average household income has steadily grown with about 36 percent of Big Island households reporting incomes of from $25,000 – $50,000 and another 36 percent in the $50,000 – $75,000 range. These figures often reflect individuals doing two jobs, especially in West Hawaii where the cost of living is substantially above the national average and where tourism industry service job wages may be less than in other fields.
Predictions for West Hawaii include continued population growth, economic growth and business opportunity.