This Hawaii City Has the Highest Unemployment Rate In The State

Hawaii, a chain of volcanic islands in the mid-Pacific Ocean, conjures images of swaying palm trees, pristine beaches, and endless sunshine. It’s a paradise unlike any other, attracting millions of tourists each year seeking relaxation and adventure. However, beneath this idyllic facade lies a hidden struggle – the surprisingly high unemployment rate in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, Maui’s central hub. This blog delves into the reasons behind this economic disparity and explores possible solutions to help these “Islanders in Idle” get back on their feet.

The Sunny Side of Maui

Maui, the “Valley Isle,” is known for its breathtaking natural beauty, from the dormant volcano Haleakala to the Road to Hana’s lush rainforests. Nestled on Maui’s western coast lies Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, a region that thrives on tourism. The Kahului Airport serves as the primary gateway for visitors, while Wailuku is the administrative and commercial center. Lahaina, with its historic whaling town charm, boasts numerous resorts, restaurants, and shops catering to tourists. Tourism is the lifeblood of Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina’s economy, generating significant revenue and creating countless jobs in hotels, restaurants, transportation, and retail sectors.

However, Maui isn’t solely reliant on tourism. Light manufacturing, agriculture, and healthcare also contribute to the economic landscape. The Maui Research and Technology Park fosters innovation and attracts businesses in bioscience and technology fields.

The Darker Side of Paradise: The Rise in Unemployment

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina wrestled with unemployment rates consistently higher than the Hawaiian average. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that in 2019, the unemployment rate for the Honolulu-Waikele MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) was around 3.5%, while Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina hovered at a concerning 5.2%. This disparity highlights the vulnerability of a tourism-dependent economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a devastating blow to Maui’s tourism industry. Travel restrictions, lockdowns, and public health concerns led to a sharp decline in visitor arrivals. Hotels emptied, restaurants closed their doors, and countless tourism-related jobs vanished. According to a report by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, visitor spending in Maui dropped by a staggering 70% in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels. This economic downturn directly translated into a surge in unemployment. Data from the BLS paints a grim picture: the unemployment rate in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina skyrocketed to a staggering 14.2% in April 2020. Although the rate has gradually improved, it remains higher than the national average and continues to cast a long shadow over the region’s economic recovery.

A recent survey conducted by the Maui Chamber of Commerce revealed that 42% of businesses in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina are still operating below pre-pandemic capacity. While tourism has shown signs of rebounding, the industry remains fragile. The war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and potential new COVID-19 variants add layers of uncertainty to the economic outlook.

Unveiling the Reasons: A Multifaceted Issue

The high unemployment rate in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina is a complex issue with several contributing factors:

  • The Reliance on Tourism: The region’s heavy reliance on tourism makes it highly susceptible to external factors like global economic downturns, natural disasters, and pandemics. When tourist arrivals decline, businesses are forced to cut back on staff, leading to job losses.
  • Seasonality: Tourism in Maui follows a seasonal pattern, with peak seasons concentrated around holidays and summer months. This seasonality translates into job insecurity for many workers employed in hospitality sectors. During the off-season, hotels may have reduced hours or lay off employees entirely, leaving them without income for extended periods.
  • Skill Mismatch: The evolving nature of the tourism industry can create a skills gap between the workforce and the available jobs. As tourism becomes more digital and focuses on providing personalized experiences, workers may require additional training or upskilling to adapt to the changing demands.
  • Cost of Living: Hawaii is notoriously expensive, with a high cost of living that can be a significant barrier to re-employment for those who have lost their jobs. Finding affordable housing is a major challenge, and even basic necessities like groceries and transportation are costly. This financial strain can make it difficult for unemployed individuals to support themselves while searching for new work.

Pathways to Progress: Initiatives and Solutions

Despite the challenges, there are ongoing efforts to address unemployment in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina. Here are some key initiatives:

  • Government Programs: The State of Hawaii and Maui County are implementing programs to assist displaced workers. These include job training initiatives, unemployment benefits, and career counseling services. Federal programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) also provide resources for retraining and re-employment.
  • Diversifying the Economy: Recognizing the vulnerability of a tourism-dependent economy, there’s a growing focus on diversifying Maui’s economic base. Efforts are underway to attract new businesses in technology, renewable energy, and healthcare sectors. Developing a robust agriculture industry could create new jobs and reduce reliance on imported food.
  • Community Support: Local businesses and non-profit organizations play a crucial role in supporting the unemployed. Food banks, job training programs, and financial assistance initiatives provide critical lifelines for those facing hardship. Networking events and workshops connecting unemployed individuals with potential employers can also be instrumental in facilitating re-employment.


Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina’s unemployment challenges are undeniable. However, the story is not one of despair. The resilient spirit of the Hawaiian people, combined with ongoing efforts to diversify the economy and provide support to unemployed individuals, offers a glimmer of hope. By fostering innovation, investing in skills development, and building a more robust economic base, Maui can navigate these complexities and create a more sustainable future for its residents. The “Islanders in Idle” deserve the opportunity to thrive.

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MBS Staff
Articles: 7042

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