In June 2012, Oracle Corporation co-founder and one of America’s most auspicious moguls, Larry Ellison, bought the island of Lana’i Hawaii from David J. Murdock for 300 million dollars. Murdock acquired the land as a result of his purchase of Castle & Cook in 1985, the then owner of Dole Food Company and the world’s largest pineapple plantation. The fifth richest man in the world according to Forbes 400 – 2016, Ellison spoke initially about great plans to improve the company housing he now owned, while creating an environmentally friendly agricultural industry.
I traveled to Lana’i in December 2013 and again in December 2016. It is a very different island now and much closer to Ellison’s actual vision to welcome the 0.01% billionaires and Hollywood elite only. In 2013, one of Ellison’s superyachts was anchored off shore, too large for Manele Harbor. An island bus transported us to the lush upcountry retreat, The Four Seasons Lodge at Ko’ele, and after an exquisite lunch, back down the only road, to Ellison’s Four Seasons Lanai overlooking Hulupoe Beach
On Christmas Eve day, 2016, things are very different. The Lodge at Ko’ele has been closed for eight months to house construction workers from Oahu, to give the Four Seasons Lanai one of the most costly upgrades in history upping the ante of the luxury billionaire.
Today, nothing is grown on Lana’i. The pineapples are gone; the shanty shacks of Lana’i City have scant improvements if any. Lana’i City is desolate; there are only a few locals and a handful of tourists at the plebian eleven-room Lanai Hotel, once used to house visiting Dole businessmen, now also owned by Ellison. There is no longer a public bus. I am directed to a funky grey shuttle van of sorts and there I meet Ike, a native born Hawaiian of Filipino descent, Vietnam vet, and a landowner, one of a scintilla who now hold less than 30 acres of the island’s 89,600. According to Kepa Maly, Executive Director of the Lana’i Cultural & Heritage Center, King Kamehameha III promulgated the law of western-style ownership, kuleana land in 1848, but by 1922, Dole secured clear title to 99% of the island. (Some suggest Ellison’s grab is a mere 98%.)
Ike tells me the story of Lana’i today- about discrimination within the local population, rampant drug addiction and deplorable living conditions. But, Ike is also filled with hope – that the 3,000 residents of Lana’i of whom the overwhelming majority work for “Mr. Ellison” – will ultimately benefit by his largess. On neighboring Molaka’i, plans for a major resort were turned down and the developer shuttered everything and went home, leaving most of that island’s residents collecting meager unemployment. In late 2016, after thirty years of operation, the public ferry to Molaka’i also shut down.
UPDATE June 2017
The Four Seasons Lodge at Ko’ele remains closed. There is no public transportation on the island. The ferry still runs five trips daily from Maui.