How Many Hawaiian Islands Are Privately Owned?

The Hawaiian islands are renowned for their lush tropical landscapes, rugged volcanic terrain, and idyllic beaches that draw visitors from around the world. But did you know that some of Hawaii’s islands are actually privately owned?

If you’ve ever wondered how many Hawaiian islands have ended up in private hands, read on for a deep dive into the islands’ unique history of land ownership.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Only two of the main Hawaiian islands, Lanai and Niihau, are almost entirely privately owned.

A Brief History of Land Ownership in Hawaii

Hawaii, known for its stunning natural beauty and pristine beaches, is made up of a chain of islands. Many people wonder how many of these islands are privately owned. To answer that question, let’s take a brief look at the history of land ownership in Hawaii.

The Great Mahele of 1848

The Great Mahele, which means “division” in Hawaiian, was a pivotal event in Hawaiian history that took place in 1848. Prior to this event, land in Hawaii was traditionally owned communally, with chiefs and commoners having access to the land for farming and other purposes.

However, the Great Mahele brought significant changes to land ownership.

The Great Mahele was a land redistribution act that aimed to modernize the Hawaiian land tenure system. Under this act, the land was divided into three categories: Crown Lands, Government Lands, and Konohiki Lands.

Crown Lands were reserved for the Hawaiian monarch, Government Lands were set aside for public use, and Konohiki Lands were given to the chiefs and other landholders.

This division of land led to a shift in ownership, with many Hawaiians losing their access to land and large portions being transferred to foreigners and non-Hawaiians. As a result, the number of privately owned islands began to increase.

Rise of Large Private Landowners

Following the Great Mahele, there was a significant increase in the number of large private landowners in Hawaii. These individuals, often wealthy businessmen and foreign investors, acquired vast amounts of land for various purposes, including agriculture, real estate development, and tourism.

One prominent example is the Parker Ranch, located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Established in 1847, it is one of the oldest and largest privately owned cattle ranches in the United States, covering over 250,000 acres of land.

Another example is the Kamehameha Schools, a private educational institution that owns extensive land holdings in Hawaii.

Modern Era of Private Islands

In the modern era, there are numerous privately owned islands in Hawaii, though the exact number is difficult to determine. Many of these private islands are owned by wealthy individuals, celebrities, and even corporations.

These private islands offer exclusivity, luxury, and a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

It’s worth noting that while some private islands are fully owned by individuals or entities, others may be leased or used as vacation rentals. This allows visitors to experience the beauty of Hawaii’s islands while still maintaining a level of exclusivity.

If you’re curious about privately owned islands in Hawaii, there are various websites and resources available that provide information on private island ownership and availability. These include websites such as Private Islands Inc. ( and Sotheby’s International Realty (

The Two Privately Owned Main Islands – Lanai and Niihau

When it comes to the Hawaiian Islands, most people assume that all of them are owned by the state or are public land. However, there are actually two main islands in Hawaii that are privately owned – Lanai and Niihau.

Lanai – Owned by Larry Ellison

Lanai, also known as the Pineapple Island, is the sixth-largest of the Hawaiian Islands. It is currently owned by Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle Corporation. Ellison purchased 98% of the island in 2012, making him the majority owner.

Since then, he has invested millions of dollars into transforming Lanai into a luxury destination, complete with high-end hotels, golf courses, and sustainable agriculture projects.

Despite being privately owned, Lanai is still open to the public, and visitors can explore its stunning natural beauty and unique attractions. From pristine beaches and rugged cliffs to ancient archaeological sites and lush forests, Lanai offers a diverse range of experiences for tourists.

Niihau – Robinson Family Ownership

Niihau, often referred to as the “Forbidden Island,” is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands and is privately owned by the Robinson family. The island has been in their possession for over 150 years, making it one of the longest privately owned islands in Hawaii.

The Robinson family has maintained a strict policy of limiting access to Niihau, preserving its traditional Hawaiian culture and way of life. Only a small number of Native Hawaiians and their descendants are allowed to live on the island, and outsiders are rarely granted permission to visit.

This exclusivity has helped to protect Niihau’s pristine environment and unique cultural heritage.

While Niihau is not open to the general public, there are limited opportunities for visitors to experience the island through helicopter tours or special cultural events organized by the Robinson family.

It’s important to note that while Lanai and Niihau are the main privately owned islands in Hawaii, there may be other smaller privately owned islands or parcels of land throughout the state. However, Lanai and Niihau are the most well-known and significant in terms of their ownership and historical significance.

For more information about Lanai and Niihau, you can visit the following websites:

Other Hawaiian Islands With Private Ownerships


Kahoolawe, also known as the “Target Island,” is one of the lesser-known Hawaiian Islands and is currently under the jurisdiction of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. However, it is important to note that Kahoolawe was previously owned by the United States military and used as a target for bombing practice during World War II.

While there is no private ownership of Kahoolawe currently, efforts have been made to restore the island’s natural and cultural resources.


Molokai, often referred to as the “Friendly Isle,” is another Hawaiian Island with a mix of private and public ownership. The majority of the island is owned by the Molokai Ranch, a private company that has been operating various agricultural and tourism activities on the island.

However, there are also public lands managed by the state and federal government, including the Molokai Forest Reserve and the Kalaupapa National Historical Park. This unique blend of private and public ownership allows for a diverse range of activities and opportunities on Molokai.


Oahu, the most populous island in Hawaii and home to the state capital of Honolulu, is primarily owned by the state and private individuals. While there are no major private ownerships of the entire island, there are numerous private properties and developments throughout Oahu.

These include luxury resorts, residential neighborhoods, and commercial areas. It is worth mentioning that Oahu is also home to some of the most famous tourist destinations in Hawaii, such as Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor.

It is important to understand the balance between private and public ownership on the Hawaiian Islands. The coexistence of private and public ownership allows for a variety of economic activities, conservation efforts, and recreational opportunities.

Whether you are exploring the secluded beauty of Kahoolawe, experiencing the laid-back charm of Molokai, or enjoying the vibrant city life of Oahu, each island offers a different perspective on the unique blend of private and public ownership in Hawaii.

Unique Challenges of Private Island Ownership

Privately owning an island in Hawaii may seem like a dream come true, but it comes with its own set of unique challenges. From development restrictions to environmental stewardship and cultural considerations, private island owners face a range of responsibilities and considerations that set them apart from other property owners.

Development Restrictions

Owning a private island in Hawaii means navigating strict development restrictions imposed by local and state authorities. These restrictions are in place to preserve the natural beauty and delicate ecosystems of the islands.

Private island owners must obtain permits and comply with regulations in order to build or make any significant changes to their property. This ensures that development is done in a sustainable and responsible manner, protecting the unique flora and fauna that make the Hawaiian islands so special.

Environmental Stewardship

Private island owners are also entrusted with the important task of environmental stewardship. They must take proactive measures to protect and preserve the natural resources on their land. This can include implementing sustainable practices, such as using renewable energy sources, practicing responsible agriculture, and minimizing waste.

Additionally, private island owners may be required to participate in conservation efforts, such as protecting endangered species or restoring damaged ecosystems. By taking these steps, private island owners contribute to the overall health and sustainability of the Hawaiian islands.

Cultural Considerations

Another unique challenge of private island ownership in Hawaii is the need to respect and honor the cultural heritage of the islands. The Hawaiian culture is deeply rooted in the land, and private island owners must be mindful of the cultural significance of their property.

This may involve working closely with local communities and Native Hawaiian organizations to ensure that any development or use of the land is done in a culturally sensitive manner. By doing so, private island owners can help preserve and celebrate the rich history and traditions of Hawaii.


The unique history of Hawaii has led to a situation where most of the land is controlled by private owners, with entire islands essentially under the control of billionaires and old family lineages. Understanding this context provides insight into the complex stewardship of these precious Pacific islands that need to balance economic priorities, environmental conservation, and respect for native Hawaiian culture.

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