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The Hawaiian island of Lanai, with its pineapple fields and luxurious resorts, conjures images of a remote tropical paradise. But who actually owns this secluded gem in the Pacific? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the island of Lanai is 98% owned by billionaire Larry Ellison.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the history of Lanai’s ownership, from its origins as Hawaiian crown land to its purchase by the founder of Oracle Corporation. We’ll look at Ellison’s ambitious plans to transform Lanai into a model of sustainability through resort development and technological innovation.

And we’ll examine what his ownership means for the small local population that calls Lanai home.

Early History of Lanai’s Ownership

Lanai as Part of the Hawaiian Kingdom

The island of Lanai has a long history of ownership changes. Originally, Lanai was part of the Hawaiian Kingdom and inhabited by native Hawaiians for hundreds of years before Western contact. According to archaeological evidence, the island was first settled as early as the 13th century by Polynesian voyagers.

During this early era, Lanai was divided into political districts and villages were scattered across the landscape. By some accounts, the population at its peak reached between 6,000-10,000 native Hawaiians.

They sustained themselves through fishing, farming, and harvesting the land’s natural resources.

This way of life continued until the late 1700s when King Kamehameha I conquered the Hawaiian islands and unified the land under his rule. Lanai then became part of the unified Kingdom of Hawaii and was governed locally by appointed chiefs.

New Owners in the Late 1800s

Things changed drastically for the island in the late 1800s. After Western contact, foreign businessmen became interested in acquiring and developing land in Hawaii for agriculture and ranching.

In 1876, Lanai was sold by King Kalākaua to Walter M. Gibson, who was prime minister of Hawaii at one point. Gibson had ambitious plans to use Lanai for sheep and cattle ranching operations. Two years later in 1878, Gibson ended up selling the island to Charles Gay, a prominent Oahu businessman.

The transaction price was reportedly $6,000 and included transferring control of over 89,000 acres of land. Charles Gay turned Lanai into a major pineapple and sugarcane plantation. His family developed Palawai Basin for commercial sugar production and controlled the island for decades.

Pineapple Cultivation and the Dole Food Company

Acquisition by James Dole

In 1922, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, founded by James Dole, purchased the majority of Lanai island to establish a large-scale pineapple plantation. Dole was drawn to Lanai’s suitable climate and acreage to grow what would become the world’s largest pineapple plantation spanning over 60,000 acres at its peak.

Through innovative irrigation and fertilization techniques, Dole transformed the rural island into a booming pineapple empire, bringing jobs, infrastructure, and economic vitality to the small community.

Dole’s influence on Lanai was profound. Virtually the entire island economy centered around pineapple harvesting and canning operations. Over the decades, the company built villages, schools, churches and recreational facilities for its employees and their families who worked the plantations.

By the 1950s, pineapples had made Lanai one of the most productive agricultural islands, with hundreds of thousands of tons of fruit shipped annually to become Dole’s flagship product.

Changes Under Castle & Cooke Ownership

In 1961, Castle & Cooke purchased the majority of Dole’s Lanai assets. While pineapple cultivation continued, the new owners began steps toward further economic diversification by constructing an inter-island barging facility and planning for increased tourism opportunities.

Worker housing compounds were renovated into hotels that could accommodate visitors to the rural island.

Over time, Castle & Cooke downsized pineapple operations as tourism and luxury real estate development expanded. By 1992, Lanai’s last pineapple plantation closed marking the end of the fruit’s 70-year reign.

However, Dole’s legacy remains visible across Lanai through converted plantation villages, cooking traditions featuring pineapple, the iconic red dirt in the landscape, and a culture infused by the many immigrant communities drawn to work in the once-vast pineapple fields.

Larry Ellison’s Purchase of Lanai

In June 2012, Larry Ellison, the co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation, purchased 98% of the Hawaiian island of Lanai for a reported $300 million. Ellison planned to transform the 141-square-mile island into a world-class tourist destination while still preserving its natural beauty and culture.

Ellison’s Ambitious Vision for the Island

Ellison envisioned building an eco-friendly luxury resort, improving infrastructure, and boosting commercial air routes to Lanai. His plans included building a third Four Seasons hotel, expanding the airport, upgrading water systems and utilities, increasing renewable energy production, and further developing residential housing.

According to a Lanai Planning Commission presentation, Ellison wanted to make Lanai “the first economically viable 100 percent green community” by using solar panels and batteries to power the entire island.

He aimed to make it an elite vacation spot for wealthy travelers seeking privacy and sustainability.

Reactions from Local Residents

The island’s small local population of around 3,000 people had mixed reactions to Ellison’s purchase. Some welcomed potential job growth and economic stimulus from added tourism. The unemployment rate was over 13% in 2012.

Others worried about being priced out if costs rose or about over-development harming Lanai’s laid-back culture.

“We need to have an open mind about where we draw the line between progress and preservation,” one lifelong resident told Civil Beat in 2012. “We welcome the new owner’s vision for the island, but we also need to protect our sacred places and treasures.”

Uncertain Future Changes

A decade later, Ellison’s ambitious plans have yet to fully materialize. The third luxury hotel was put on hold indefinitely in 2022 due to construction obstacles. The pandemic and global economic conditions also shifted tourism and real estate markets.

While Ellison has invested in some infrastructure upgrades and relocated more Oracle employees to Lanai, much remains in flux. With no timeline set for major new resorts, residents face ongoing uncertainty about how much Lanai will be transformed – for better or worse – in the billionaire owner’s mold.


The ownership of the island of Lanai has gone through several distinct eras, from Hawaiian crown land, to pineapple plantation, to posh resort destination. While the future remains uncertain, billionaire tech titan Larry Ellison now holds the reins to this unique island’s destiny.

His ambitious sustainability plans could transform an already stunning landscape – but at what cost to Lanai’s small but stalwart local population? Only time will tell exactly what Ellison’s ownership means for the remote island paradise of Lanai, Hawaii.

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