Not surprisingly, the Hawaiian Islands are one of the top tourist destinations. While the picturesque beaches, lush tropical forests and ‘or not The (delicious) food is unforgettable, it’s the welcoming people willing to share Hawai’i and its rich culture that make a trip to the islands exceptional.
However, Hawaii is not just a destination, it is home to 1.5 million people. In 2019, a record 10.4 million visitors traveled to the Islands. It’s a staggering and unsustainable number, experts warn. Hawaii’s delicate environment and local communities simply cannot handle the stress.
As Covid-19 halted nearly all visits to the state, critical environments like the coral reef in Hanauma Bay began to recover from decades of human impact. Roads, hiking trails, and beaches were less congested. Ultimately, this time of seclusion allowed Hawaii to reassess how we intend to share our home.
Hawaii is reinventing a travel industry that is sustainable for the environment and communities. We strive for a regenerative tourism model that not only ensures less damage to the natural environment, but also takes great strides to protect and restore it. And all visitors are encouraged to be a part of this.
In Hawaiian culture, all the elements are intertwined. The mountains and the ocean, the streams and the wildlife play an important role in maintaining the delicate natural cycle of the islands. Human beings also have a role and a responsibility.
Savili Bartley, Native Hawaiian Plant Technician and Cultural Tour Coordinator at Loko Ea, explains, “We have cultural ties and connection to ʻāina (earth)—’āina is our makua (dad). We believe that he is our provider. Our older brother is from ‘āina, kalo (taro). We are bound by family ties. It may be a strange concept for visitors, but what better way to show it to them than to have them here, in ‘āina, with us”.
Loko Ea is an organization dedicated to preserving the Loko Ea fishpond in Hale’iwa on the north shore of O’ahu. In addition to its conservation efforts, Loko Ea runs educational programs for students and groups. Bartley leads the Holole’a program, a project designed specifically for travelers to Hawai’i.
“The reason we did this program was to give visiting groups our full attention,” says Bartley. “We think it’s important that if you’re visiting here, you get the full scope of what we do.”
Each Holole’a program begins with a oil (sing). The oli pays homage to a sacred space and announces the intentions of the people who enter. Bartley then leads the groups through the sanctuary and explains the significance of the fish pond. After the tour, groups help tackle the day’s tasks, such as removing invasive grass and other plants from the pond.
Volunteering at Loko Ea and similar conservation sites in Hawaii provides opportunities to engage with the land and culture. While these organizations benefit from volunteers, visitors also gain a greater appreciation for their travel destination. For many, it is a more rewarding path.
“Making connections with ‘āina is very important. That’s what we want to instill in our visitors,” says Bartley. “You’re not just pulling out weeds, you’re helping to clear space for future generations. You are helping to clear space to plant more native plants. They are part of building that base.”
Volunteers help ensure that future generations can experience Hawaii, which is why keeping the beach pristine goes far beyond aesthetics. Underwater lies a glittering world of wildlife and vibrant coral ecosystems, all threatened by marine debris and toxins. Along with volunteering, making conscious choices can help preserve the health of these creatures and their fragile habitats. Hawaii is the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain chemicals that harm corals. However, the ban does not prevent travelers from bringing their own chemical-based sunscreen into the state. Unless visitors already have reef-safe sunscreen, they should wait to purchase it here on the islands. In this way, they can be sure that it does not contain ingredients that degrade coral.
“One of the best ways to give back,” aside from going to a beach cleanup, “is to be mindful before you leave home,” suggests Barbara Wiedner, chair of education and outreach for the Kaua’i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. . The chapter created an online guide to being an ocean-friendly visitor to Kaua’i; It is listed on the group’s website (kauai.surfrider.org/ocean-friendly-visitors-program). From participating in beach cleanups to respecting marine life, it’s a resource for all travelers to the state.
Wiedner notes that there’s a rare day when he doesn’t notice a bottle wash up on shore while strolling along the beach near his Garden Isle home. She encourages everyone to use reusable bottles while traveling. “Many visitors leave their Hydro Flask at home because it involves pouring the water out before TSA and refilling it afterward,” she says. “One of the biggest things visitors can do is pack a reusable bottle, and it’s a simple thing.”
Along with volunteering, pursuing educational opportunities can strengthen visitors’ understanding of Hawaii as a whole. At the Kā’anapali Beach Hotel in Maui, cultural consultants lead workshops open to all guests, on topics such as lei-making and the history of ancient Polynesian voyages. Gayle Miyaguchi, the hotel’s cultural resource specialist, says the goal of the interactive program is to engage travelers with Hawaiian traditions and customs. A hula Hula class illuminates how dancing is not just for lū’au shows: It also helps preserve the language, history, and ancient stories of Hawai’i.
Miyaguchi hopes that the education will lead to a better understanding of Hawaii’s culture and environment. “Hopefully guests learn to respect places,” she says. “We taught them about Pu’u Keka’a (commonly known as Black Rock). We want them to learn that it is a sacred place and that they will not be jumping and climbing all over the place.”
Bartley says he notices that many visitors who volunteer with Loko Ea come back later to further contribute to the restoration efforts. He often hears visitors say they are amazed at the ingenuity and importance of the fish pond. “When they come here, they are very surprised,” she says. “They are very grateful to be in this space and learn the importance and functionality of it.”
Hawai’i is more than a paradise. Full of rich history, the Islands have a strong culture linked to nature. From learning about the development of traditional Hawaiian music to participating in a conservation project, when visitors travel to Hawaii with respect, they follow formative experiences. Bartley refers to her as “pono intentions.” In Hawaiian, pono refers to righteousness and a sense of responsibility. Visiting with pono intentions is a way for visitors to say mahalo to the people and land of Hawaii.
This story originally appeared in our Spring 2022 issue. Purchase a copy here.