Hawaii is most known for it's tourism, seeing millions of tourists every year. However, most people never consider how tourism has impacted the health of the Hawaiian islands. This is something that we want to acknowledge and, hopefully, offset. With the heavy foot traffic, tons of flights going in and out, and large amounts of waste left in landfills, the islands are compromised, altering locals' perception of "tourists". The good news is that there are in fact ways to enjoy the beauty of Hawaii as a visitor while keeping sustainability a priority!
Hawaii consists of six islands one can visit: Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Hawaii, Lanai, and Molokai. The first four are the most visited islands, seeing millions of tourists annually. The last two, Lanai and Molokai, see only about 50,000-75,000 tourists annually1. To give you a better image of how large the tourism industry is in Hawaii, here are some stats:
- In 2016, Hawaii was considered home to about 1.4 million full-time residents and saw about 8.9 million visitors, a 3% increase from 20152.
- Tourist spending totaled about $15.6 billion in 20162.
- There is foot traffic from about 220,000 outsiders daily2.
With tourism comes heavy foot traffic and environmental damage. Carbon emissions, excessive energy use, damaged ocean ecosystems caused by everything from sunscreen to plastic pollutants, and overflowing landfills, are all issues Hawaii faces because of their high tourism rate2. If you think about it logically, it's a smaller area of land that has to cope with a large amount of people consuming and disposing of things. With that said, tourism makes up most of local Hawaiians' livelihood as the single largest contributor to the State's GDP at 21%. One can't just get rid of it.
So how can tourism and sustainability go hand-in-hand? The most ideal solution would be to spin sustainability as an incentive for visiting the islands, or incorporate sustainable efforts into visitors' trips. It seems like a stretch, but it's so important to stay mindful of keeping the integrity of the islands without hurting people's livelihood.
Sustainable Coastline's Hawaii has a voluntourism program aimed at creating a sustainable experience for visitors. Their focus is coastal conservation, giving visitors the opportunity to both explore Hawaii and contribute to maintaining the health of the islands. They are known for tackling marine pollution and hosting beach cleanups for their participants. This is a great way to experience Hawaii, do something unique, and give back to the islands. Even if you aren't signed up for their voluntourism program, you can still check our their Facebook for the next cleanup event!
Another way to keep sustainability in mind while you travel is through eco-tourism. Hawaii has tours across all six islands that beautifully showcase their agriculture, botanical gardens, and other unique environments that should continue to be preserved. Your business and support heps them do so!
Some of Hawaii's largest botanical gardens can be found in Kauai! The National Tropical Botanical Garden has three sites: Allerton Garden, McBryde Garden, and Limahuli Garden. The Allerton Garden and the McBryde Garden are just west of Koloa, and the Limahuli Garden is located on the North Shore. Fun fact - the Allerton Garden was used as a backdrop in Jurassic Park! You can also tour the Hanalei taro fields to see how this Hawaiian root starch is grown. The town is located on Kauai's north shore. Visit the town to tour the taro fields and explore everything the small town has to offer. Lastly, you can sign up for a whale-watching tour if you're there between December-May. Maybe you'll even spot the endangered monk seals swimming at Poipu Beach!
In Oahu, you can learn about the farm-to-table process through tours of one of their farm tours! Fresh food is such an integral part of Hawaii's cuisine, so getting to experience that first hand would be amazing! Oahu also has whale-watching tours available from December to May where you may be able to spot humpback whales during their annual visit to Hawaii.
One of Lanai's best qualities is its preservation of history. Most of the island looks the way it did hundreds of years ago.Lanai may have amazing resorts, but it would be a much more unique experience to tour Central Lanai, where you can see cook pines and what's left of pineapple fields. It's like walking into a piece of history! If you're up for it, there are some paths that tourists don't usually take that would make you feel like you stepped into a time capsule. You can also take the self-guided tour at the Kanepuu Reserve where you can see 48 difference species of native Hawaiian plants. The reserve is protected by the Nature Conservancy, which is why it's been able to survive all these years.
Next up, there's Maui. Here, you can visit the Kula Botanical Garden. You'll get to walk through all the indigenous plants and get a feel for vintage Hawaii. After, hop in your car and visit Upcountry Maui to stroll through lavender and potea fields in Kula. If you make it up to the 300,000-foot summit of Haleakala, say hi to our state bird, the endangered nene!
Here, you'll get a local feel for Hawaii. There's a selection of farm tours to see how locals connect with the land, including Purdy's Natural Madadamia Nut Farm. In case you didn't know, Hawaii is the world's leading producer of macadamia nuts! You can also visit the Nature Conservancy's two sites on Molokai. The Moomomi Preserve is on the northwest coast and the Kamakou Preserve is located in the mountainous rain forest in the east. Don't forget to add these two amazing spots to you island hopping itinerary!
The Big Island
Use your visit to the Island of Hawaii to learn about the local ecosystem! Learn about efforts to protect and rehabilitate the native bird species and other wildlife at the Hawaii Wildlife Center's Hoopulauma Science and Discovery Center. At the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority campus, we recommend signing up for a tour to learn about renewable energy, sustainability, and emerging technology offered by the Friends of NELHA group. You'll leave way more educated on sustainability than when you arrived. You can even help plant a Koa tree on the planting tour with Hawaiian Legacy Tours. It'll be a unique experience you won't forget!
Whatever you decide to do on your island hopping adventure, remember to be mindful of our sacred ecosystem and preserving the integrity of the islands. Visit Hawaii with enthusiasm and soak up all the unique qualities Hawaii has to offer! It'll be an experience you won't forget!