Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii

Sustainable tourism initiatives help preserve the Hawaiian Islands in responsible style By: Dawna L. Robertson
Female hands holding dirt with a plumeria blossom // © 2012 Shutter Stock
Female hands holding dirt with a plumeria blossom // © 2012 Shutter Stock

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When Dr. Gerritt P. Judd purchased a 622-acre parcel at Kualoa from King Kamehameha III in 1850, the missionary doctor and royal advisor landed an ahupua’a — a sustainable strip of land on Windward Oahu that had once supported Native Hawaiians with fishing, farming and aquaculture.

A decade later, Dr. Judd’s son upped the acreage to 4,000 by purchasing adjacent Hakipuu and Kaaawa valleys from Queen Kalama’s land holdings. Over time, the family raised cattle and produced sugarcane, but these endeavors eventually fell short in generating adequate revenue to efficiently maintain the land.

In order to be financially sustainable without selling out to large developers, Judd descendent John Morgan launched Kualoa Ranch in 1985 on the sprawling land that has remained in his family for six generations. Morgan has found a balance of costs and benefits to visitors, the local community and the natural environment.

“Since we’ve been connected to the land for more than 160 years, our goal is to look forward,” said Morgan. “We have to be sustainable and want to preserve the land from development. For environmental sustainability, we had to reach economic sustainability. And, our approach toward that is through tourism.”

Today, Kualoa offers tours of ancient fishing grounds and tropical gardens, horseback riding, valley hikes and ocean voyaging. It also markets home-grown beef prepared in signature burgers at Aunty Pat’s Cafe and retail packages available at its visitor center. These efforts, according to Morgan, are responsible ways to share Kualoa’s rich history and culture while preserving it for future generations to enjoy as well.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), the state’s lead agency responsible for setting tourism policy and direction, defines sustainable tourism as that which maximizes social and economic benefits to Hawaii’s communities and businesses while respecting, nourishing, preserving and enhancing its natural, cultural and human assets.

As with any large industry, day-to-day tourism operations can stress the physical environment and social/cultural fabric — the very elements that entice visitors to the destination.

“Sustainability is like an ecosystem where you need all the niches to be in balance for momentum,” said Mike McCartney, HTA president and CEO. “Otherwise, it becomes challenged.”

McCartney said that Hawaii’s location makes this especially challenging.

“This is one of the most isolated places in the world,” he said. “We not only have to share the message about who we are and make sure we create demand for air seats from multiple markets, but we also have to provide that quality experience once visitors arrive.”

To help do so, HTA earmarks funding for local commissions and community outreach programs that support sustainability. Among these is the Hawaii Ecotourism Association (HEA) that rewards operators “who are doing it right,” according to the organization’s president, Chris Colvin.

“We’re not going after those not walking the walk,” said Colvin, who is also director of sales and marketing for Hawaii Forest & Trail (HF&T). “We take a market-based solution by educating the consumer and the operator.”

HEA encourages operators to be as sustainable as possible through a certification program supported with HTA funding.

Kualoa and HF&T are among HEA’s inaugural list of 14 certified eco-operators. HF&T provides low-impact guided tours on Hawaii Island that take in birding, Mauna Kea stargazing, waterfall hikes and journeys to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Every resource has stakeholders — people who have a vested interest in caring for and sustaining it,” said Rob Pacheco, HF&T founder. “If given the opportunity, even someone who visits for a short period of time can make the leap from tourist to stakeholder.”

Noting that the transformation is difficult to accomplish with large tour buses, HF&T sets its group limits at 14 — which also protects Hawaii’s natural resources against capacities.

“We don’t travel as efficiently as a larger group, but we have a much better chance of inspiring ongoing conservation and stewardship of our treasured native resources,” Pacheco said.

“Tour operators have to be concerned about the environment and the impact visitors make on it,” said Annette Kaohelaulii, whose Annette’s Adventures is also HEA certified.

Kaohelaulii notes that Hawaii saw unusually heavy rainfall this spring. As a result, some of the normally pristine hiking trails were especially vulnerable.

“Responsible operators took hikers to trails where they were safer and made less impact on the saturated terrain,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we suggest visitors go on guided tours.”

From an aquatic aspect, the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) promotes sustainable tourism and environmental reef stewardship with support from Hawaii’s accommodations sector.

“Hotels are important stakeholders and reach thousands of visitors every year,” said Liz Foot, Hawaii field manager for the international organization. “Increasingly, these visitors want to minimize their impact on their destination through authentic eco-tourism experiences and are looking for evidence that their hotel has embraced key principles of sustainability.”

Funded by HTA and Tiffany & Co., CORAL’s Hawaii Hotel Stewardship program customizes sustainability plans on a case-by-case basis.

Among CORAL’s early supporters are Halekulani, Waikiki Parc Hotel, Honua Kai Resort & Spa, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort, Keauhou Beach Resort, Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, St. Regis Princeville Resort and The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii.

“At the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, our partnership with CORAL is a natural fit,” said Chris Luedi, regional vice president, Hawaii, and general manager of the Hawaii Island resort. “Through it, we are able to educate our guests about our pristine Pauoa Bay reef with signage, literature and interactive demonstrations.”

For Steve Hunt, sustainability is at the core of his business. Hunt is an environmental commissioner for Hermosa Beach, Calif., and the owner of Kilauea Lakeside Estate on Kauai’s north shore. The property offers guests a three-bedroom eco-retreat with a 20-acre private lake and 10-acre botanical garden — all across from a 10-mile stretch of secluded beach that’s home to the Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge.

“For us, it’s an obligation to the aina [land],” said Hunt. “Our goal is to create a zero carbon emission footprint and to be a fully sustainable facility. It just makes sense to use natural resources rather than deplete them. It’s a pristine spot to care for and respect so we can continue to share it for generations.”

Making Hawaii a Better Place
Certainly, smaller retreats like Hunt’s can take the sustainability mantra to greater extremes than larger resorts. But that’s not to say the latter aren’t doing their parts as well. Going beyond green choices such as recycling, elective housekeeping services and locally sourced cuisine, properties are finding creative ways to fold sustainable practices and green initiatives into their operations.

To this end, Starwood Hotels & Resorts has partnered with Better Place to install electric car charge stations at its 11 Hawaii properties.

“Both visitors and residents now have convenient locations to recharge their electric cars, while helping our islands become more environmentally sustainable,” said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.

Better Place plans to expand its network by year’s end to more than 130 island-wide charge points that also include office buildings, shopping centers, parking garages, businesses and public venues. Enterprise, National and Alamo are among the first rental car companies in Hawaii to add electric vehicles to their fleets. Charging is free until the end of 2012, with memberships available after that.

Before it opened in January 2009, the pond at Honua Kai Resort & Spa, on Kaanapali’s North Beach, was smothered with thickets of invasive mangrove. Today, the area thrives with indigenous beach plants that draw increasing numbers of migratory and water birds. Lance Gilliland, director of sustainability, is charged with maintaining the pond as well as Honua Kai’s green-focused operations.

“We feel that our patch of shoreline is special, and it’s our kuleana [responsibility] to nurture it,” said Gilliland.

He shares this philosophy with guests during behind-the-scenes tours showcasing sustainable practices in action.

Other properties, such as the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, Waikiki Parc and Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, are garnering accolades and certifications for earth-friendly practices as well. Their environmental initiatives help them contribute on a global scale as responsible corporate citizens.

Resourceful Tourism
With agriculture’s diminished role and a greater emphasis on tourism, a growing number of activities and attractions have taken responsible routes to preserve pieces of this past.

When completed in 1906, the Kohala Ditch irrigated Hawaii Island’s North Kohala district via 57 tunnels — comprising 16 miles plus seven miles of open ditch. Considered an engineering feat even by modern standards, the waterway also represented the epitome of sustainability by allowing sugarcane growers to expand their fields, plant more cane and provide more jobs.

When sugarcane was pulled from production, landowner Surety Kohala Company leased the waterway to an operator known as Flumin’ Da Ditch for kayak tours down a two-mile, 10-tunnel section. But a pair of earthquakes in 2006 damaged the system and forced its closure.

In 2010, Surety approached ATV Outfitters’ Bill and Sandie Wong to reopen the historic lifeline that, today, operates as Kohala Ditch Adventures. The Wong’s eco-activities offer visitors an otherwise inaccessible taste of North Kohala while employing 30 residents of the Hawi community.

“When sugar production closed down, the town pretty much closed as well,” he said. “No one knew anything but sugar. So to see Hawi revived in part by our eco-tours makes it all special.”

Wong adds that a good portion his company’s tour-generated revenue is earmarked for maintenance of the intricate network.

“So when visitors buy a seat, it helps us keep the ditch flowing for the farmers and cattle ranchers in the area,” he said. “It’s a vital part of economic sustainability for the community and Hawaii Island.”

At Kilohana Plantation, Fred Atkins’ goal was to become a prototype of what’s being done on Kauai to replace employment and income from its once-thriving sugarcane industry. In 1985, he and his partners opened the former mansion of sugar baron Gaylord Wilcox in order to create a lasting place of history in the Lihue community.

In 2008, they launched Kilohana Plantation Railway that weaves through a 150-acre working farm thriving with exotic crops and an animal menagerie. More recently, the Koloa Rum Company has opened with its tasting room that showcases Kauai’s tall cane in a locally produced libation.

“At Kilohana, we wanted something real instead of creating a tagline,” Atkins said. “We found individual farmers who needed a few acres and are now growing different fruits and vegetables that visitors can see from the train or on foot. We’re definitely committed to keeping things the way they have been before us so they can be enjoyed after us.”

Tourism suppliers and officials hope that the creative and environmentally friendly efforts in practice in Hawaii will provide a model for how tourism can be thoughtfully managed elsewhere in the world.

“The Hawaiian Islands are a microcosm of the world,” said HTA’s McCartney. “When visitors come here, they see we are working hard on becoming even more sustainable. And we’re doing so while presenting a sense of place that’s like nowhere else.”

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