The Ultimate Guide to Ecotourism in Hawaii

The Ultimate Guide to Ecotourism in Hawaii

By Hannah Poaros-McDermott.

For sun, sea, and sand adventures, the islands of Hawaii remain a popular choice for travellers. But being a popular destination isn’t always a good thing. It brings more people, more development, and more destruction of fragile ecosystems and natural resources. So it’s bittersweet. Because the more we visit the Hawaiian Islands, the more we actually threaten what we love about them—their rugged, picturesque scenery and vibrant wildlife. That's where ecotourism comes in. Ecotourism aims to protect natural environments and minimize the negative impacts of travel. 

Malama ‘Aina, which means to care for the land, is a deeply rooted value in Hawaii culture and dictates how Hawaiians live. Creating a harmonious relationship with the land is crucial. As tourists to Hawaii, we should share this value. And supporting ecotourism initiatives is the perfect place to start—because this isolated archipelago is too damn beautiful for us to do anything other than look after it.

Hawaii Ecotourism Association

The Hawaii Ecotourism Association was founded over 15 years ago (with origins as far back as 1994).

Though the non-profit organization started with a streamlined ecotourism focus, they recently rebranded to advocate for all sustainable and responsible tourism practices, not just those relating to nature. In 2019, they changed their name to the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii (STAH) and became recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

The STAH's current mission statement is, “to protect Hawaii’s unique natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel and educational programs relating to residents, businesses and visitors.”

One example of how they achieve this goal is by running the state’s sustainable tourism certification program. The program allows businesses—specifically guided tour and activity operators—to register as ecotourism/sustainable tourism providers. To be approved for this status, businesses must demonstrate their commitment to eco-friendly practices. Required actions include: Posting a sustainability commitment statement on their website, advertising and marketing responsible travel, contributing to conservation efforts, supporting local communities, and following local permits.

You can find these certified companies on the STAH website. There is a travel planner tool where you can search by island and activity. An excellent resource! Find tour companies that offer everything from snorkelling adventures to kayaking excursions to helicopter rides.

a lone sea turtle floating in the blue waters of hawaii

How Can I Visit Hawaii Ethically?

It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of travelling to a new place, especially if it's somewhere as dreamy as Hawaii. But before you start making your must-do list of sunset spots, cocktail bars, and sandy beaches, take a step back for a second.

We should start by considering our general approach to travel. Because visiting Hawaii the right way is critical. And it isn't hard to do. We need to be mindful and let our respect for the local cultures, communities and wildlife drive our actions.

Here are some tips on how to travel responsibly.

  • Apply reef-safe sunscreen and only reef-safe sunscreen. It protects you and protects the planet. Other sunscreens include dangerous chemicals and ingredients. These chemicals can kill coral reefs, poison fish, and do all-round catastrophic damage to the ocean’s health. Hawaiians banned these products, and we should follow their lead.

  • Don’t touch the wildlife. Sea turtles often rest on Hawaiian beaches, but that doesn’t mean they’re inviting us in for a handshake. Touching sea turtles (and any marine life, for that matter) is extremely harmful because it exposes them to bacteria and makes them vulnerable to disease. The Hawaiian Sea Turtle, as well as the Hawaiian Monk Seal, is one of 400 threatened and endangered species in Hawaii. If we want these species to survive, we better stick to admiring them from a distance.

  • Pick up your trash (and other trash, too). Nobody likes to see the sand littered with cigarette butts or the ocean dotted with plastic bottles. And while we, as individuals, can’t eradicate all the garbage in the world, we can make an effort to reduce further creation of rubbish. An easy way to do this is to bring reusable bottles, bags, and utensils, so you can refrain from buying one-use items. If you see trash lying around, pick it up (even if it’s not yours). It's a small act, but it does make a difference.

  • Pack out what you pack in; stay on the trail. With 8 National Parks, 51 state parks, and a collection of nature reserves to explore, hikers will be excited to get their boots out. Lush valleys, volcanic craters, dramatic sea cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, majestic mountains—the Hawaiian landscape is incredible and ever-changing. You can help keep it that way by cleaning up after yourself, packing out what you pack in, and staying on the trail. Not following these two actions hinders conservation efforts. If we don't follow these, we inadvertently damage delicate terrain and harm re-introduced native plants.

  • Follow the local customs and traditions. And then go a step further and seek out authentic cultural experiences. Visit places that highlight Hawaii’s history, like museums or ancient sites. Swap out a typical tourist Lu’au dinner for a local workshop or class instead.

  • Visit local businesses. Dining at family-owned restaurants and shopping from local artisans (look for native Hawaiian ones) is a great way to ensure that the community benefits from your visit. Many small, local businesses have suffered during the pandemic, and they need our support. If you want to buy a souvenir, opt for unique and hand-made rather than cheap and store-bought. Find fresh produce at farmers' markets and local farms—everything from coffee beans to fresh macadamia nuts to chocolate!

  • Support certified eco-friendly tour operators. Many certified sustainable tour operators donate part of their profits or participate in conservation efforts, which is another reason to support them. For example, Unique Maui Tours donate one tree planting for each tour they conduct, and Skyline Eco-Adventures has pledged to give at least 1% of sales back to the planet. 

a close up view of a giant monstera green leaf

Top Eco Activities in Hawaii

Here’s our round-up of unmissable nature-kind activities. Chances are you’ll fly into Oahu, but you don't have to stay there for your entire trip. Each island has its own character; why not hop from one to another? If you want to get off-the-beaten-path, head to rural Molokai—the least visited island, often nicknamed the “real” Hawaii.

Oahu

  • Journey under the sea on one of Atlantis Adventures battery-powered, environmentally safe submarines
  • Discover Hawaiian native plants at the Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
  • Go kayaking with Kailua Beach Adventures, and paddle to the picturesque Mokulua islands
  • Spend a day exploring Oahu’s North Shore on an eco-tour with Hoku Hawaii Tours

Maui

  • Let Valley Isle Excursions drive you along the awe-inspiring road to Hana
  • View the sunrise at Haleakala National Park, home to the shield volcano Haleakala
  • Learn the importance of caring for our natural world with Maui Ocean Center’s Ocean Aloha conservation program 
  • Watch for humpback whales on a whale watching tour with Pacific Whale Foundation

Kauai

  • See Waimea Canyon, a fascinating geological masterpiece and Hawaii’s answer to the Grand Canyon
  • Cruise the incredible Napali Coast with Holo Holo Charters, keeping your eyes peeled for spinner dolphins
  • Go off-road on an ATV tour at historic Kipu Ranch and learn about the area's ecology 

The Big Island of Hawaii

  • Hike through volcanic terrain, lava fields, and rainforest at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea volcano
  • Spend an evening watching the stars and spotting constellations, satellites, and the moon at Mauna Kea
  • Explore the national historic parks and sites; see the birthplace of King Kamehameha, remains of ancient fishing villages, and petroglyphs
  • Make a positive environmental impact when you embark on one of Hawaiian Legacy Tours' tree planting excursions
  • Conduct a self-guided tour of Kona's coffee farms for your caffeine fix

Molokai 

  • Spend time soaking up the sun on one of the stunning untouched beaches, like three-mile-long Papohaku Beach
  • Walk past rare Hawaiian plants at Kamakou Preserve, situated on the slopes of the Molokai's highest mountain
  • Visit Purdy’s Macadamia Nut Farm and taste freshly roasted organic macadamia nuts or macadamia honey

Lanai

  • Wander through rare dryland native forest at Kanepu’u Preserve (which is protected by the Nature Conservancy) 
  • See impressive rock formations, large boulders and the dry, red Mars-like landscape of Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods)

What Kind of Ecotourism Jobs Are in Hawaii?

To be honest, living on an island sounds like paradise. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a literal postcard-worthy palm-tree-lined view every day? 

If you're lucky enough to already live in Hawaii, then you might want to think about getting a job in ecotourism. As per the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism must empower local communities, create employment opportunities, and provide them with financial benefits. With that being said, these employment opportunities are generally grounded in conservation. Look for vacancies (if you’re legally allowed to work in Hawaii, of course) at certified scuba dive companies or nature tour operators, national or state parks, botanical gardens, wildlife sanctuaries, and eco-friendly accommodations.

An alternative to paid work is short-term volunteering assignments! Holidaymakers can also participate in these experiences—it's the ideal way to give back. You could join a beach clean-up or native tree planting. Have a look at Tourism Hawaii’s comprehensive list of volunteering opportunities, events, and programs for more information. 

a half under-water ocean, half palm tree view in Hawaii

What are the best Eco-friendly Hostels or Hotels in Hawaii?

Typical eco-lodges, like ones found in Belize or Costa Rica, are not as common in Hawaii. When searching for accommodation, especially in the more built-up places like Honolulu, most paths will lead you to large resorts and chain hotels. Search a little longer, and you'll discover guesthouses, hostels, and retreat centres.

What is encouraging is that many hotels in Hawaii have now implemented “green” policies. So if you find yourself in a busy high-rise hotel, take solace in the thought that the hotel is doing something good for the environment (however little that may be). While they aren't ecotourism providers, most are working to reduce their environmental impact. They may have introduced energy or water-saving practices, be operating an ocean-friendly restaurant, or reducing their food waste. Look for the Hawaii Green Business logo or the Tripadvisor Green badge when booking a hotel.

Eco-friendly Retreats and Yoga Centers in Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii

Below are some recommendations for accommodation in unspoiled pockets of Hawaii.

Maui Eco Retreat—a rustic, off-the-grid property in Maui that runs on solar power and encourages guests to deepen their connection with nature. When the retreat re-opened (after being shut during the pandemic), they pledged to become “a refuge for the Responsible Traveler.” The property has an agroforestry garden, vegetable garden, and fruit orchard. You can look forward to yummy sustainably sourced food and yoga classes.

Hawaii Island Retreat—situated on the North Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, this elegant retreat center is a Tripadvisor Green Leader that focuses on sustainability. They believe that we should live “in balance with the earth.” The property includes 50 acres of sacred land, a private cove, an organic garden, farm-to-table food, a solar-heated swimming pool, and wellness services. A peaceful place where you can appreciate the magic of the earth. 

Pu’u O Hoku Ranch—this farm, ranch and retreat centre in Maui is working to restore and preserve the land around them so future generations can maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Their conservation pledge also includes growing endangered and native plants. There is no wifi and no distractions—aside from the beautiful scenery, of course. 

Kirpal Meditation and Ecological Center—this off-the-grid, ecological center on the Big Island of Hawaii provides guests with a spiritual experience, inviting them to attend meditation and yoga classes. The property was designed to fit in with its natural surroundings. Cabins have been thoughtfully hand-built, rain provides drinking water (purified), and solar power generates electricity. 

Hawaii Volcano House—sitting right in the iconic Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is this historic property and campground. With several green initiatives, stunning views, and a unique location, this will be an unforgettable eco-friendly overnight stay.

How Can Wakeful Travel Support Me In My Travels to Hawaii?

Check out our blog for more sustainable travel content. We have a plethora of advice on everything for your trip, from on-the-road yoga poses to travel journal writing prompts. Our articles also take a deep dive into conscious travel, mindfulness and psychedelics.

One thing you should remember to pack before you leave home is your Mindful Travel Journal. Use it to note down your favourite eco experiences, including where you stayed and what tours or activities you did. Take a quiet moment and put pen to paper. Writing, doodling, colouring, drawing—no matter what you decide to do in your journal, the process will be therapeutic and remind you to stay present.

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