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Ecotourism on Hawaii Island

Respect for nature is the governing principle of true ecotourism

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Visitors watch as lava from Kilauea enters the sea at Kalapana.

Photo: Courtesy Hawaii Forest & Trail

Rob Pacheco walks up to what looks like an immense empty bathtub amid a desolate volcanic landscape dotted by ohia lehua and pukeawe trees.

“This is my favorite place,” he says, pointing to the ancient Kaupulehu Crater, which descends hundreds of feet.

During the 1801 eruption of Hualalai, this crater, which originally formed thousands of years earlier, refilled with lava. Pacheco talks about it in such detail that you’d think he had been there, watching the rising lake of lava overflow the rim.

It’s obvious on the tour of this shield volcano that rises 8,271 feet above the Kona coastline that Pacheco knows and loves Hualalai, which along with Kilauea and Mauna Loa, is one of Hawaii Island’s active volcanoes. He can identify the native plants growing along rift zones and spatter cones and the native birds fluttering around.

“I love that you can go from a completely non-native, exotic ecosystem and, within minutes, you’re up in a truly native, Hawaiian endemic ecosystem,” says Pacheco, who has turned his passion into a thriving business. He owns and operates Hawaii Forest & Trail, a Kona-based company that offers small-group ecotours to the island’s natural highlights.

“Almost everything I can interpret about Hawaiian volcanoes and Hawaiian culture, and how those relate, everything you can see at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we can do right here. Well, except you can’t see the red stuff.”

Hawaii Forest & Trail’s many other tours include everything from bird watching at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge to an off-road adventure up to Kohala Waterfalls.

His company is part of a growing segment of Hawaii’s tourism industry that connects visitors to the natural, cultural and historic beauty of the Islands. While ecotourism isn’t a new concept, the trend has grown in recent decades to include everything from farm visits to stargazing to night dives with manta rays.

All of those can be done on Hawaii Island.

“People have always come to our island because of our natural environment,” says Stephanie Donoho, tourism specialist for Hawaii County. “From the visitors’ perspective, they want to engage in a place. A hotel is a hotel is a hotel; it’s basically a place to lay your head. But it’s the place that matters.”

More than 1.3 million people visited the Big Island in 2011, up 2.8 percent from the year before, according to data compiled by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

About 66 percent of visitors to the state – they totaled more than 7 million last year – had been here before. Donoho says these repeat visitors come with a purpose and that’s usually not just to lounge around the hotel pool.

“The people who usually visit our state visited Oahu first,” she says. “They went and had that dream Hawaiian vacation, laid on the beach with a mai tai. They had that iconic sand-and-surf experience. Then something inspired them. ... We get them on our island when they’re ready for our depth.”

A tour group learns about the volcanic ecosystem on Hualalai, courtesy of Hawaii Forest & Trail.

Photo: Courtesy Hawaii Forest & Trail

Volcanoes Park

The biggest draw, figuratively and literally, is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and many companies offer ecotours of the park.

It’s almost misleading to call it a park since it is almost as large as the entire island of Oahu. Within its 230,000 acres are two of the world’s most active volcanoes, seven ecological zones and hundreds of endemic plants and animals. It’s one of only two World Heritage sites in Hawaii; the other is giant Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which is not open to the public.

At Volcanoes Park, many visitors ride the bus and take only short walks around to see the sites and take pictures. The more adventurous hike across the “frozen” lava lake of Kilauea Iki, still steaming in sections from the 1959 eruption, or walk through lush rain forest and explore the 550-year-old Thurston lava tube.

“This is what Hawaii used to look like, what it should look like,” says park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane. “There’s no place else like this. … My mind is blown every single day.”

Warren Costa used to work as an archaeologist at the park. Since he started his own ecotour company seven years ago, his daylong visits to the park have been his most popular tour.

His company, Native Guide Hawaii, is usually a one-man operation – occasionally his older sons help on the tour – and the biggest investment he’s made was buying a used Toyota Sienna minivan for $10,000 five years ago. But, what he lacks in frills, he more than makes up for with expert information.

“I give people more real information, more of a perspective of somebody from here,” he says. “I cover the geology and biology of the park and the area and answer their questions. … I don’t tell corny jokes.”

Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater glows as bright as the sun.

Photo: Courtesy National Park Service/Michael Szoenyi

Small Footprint

In addition to his extensive knowledge about the geology, biology and culture of the place, he shares his belief in sustainability and the importance of minimizing humans’ impact on the environment.

“Ecotourism has different meanings for different people,” Costa says. “For me, it’s leaving a small footprint on the environment. It’s about education. It’s about letting people know about conservation.”

This is why he limits the number of people on his tour to six and buys the lunch he provides from a local health food store in Hilo. And when he sees litter, he picks it up.

“It’s little things like that that make a difference,” he says.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is definitely the biggest draw on Hawaii Island, but the island offers much more. Other popular ecotours include kayaking and snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, studying the stars from Mauna Kea and watching otherworldly manta rays feed on plankton.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

The goals are to build environmental and cultural awareness and respect, to educate visitors, promote sustainability and conservation, and to give people an authentic experience.

“Hawaii’s cultural and natural resources are being leveraged to market Hawaii as a destination like no other,” says Chris Colvin, president of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association. “Travelers have lots of choices when it comes to sun-and-surf destinations, but very few can match the breadth and depth of experiences to be had in the Islands.

“Ecotours offer an ideal way for visitors to connect to the place,” he says. “As visitors become more and more sophisticated in what they’re looking for in terms of tour composition, quality and authenticity, I see ecotourism poised to continue growing.”

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