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Ecotourism on Hawaii Island

Respect for nature is the governing principle of true ecotourism

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Ecotourism also includes tours of working farms and ranches, which are popular choices with Hawaii Island visitors.

“Agritourism is a very specific niche of ecotourism as it has a natural component and a cultural component,” Colvin says. “Ranching and the paniolo are perfect examples. Usually when people think ‘ecotour,’ they’re thinking native resources, but that isn’t necessarily the case.”

Two decades ago, on a Saturday afternoon, a tourist family stopped by Tom Greenwell’s 200-acre coffee farm in Captain Cook and asked to look around. So he gave them a personal tour of Greenwell Farms, discussing how coffee is processed, showing them the pulping, drying and storage facilities, and explaining dry milling and green-bean grading. He even let the family rake coffee beans and sample the final product. In the end, they bought five pounds of coffee at $12 a pound.

That inspired Greenwell to give free tours, though it took awhile for them to catch on. “When we first started, we would have a party if we made a hundred bucks in a day,” he says, laughing.

Greenwell Farms eventually went from giving tours whenever folks dropped by to hiring four full-time guides – two of whom speak Japanese – and offering free 20-minute tours all day long, every day. The tours have grown from about a dozen people a day to more than 300.

“We hope they understand the hard work that goes into making coffee,” says Greenwell, a 54-year-old, fourth-generation farmer. “That’s probably the most surprising thing to people: It’s a lot of work to make a cup of coffee.”

The tours have generated a great deal of money for the farm: On average, each visitor buys a pound of coffee, which in turn helps drive Greenwell’s mail-order business, which has been growing about 10 percent each year.

“Hawaii is at such a disadvantage; it costs more to grow anything in Hawaii,” he says. “But, for the most part, our products are superior. We just live in the best place in the world. And agritourism is a good way for tourists to experience that.”

“In general, people want to have a more engaging experience that resonates with core parts of themselves,” Donoho says, “whether that’s an eco-tour, getting out in nature, or having an agricultural experience because they want to know where their food is coming from.”

Tours of Kona’s Greenwell Farms include a visit to the coffee bean pulping mill.

Photo: Courtesy Greenwell Farms

Big Challenges

While there are many opportunities, particularly on the Big Island, for ecotourism, challenges are just as numerous.

By definition, ecotourism isn’t a segment of the industry that should grow a lot. It’s about providing visitors with unique experiences while minimizing their impact on the environment. Large tour buses packed with visitors emptying at trailheads aren’t ecotourism.

“I think we’re seeing great progress in the state with regard to sustainability, but we need to evaluate that and figure out what tradeoffs we’re willing to accept and what tradeoffs we’re not,” says Linda Cox, community economic development specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “People want their cake and eat it too, and tourism is like that. True sustainability means you don’t grow.”

The term “ecotourism” is confusing to businesses and visitors, and the industry isn’t strictly regulated. In 2010, the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, which is a nonprofit run by volunteers, developed a pilot certification program for eco-tour operators in the state, awarding gold, silver and bronze stars to the 13 companies that voluntarily participated.

But without adequate funding, HEA can’t vet businesses and tour operators on its own, and the state doesn’t spend the money or deploy the manpower to do it, either.

“If you look at other places like Australia and Costa Rica, the government has dedicated millions of dollars to getting everyone on the same page,” Cox says. “It’s challenging (in Hawaii). We’re not anticipating what we need to do and we’re not putting resources there.”

Not regulating the industry means the term “ecotourism” can be abused by companies looking to turn a profit. They may not properly train their guides or practice sustainability. In worst-case scenarios, tour companies push state rules to provide a one-of-a-kind experience to adventurous visitors. That can end disastrously.

In July, a teenager drowned after a kayak tour led by Kona-based Hawaii Pack and Paddle detoured to a tide pool near the Captain Cook monument in Kealakekua Bay. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources revoked the company’s permit, saying it exceeded the number of allowed passengers and ventured outside of the allowed area. The teen’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking damages from the tour company.

Perfect Spot

“It’s hard to say who’s doing everything by the books and who’s not,” says Karen Lockwood, a travel agent who customizes tours for visitors. “People want to go off the beaten path. There’s no organization that’s really checking all these operators out for what’s considered sustainable travel and ecotourism.”

Karen and Andrew Lockwood run Pacific Islands Institute, a small tourist agency based in Kaimuki. She’s noticed an uptick in interest in sustainable travel and eco-adventures.

“Overall, people are more aware, they recycle, they’re more energy-conscious,” says Karen Lockwood. “We see people who are interested in authentic experiences.”

The Big Island is the perfect spot for that, she says, with its active volcanoes, pristine oceans and some of the world’s best spots to stargaze. Visitors are attracted to the experience, not just the place.

“You learn so much about yourself when you travel, not just about the place you’re visiting,” Lockwood says. “Ecotourism is about being respectful when you travel.”

Pacheco agrees that respect is fundamental to ecotourism.

He says Kaupulehu is a place the Hawaiians called wao akua, the realm of the gods. It’s not just a breathtakingly beautiful place or an outdoor classroom of volcanology, it’s sacred and special. And Pacheco makes sure anyone who visits this area understands that.

“People come here to let the place touch their souls in whatever way,” he says, watching a light fog roll in over the crater. He walks along the crater and calls to the native apapane bird.

Respect, he says, should be the governing principle for anyone in ecotourism.

“Ecotourism is, to me, really about the relationship with the place, the culture, the guests, the community. It has to have soul.”

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