It Ain’t Easy Being Green
Hawaii’s ecotourism industry thrives despite haphazard planning and hazy regulations.
When Mauka Makai Excursions first touted its wilderness adventures two years ago, Dominic Aki encountered a surprising number of people unfamiliar with ecotourism. “The ‘eco’ in ecotour stands for the word ecological, but I had a lot of people call and ask if we were an economy tour,” recalls Aki, tour guide and president of Mauka Makai. “I’d tell them, ‘No, but how much do you have? I’ll work with you.’”
The company—one of 130 members of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association—since then has led thousands of tourists through Hawaii’s rainforests and archeological sites. According to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, nature-related travel feeds more than $413 million annually to Hawaii’s economy and accounts for more than 5 percent of overall tourist expenditures.
“The profile of the ecotourist traveler in the past was white-collar, educated and traveled a lot,” Aki says. “Now they’re younger, college kids, high school kids. We’re getting a lot more blue-collar, even Asian visitors. It’s changing.”
One way the department has cracked down on questionable operators is through its Commercial Trail Tour Permit program, effective since September 1999 to control the number of commercial hikers, bikers and vehicles that use state-regulated Na Ala Hele Trails. Not only are tour operators required to have permits, but they also must book in advance and pay fees based on the number of patrons that trek through the state trails. The department regulates approximately 579 trail miles throughout Hawaii. Oahu is home to 65 miles.Albeit ecotourism in Hawaii is posed for growth, industry leaders are concerned about the integrity of some tour companies. “Entrepreneurs have discovered that if you have flyers, a vehicle and a way of getting the word out, they can longline tourists in Waikiki,” says Curt A. Cottrell, program manager for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ outdoor recreation section. “I’ve had some tourists call me up about some of the less legitimate tour operators and say ‘Do these guys have a permit? They made us get on a van, and it was overloaded. They made us feel like cattle.’”
Gross revenues from permits in the year 2000 totaled $17,000. As of last December, six tour operators on Kauai had permits, while five operators were based on Oahu, four were on Maui, and one was on the Big Island. “There are triple of that who are advertising on the Internet. We have no idea who they are, and there’s a strong chance they’re using our trails,” Cottrell says. Commercial operators are asked to use the trails from Monday to Friday, while weekends traditionally are reserved for the public.
To ease the permit process, the department has awarded a grant to Hawaiian Wildlife Tours to create an Internet reservation system, which can be used together with the existing telephone reservation system. The department and the Hawaii Tourism Authority spent $22,000 and $53,000 respectively for the Internet system. Scheduled to be launched in the first quarter of this year, the site will feature all permit-holding operators and their homepages. Ecotourism officials hope the effort will curb illegal operations.
Still industry leaders want more state-amended policies to define ecotourism in Hawaii. Says Bobbee Mills, president of the ecotourism association: “It’s still a new concept. Hawaii had a booming tourism industry before ecotourism became a big thing.” Marc Dexter, owner of Hawaiian Islands Eco-Tour Ltd. agrees: “We need to have a state plan for ecotourism development, like New Zealand and Australia. Hawaii is not traditionally seen as an ecotourism destination, only surf and sand. What people don’t realize is that it’s 20 percent urban and 80 percent forest.”