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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”