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Ecotourism continues to grow

Curt Cottrell’s priorities are staggered: environment first, people second and businesses third. His goal, he says, is to create an ecotourism industry in Hawai’i that rivals some of the world’s best, such as those in Costa Rica and New Zealand.

It’s a tall order from a guy who never realized he was walking down the sustainability path when he became program manager of Na Ala Hele, Hawai’i’s trail and access program. When the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources rolled out Na Ala Hele in the early 1990s, the word ‘ecotourism’ had yet to become a buzz word. Rather, the state hoped to meet citizens concerns regarding public–not commercial–overuse of the state’s trails.

But when commercial tour operators began asking Na Ala Hele for permission to use state-owned trails in the mid-1990s, Cottrell and his agency ran into a problem: There was no permitting process in place. So the state created one. It was just in time. Commercial tours centered around outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking, camping and mountain biking, have skyrocketed in the last decade across the globe. And in a tourist haven like Hawai’i, that means more people on trails, more garbage and more potential to harm the state’s fragile ecosystem. ‘We got lucky,’ says Cottrell in retrospect.

His first task in broadening the scope of Na Ala Hele rested in simple logistics: how to define the word ‘ecotourism.’ It has since classified it as a guided way of appreciating nature, while learning about the cultural and physical significance of a given locale.

There are now more than 40 state-recognized commercial ecotour operators.

But that definition cannot remain static, says Cottrell, noting that the state is still trying to figure out what ecotourism really encompasses here in Hawai’i. For example, ecotour operators have come to include everyone from those who offer traditional hiking packages to popular new adventure sports (think ziplines and bungee jumping).

Nor is recreation in Hawai’i limited to land-based activities. ‘Ecotourism is a burgeoning sector of the tourism market, and kayaking and surf lessons are probably growing the fastest of all recreational sports,’ says Betsy Morrigan, owner of Hawai’i Pack and Paddle, a company on the Big Island that holds both hiking and kayaking tours. She worries, however, that state agencies governing commercial recreational water activities and permits have been unable to adopt as clear or consistent a program as Na Ala Hele has for commercial tour operators.

While the state does issue permits, for example, for commercial kayak operators, that process is not well enforced. Fly-by-night kayak companies have been flooding the waterways, making it increasingly difficult for reputable commercial tour operators to find a place. Violators, says Morrigan, often receive little more than a slap on the wrist.

Peter Young, chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, says there are some positive aspects to the state’s permitting process. ‘Now before we issue a permit, we send our marine biologists outÖto see if the area could be impacted by human use. We don’t want people to go stand on coral. We don’t want people to go touch things.’

Young agrees that the state should create a program comparable to Na Ala Hele for water activities.

Na Ala Hele’s success rests in a number of factors, including ease of use and a logical fee structure. To take a group on a state-sponsored trail, commercial tour operators simply have to log on to the website and sign up for a spot on a first-come, first-served basis. Operators are charged according to their type of activity and its potential impact to the trail or access road. For example, commercial tour operators are charged $5 a head for hikers, $10 for motorcycles and horses and up to $100 for 15-passenger four-wheel drive vans. The beauty of the program, says Cottrell, is as ecotourism grows, Na Ala Hele earns more money, which is fed back into trail maintenance and construction. Last year, the state earned about $114,000 from trail and access permits.

Not that the initial Na Ala Hele program was without its flaws. Similar to the problems Morrigan and other commercial kayak operators are experiencing, Cottrell and his colleagues struggled to force compliance with the new rules. ‘In the late ’90s, early 2000s, we had a pretty pernicious problem with commercial operators saying, ‘Screw you, try to catch me.’ A lot of them were veiling themselves as nonprofits,’ Cottrell says.

In response, Na Ala Hele requested that the state Legislature add stronger statutory penalties. Whereas previously violators were charged less than $100, the new penalties enabled Na Ala Hele to fine operators up to $2,500.

The state plays an integral role in fostering responsible tourism as it is the only agency with jurisdiction over the myriad activities flooding the recreation field, Morrigan says, stressing that ecotourism ‘is here to stay.’ 

Na Ala Hele