What Does it Mean to Travel Green?
So how do we check ourselves when checking out of the daily grind for a little while? By thinking about ecotourism, instead of regular old mass tourism.
It’s easy to go on a trip and turn on autopilot. But autopilot is expensive for a local ecosystem. Say you don’t think about it and drive aimlessly in a Hummer, because it’s your first time in Hawaii and that’s what you thought people do here. Let’s compare the miles-per-gallon nonefficiency of a Hummer H3, versus an electric vehicle (EV) such as Nissan’s Leaf. The H3 averages 16 mpg, versus the Leaf: 99 miles per charge. While that’s an extreme example, it illustrates the differences between mass and ecotourism.
The textbook definition of ecotourism, according to John Cusick, an associate specialist at the University of Hawaii Environmental Center, is that it’s “small scale, and essentially reflects a sense of place.” He continued, “Ecotourism contributes back to the health and maintenance of the people and ecosystems that are visited.”
“Ecotourism is unique in Hawaii,” says Annette Kaohelaulii, a current board member and former president of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association (HEA), “because here, both the natural and the cultural resources are important,” whereas in other places, like in South America, ecotourism is geared more toward outdoor adventures. “In Hawaii, the nature and culture are so closely tied together.”
HEA, formed in 1994, is a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization with the mission to “protect Hawaii’s unique environment and culture through the promotion of responsible travel and educational programs, aimed at the public and visitor industry, related to ecotourism issues.” Its members include industry people from lodge owners to travel writers. Over the years, Kaohelaulii says she’s seen a tide change in interested travelers seeking ecoconscious means, but adds that it’s not enough to just be interested.
“We need to spend more money protecting our resources and making [tourism] more sustainable,” she says. “Ecotourism has become a buzzword: Hawaii ecotourism and sustainable travel. I’m just concerned that pretty soon there’s not going to be much to see, that it’ll all be gone.”
Even DIY travelers tend to stick to guide books, hotel advice and the general herd mentality in deciding what to see. Manoa Falls, for example, is so publicized that it’s become overrun by tourists wanting a natural fix. But its trails continue to widen as people traipse around other people.
An ecotourist seeks an alternative, and one way to find it is with an ecoguide.
“Ecotour guides are really important people for visitors to interact with, as they’re the ones who can answer questions truthfully . . . [providing] a memorable experience,” Kaohelaulii says.
Ecoguides specialize in supporting environmentalism; they know the history and culture; they understand where to go and leave a minimal impact.
A great ecotour guide shows by example how to conserve natural resources and provides true cultural experiences. HEA is in the process of establishing a system that recognizes the best in Hawaii’s guides, in its first-ever “Ecotour Guide of the Year” award, to be handed out in May. This award is open to members of the association who want to honor an employee they feel best represents the founding principles of ecotourism.
Practices such as educating the host culture, seeking its involvement, and improving watershed protection are ways to progressively protect what attracts visitors. “That’s why people come,” Cusick says. “They come to Hawaii because it’s beautiful and culturally unique. So if mass tourism undermines that diversity, we’re really no different than a Miami Beach or Las Vegas canned experience.”
Mass tourism is profit-driven, while ecotourism has more sustainable interests. You go to learn about the true culture of your destination, to see some of its history, to get off the beaten path (carefully). That tourism is in a rising trend right now is positive news, but as Cusick points out, “What we’re seeing in Hawaii is a sort of a cloaking of tourism in a blanket of green. The use of ecotourism is not reflective of the mass tourism model, because ecotourism is designed to be small scale and employ local people in jobs that are dignified and provide living wages. . . . You can’t really have ecotourism in Waikiki,” he says.
In essence, an ecotourist travels responsibly. From the time you book your flight, to where you sleep, to where you eat and where you go, each step of your vacation affects the environment you visit. It’s true that by going to a place and spending money there, you’re helping the local economy. But make double sure that you’re not hurting it. If we’re too far gone from achieving true ecotourism in Waikiki, there are steps we can take to minimize tourism’s inherently negative impacts.