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Hawai?i's Sustainable Tourism Stamp is Changing Industry Culture

Kuuwehi Hiraishi

2017 is being dubbed the Year of Sustainable Travel by the World Tourism Organization. “Sustainability” may seem like a buzzword for an industry historically known for making a profit at the expense of the local environment, culture, or community. So what makes tourism sustainable? HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi looks at a local organization setting that standard for Hawai’i’s visitor industry.  

29-year-old Austin Kino pushes his sailing canoe off the beach fronting the K?hala Hotel and into the waters of Maunalua Bay. His company Holokino Hawai?i offers guided historical tours of O?ahu’s South Shore by canoe, but there are limits. Right now the tide is low and he wants to avoid the shallow offshore reef system Maunalua Bay is known for.

Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

“We kind of are always going off of what nature is allowing us to do, which is kind of different from what concierges and tourists are used to,” says Kino.

That could mean less profit, but for the Wailupe native it’s about more than just chasing the dollar.

“If I was going to have a business that operated in my home that was commercial activity, I didn’t want to do it in a way that people before me,” says Kino.

Kino comes from a new crop of entrepreneurs changing the culture of the tourism industry in Hawai’i – a change long advocated by the Hawai’i Ecotourism Association or HEA. Lauren Blickley is the association’s program manager.

Credit Roman Eugeniusz / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“Tourism is the largest industry in Hawai’i and its continuing just to grow,” says Blickley, “So we know that it’s a destination but we know that if like anything, if it’s done in excess or if it’s done in a way that is over utilizing the resources it can have a negative impact.”

To ensure the industry wasn’t just consuming Hawai’i’s resources, HEA developed a sustainable tourism certification program – a rigorous checklistto ensure tour operators are positively impacting the environment, the culture, and the community.

More than 50 tour operators statewide have received a stamp of approval under the Hawaii Ecotourism Association's Sustainable Tourism Certification Program.

“We understand four star ratings for hotels. We see four stars for a movie. We don’t understand who gives it to them, but somehow we get it. But how do you know an operation is sustainable?” says Linda Cox, a UH M?noa Professor who helped develop the HEA Sustainable Tourism Certification Program.

Cox helped develop the program nearly two decades ago. She looked at similar models in Costa Rica and Australia, and continues to improve upon the program that she set up.

“This certification program makes it real,” says Cox, “It outlines best practices that are recognized around the world as things that will make an operation more sustainable.”

Credit Kuuwehi Hiraishi

“And we see a lot of our operators already doing that,” says Blickley, “Giving back to non-profits every single month, reducing their environmental footprint, providing information and education that is above and beyond for many of the guests who come here.”

The program has certified more than 50 tour operators under its program. Kino’s company is the latest to get the HEA stamp of approval.  

“I would hope in the next 5 to 10 years any new tour operators or existing tour operators aren’t just going to stick to the old way cause, they’ll recognize now their customer is so much more aware,” says Kino, “but you need that accreditation to set a standard and I think now we’re just going to continue to try and get closer and closer to that.”

To become a certified tour operator under HEA, click here

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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