Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii: From the Mountains to the Reefs

Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii: From the Mountains to the Reefs

Coral Reef Protection Hawaii


Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii: From the Mountains to the Reefs


An article by TIES member Valley Isle Excursions


Hawaii is known as one of the world’s top vacation destination. But what most people don’t know is that the Hawaiian Islands are also a conservation hotspot. Hawaii boasts over 25,000 unique species - some of which are found nowhere else on earth. Unfortunately, many of Hawaii’s fragile habitats and species are threatened by population growth, development, pollution, overuse, and climate change. In fact, Hawaii has one of the highest extinction rates on the planet and has been coined the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.”


At the same time, over 8 million travelers visit the islands each year, many seeking to experience Hawaii’s stunning landscapes and unique wildlife. Yet the continued influx of visitors can have unintended consequences. Hanauma Bay, for example, is one of the state’s most popular snorkel spots and receives an estimated 3,000 snorkelers per day. Heavy human use at spots such as Hanauma Bay, in addition to nature preserves and parks, has impacted native species, disrupted natural ecosystems, and threatens remaining wildlife.


Founded in 1995, the Hawaii Ecotourism Association grew out of the need to develop sustainable solutions that would conserve Hawaii’s natural resources while also supporting eco-friendly travel. In 2011, Hawaii Ecotourism Association launched the Sustainable Tourism Certification Program for tour operators, the first Hawaii-based ecotourism certification. Certified tour operators must meet rigorous criteria that demonstrates a business’s commitment to environmental and cultural responsibility. To date, the program has certified over 20 tour operators across the state. Certified tours range from snorkeling and diving to zip lining, hiking, and van tours.


The movement towards sustainable tourism in Hawaii has also led to the creation of the Be Reef Safe campaign, an awareness program designed to promote healthy coral reefs by educating travelers, tour operators, businesses, and community members.


Although considered the most biologically diverse ecosystem in the world, coral reefs are declining rapidly due to overuse, pollution, and warming temperatures. In recent years, the negative impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs has also raised alarm. While slathering up is important if you’re going to be at the beach all day, many people don’t realize that thousands of tons of sunscreen wash off our bodies and into the ocean every year. Once in the water, certain chemicals in sunscreen negatively interact with the surrounding environment. These chemicals have been shown to inhibit coral growth, disrupt coral reproduction, and promote coral viruses.


Astoundingly, 90% of snorkeling and diving tourism is concentrated on just 10% of the world’s reefs. That means that the most popular snorkel and dive spots, including those in Hawaii, are also some of the most heavily affected by sunscreen’s negative impacts.


Ecotourism HawaiiLuckily, consumer education and awareness can go a long way towards protecting our reefs. In fact, Be Reef Safe highlights a number of simple lifestyle changes that can be adopted at the individual level. Through its Be Reef Safe Approach to Sun Safety, for example, Be Reef Safe suggests forgoing chemical sunscreens in favor of long sleeves and hats, and minimizing sun exposure between the hours of 10 am - 2 pm. Be Reef Safe additionally focuses on empowering consumers. By learning how to read product labels, sunscreen buyers can ensure that they are choosing products that have the least environmental impact.


One of the primary goals of Be Reef Safe is to connect travelers and community members with environmentally conscious products and tour activities. Guided by the Be Reef Safe model, both land- and ocean-based tour companies outreach to guests about the benefits of reef safe sun practices and suggest ways that guests can minimize their environmental impacts. Participating tour operators are highlighted on the Be Reef Safe website and within the Be Reef Safe community. This promotion enables travelers to easily find and book environmentally conscious tour operators. At the same time, it encourages the tourism industry to adopt practices that are not only good for customers, but also for the environment.


Be Reef Safe is currently focused on establishing Molokini Crater as the first Be Reef Safe destination in the world. Molokini is an iconic volcanic cinder cone located just three miles off the Maui coastline. It is one of the most visited snorkel and dive spots in Hawaii and is designated as a Marine Life Conservation District. Currently, only a few snorkel and dive tour operators offer reef safe sunscreen products. By outreaching directly to local businesses and tour companies, Be Reef Safe is helping transition the industry towards suncare products that are good for people and good for the reef. The ultimate goal is to have all Molokini tour operators providing only reef safe and environmentally sustainable products. Be Reef Safe further seeks to expand the success of the Molokini program to popular snorkel and dive destinations around the world.


Together with the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, programs like Be Reef Safe are changing the face of travel. These innovative programs not only focus on tour operators, but even more so on developing relationships and connectivity between all levels of industry. They are about empowering the consumer and, in doing so, inspiring environmental change at the business level. It is through this worldwide network of environmentally responsible individuals, travelers, and businesses that we will truly be able to make a positive difference for our environment - from the mountains to the reefs.  


About TIES

As the world's oldest and largest international ecotourism association, TIES seeks to be the global source of knowledge and advocacy uniting communities, conservation, sustainable travel..




> The International Ecotourism Society 



The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference will highlight global challenges and local opportunities, supporting sustainable development of tourism and promoting solutions that balance conservation, communities and sustainable travel.

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