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VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i: Connecting with the Heartbeat of Hawai`i's Big Island
Phil is the manager of VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i, leading a five-person team of local specialist guides currently operating from an office in his off-grid house.
By Ayako Ezaki (The International Ecotourism Society)
For volcano enthusiasts, and travelers interested in geology and natural history, Hawai`i is a unique destination offering one-of-a-kind encounters with Kīlauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world's most massive volcano. At the recommendation of Annette Kaohelaulii of Hawaii Ecotourism Association, I was fortunate to get to know one of the most reputable local ecotour providers, VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i – the Hawai`i branch of VolcanoDiscovery, an international company offering customized volcano tours around the world – and to experience the Big Island differently: with an incredible amount of education and an eye-opening insights into the culture and history of the island.
Local, Personalized and Mind-Blowing
I've been lucky enough to travel to many destinations around the world, and one thing I've learned about myself through traveling is that the type of travel experiences I enjoy most is slow, local and personal. Whether I was backpacking in Europe or market-hopping in Asia, my favorite memories were always about the people from the local areas who shared with me slices of their lives.
Philip Ong, our private tour guide, offered exactly that. In addition to being an extraordinarily knowledgeable volcano specialist and passionate guide, he had the quality of a "local friend" that made the tour memorable beyond what's included in the package. The eight-hour tour with Phil – focusing on natural and cultural interpretation and taking time to stop to contemplate and to exchange views about tourism in Hawai`i – for me made all of the rest of the days on the island more enjoyable and meaningful.
Our tour was planned based on the best way to "tell the stories of past eruptions and build an understanding of how the volcano actually erupts" (from one of pre-trip email exchanges with Phil) and to allow for the opportunity to discuss ecotourism, as well as experiencing the island's unique wonders.
I'll admit that, as valuable and educational as Phil's interpretation was, I did not actually follow everything he said. A lot of scientific details about the volcanoes, which Phil was more than happy to share, repeat and elaborate on as needed, didn't necessarily register with me (mostly because I was too amazed at the scenery or at Phil's knowledge to try and digest a lot of information). "If you don't remember these scientific terms, don't worry, we're not going to be testing you," Phil joked, assuring me that learning in Hawai‘i's natural volcano laboratory is about finding connections with the land – in my own way, at my own pace.
What struck me most as (to use a volcanic metaphor) mind-blowing was the glimpse into the world view of native Hawaiian islanders before Western contact. The scientific methods used today to record volcanic activities were, obviously, not part of Hawaiian way of life until Western science was introduced to the islands. However, this does not mean that Hawaiians in pre-Western contact periods did not record volcanic activities; they just took a very different approach.
"Instead of measuring the movements of volcanoes, as we do today," Phil explained, "the native Hawaiians understood and communicated the changes in volcanoes by telling stories about Pele, the mystical goddess of fire, and other volcano and island spirits." Every incident of volcanic activity in the ancient times was recorded through tales of Pele and her expressions of passion and rage, and her dramatic (to say the least) love life. On the Hawai‘i island you will see the legend very much alive, for instance the famous sibling rivalry between Pele and her sister Hi‘iaka, the goddess of nature, whose desires are manifested in the eternal cycle of destruction (Pele's rage) and rebirth (Hi‘iaka restoring the forests on the land ravaged by lava and rocks).
While it's impossible to 'undo' the perspectives acquired through education and experience, and I would never truly see the world through the eyes of First Hawaiians, just trying to imagine the creativity and wisdom of a world where story-telling and "making sense" of nature's drama were one and the same thing was a mesmerizing experience.
Opening People's Eyes to Ecotourism
Listening to Phil, I could tell how passionate he is not only about volcanoes, natural history, geology, and Hawaiian culture, but also about the possibilities of opening people's eyes (and perhaps changing their attitudes) to the importance of protecting this amazing island. "I understand that there’s a need for every type of tourism," he noted, "and that we fill a specific niche." On the tourism spectrum on the island, companies like VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i are on one end of the extreme: very small, very local and very customized. On the other end are the very large, very corporate and very generic mass tours.
Cruise ships, on the mass end of the spectrum, are inevitably a large part of life in Hawai`i, and have profound impact on local businesses. On "cruise ship days" in Hawai`i, parking lots in national parks fill up with tourist buses and sightseeing vans, and foot traffic is much higher at all of the iconic viewpoints and pathways. Our tour day, too, was one of those days and we saw the scene familiar to many: tour bus unloads, people take pictures in front of whatever the iconic sight they've come to see, and hurry back to the bus to carry on with their pre-scheduled itinerary.
One of the skills required for small operators like Phil is to navigate around large tour groups on cruise ship days. Most of these groups, though, tend to spend very little time at each site, simply stopping to take pictures. In comparison, Phil generously allocated time to offer in-depth interpretation and to share stories.
Phil shared his experience - as one of the 'little guys' among the numerous Big Island tour providers. "At first I had a negative view of those passengers who settle for a superficial experience of the island, but I've come to realize that these are exactly the people that we need to be working with, if we want to promote ecotourism and effect change." Unlike someone (like me) who is already 'sold' on the idea of a personal, educational and low-impact interpretive tour experience, people who usually choose mass tour experiences will likely have that aha! moment and may be inspired to be a little bit more conscious about their impact - the next time they travel, or at home.
"However small the change may be," said Phil, "that's what we try to do, to inspire people to experience Hawai`i differently and to become more conscious about their connection to the Earth and lifestyle in general."
Sustainability of Running a Tourism Business Sustainably
VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i is one of the 14 companies in Hawai`i that have received the Hawai`i Ecotourism Association's first-ever green certification program (and among them, one of the three to have achieved the highest GOLD level), recognized for their the responsible use of natural and cultural resources, support for conservation and sustainability practices, and efforts to raise awareness among visitors.
Will the certification help Phil's business? Will it help boost ecotourism in Hawai`i – which in turn would also help small operators like VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i?
Phil is under no illusion that mass tourism would completely change its nature, nor that the politics in the state's tourism industry (which tends to favor those with money) would revolutionize to support the 'little guys' any time soon. But he is also practically optimistic. By winning support of repeat customers and taking advantage of word-of-mouth referrals, his business is growing (traveler review sites such as TripAdvisor has been a great asset to the business), which shows that there is an increasing demand for local and sustainable tour experience, and that his approach focusing on story-telling and personal connections is winning the hearts of those who experience it.
Pele, fortunately, was breathing very gently and remained calm during our visit. You can feel her 'breath' in the air, in the form of warm volcanic steam.
His challenge now is to convert those travelers into contributors (whether they are volunteering their time, or donating money) supporting conservation. VolcanoDiscovery Hawai`i guides work on native rainforest restoration projects during the off-season, and in order for professionally-trained personal interpretative guides’ jobs to be sustainable year-round, there needs to be a way to fund their off-season work, which in turn will ensure that travelers can continue to experience Hawai`i's living landscapes without destroying them.
The kind of personal encounter with Pele that I had, I feel, would be the only convincing that's needed to convert any traveler into a passionate supporter.