If there is one place on the planet that seems ideally suited for eco-tourism and sustainable travel, it's Hawaii, a place people visit because of the ecology -- the ocean, the beach, the mountains, and the overall beauty of the place. It seems only natural that the maintenance of its environment would be a concern, both to the people who live there and the visitors who come to enjoy all that its ecosystem has to offer.
In fact, Hawaii has a long history of environmental stewardship. The ancient Hawaiians not only knew about sustainability, but also practiced it in their daily lives. They had to! When the ancient Hawaiians occupied the islands, they did not have the luxury of "importing" goods from anywhere else. They had the land under their feet and the ocean to gain subsistence from, and those resources had to last not only for their own lifetime, but also for the lifetimes of generations to come. So these ancient people lived in harmony with the land and sea, and had a complex social structure that managed resources and forbade the taking of various resources during certain times of the year, to allow those resources to replenish themselves.
Now fast-forward to the 21st century. Today we, the current stewards of the islands of Hawaii, are just beginning to appreciate how wise and advanced the ancient Hawaiians were. In some ways, the state of Hawaii is a pioneer when it comes to the various ways it protects and saves its natural resources (for example, Hawaii is second only to California in the number of marine reserves in the National System of Marine Protected Areas). And yet in other ways, modern Hawaii still falls short of the ancient Hawaiians, whose unique system sustained, without imports, the entire population.
Rental Cars -- Most visitors coming to Hawaii seem to think "convertible" when they think of renting a car, or they think "SUV" for off-road adventures. If you're thinking "hybrid," you'll have to check your budget, because hybrids from car-rental agencies are not only hard to find, but also extremely expensive in Hawaii. Car-rental agencies do have a variety of cars to rent, though, and you can make a point of selecting a car that gets the best gas mileage. Also, ask for a white car, because they use less energy to air-condition than a dark-colored car.
Interisland Transportation -- Now that the interisland ferry, Superferry, has declared bankruptcy, the only option for interisland travel between most islands is via air. There are two exceptions, however. If you're traveling between Maui and Lanai, you may want to consider taking the passenger-only Lanai Ferry. If you're traveling between Maui and Molokai, you can take the passenger-only Molokai Princess. Not only are these ferries cheaper than air travel, but their impact on the environment is less, especially when you consider that most airlines will route you from Maui to Honolulu, then from Honolulu on to either Molokai or Lanai.
Ongoing Environmental Initiatives
The State of Hawaii has several excellent stewardship programs to preserve the ocean environment and its resources, such as Marine Life Conservation Districts (an ocean version of parks; Kealakekua, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and Hanauma Bay, on Oahu, are two examples), Fishery Management Areas (where what you can take from the ocean is restricted), Fishery Replenishment Areas, and Estuarine Reserves. On land, there are corresponding programs to protect the environment, from the Soil and Water Conservation District to Watershed Reserves.
In the visitor industry, the majority of hotels have adopted green practices, not only to save the environment, but also to save them money. Nearly every hotel in the state will have a card in your room asking you to really consider if you need a new towel or if you can hang it up and use it one more day. Various statewide organizations have programs recognizing hotels which are helping the environment, such as the Green Business Awards Program, which recently recognized the Grand Hyatt Kauai for reducing their annual electricity consumption by over 1.5 million kilowatt hours through the use of the resort's new 18,500-square-foot photovoltaic system.
Every island has recycling centers (varying from collection of recyclable bottles only to places that take everything). For a list of recycling centers close to where you will be staying, visit the website of the Hawaii State Department of Health (www.hi5deposit.com/redcenters.html).
Restaurants across the state are using more local products and more produce than ever. Many proudly tell you that all of their products were grown, grazed, or caught within 100 miles of their restaurant. You can support this effort by ordering local (drink Kona coffee, not a coffee from Central America; eat local fish, not imported seafood). Ask the restaurant which items on its menu are grown or raised on the island, and then order the local items.
Below are some helpful hints travelers to Hawaii might want to keep in mind during their adventure to the islands so that their ecological footprint on Hawaii will be minimal.
What Visitors Can Do in & Around the Ocean
1. Do not touch anything in the ocean. In fact, unless you are standing on the sandy bottom where the waves roll into shore, try not to walk or stand on the ocean floor. The no-touch rule of thumb is not only for your protection -- there are plenty of stinging, stabbing things out there that could turn your vacation into a nightmare -- but also for the protection of the marine environment. Coral is composed of living things, which take years to grow, and a careless brush of your hand or foot could destroy them. Fragile habitats for marine critters can be damaged forever by your heavy foot.
2. Do not feed the fish, or any other marine creature. They have their own food and diet, and they can be irreparably harmed by your good intentions if you feed them "people food" or, even worse, some "fish food" you have purchased.
3. Leave the ocean and beach area cleaner than you found it. If you see trash in the ocean (plastic bags, bottles, and so on), remove it. You may have saved the life of a fish, turtle, marine mammal, or even seabird by removing that trash, which kills hundreds of marine inhabitants every year. The same thing is true of the beach: Pick up trash, even if it's not yours.
4. The beach is not an ashtray. Do not use the sand for your cigarette butts. How would you like someone using your living room carpet as his ashtray?
5. Look at, but don't approach, turtles or Hawaiian monk seals resting on the shoreline. The good news is that the number of turtles and Hawaiian monk seals on the main Hawaiian Islands is increasing. But while visitors may not know it, both are protected by law. You must stay 100 feet away from them. So take photos, but do not attempt to get close to the resting sea creatures (and no, they are not dead or injured, just resting).
6. If you plan to go fishing, practice catch and release. Let the fish live another day. Ask your charter-boat captain if they practice catch and release; if they say no, book with someone else.
7. If you are environmentally conscious, I do not recommend that you rent jet skis, which have a significant environmental impact.
What Visitors Can Do on Land
1. Don't litter (this includes throwing a cigarette butt out of your car).
2. Before you go hiking, scrub your hiking shoes (especially the soles) to get rid of seeds and soil.
3. When hiking, carry a garbage bag so you can carry out everything you carried in, including your litter (and if you see other garbage on the trail, carry it out, too).
4. Stay on the trail. Not only is wandering off a trail dangerous to you (you can get lost, fall off overgrown cliffs, or get injured by stepping into a hidden hole), but you could also carry invasive species into the native forests.
5. Do not pick flowers or plants along your hike. Just leave the environment the way you found it.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.