"Ecotourism" has become a buzz word in the realm of global travel.
It seems that everywhere you look, "sustainable," "green," and "eco-friendly" operators have begun to flourish with abundance, and when performed properly, this is a fantastic trend. Not only is it imperative to raise awareness about protecting native resources, but it's also inspiring to watch our younger generations learn the values of sustainable travel.
But what does "ecotourism" actually mean, and how do you know when a tour operator is living up to the name? While we can't speak for the rest of the world, Hawaii is fortunate to have the Hawaii Ecotourism Association to provide a guiding light.
Founded in 1995, the HEA's mission statement is "to protect Hawaii's unique natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel and educational programs relating to sustainable tourism for residents, businesses, and visitors."
One of the ways of doing this is through the creation of a rigorous certification program that establishes the steps a tour operator needs to take in order to be a certified eco-tour.
At the outset of the HEA certification process, Trilogy was classified as a Gold member in the uppermost tier of operators, and as of 2014, is one of 16 operators statewide to be classified as a certified eco-tour. Trilogy has also been listed as a certified tour operator since 2011, and outside of the title and the certification status, the steps that are needed to be a certified operator are simply the right thing to do.
So what are the criteria for becoming certified as an eco-tour operator by the Hawaii Ecotourism Association?
The HEA has a full checklist that operators must be able to complete, and as you can see from reading the full list, the requirements are not only comprehensive, but they cover all bases for establishing criteria of what ecotourism really means.
To begin with, certified operators must have a written sustainability commitment that they adhere to in all of their tours. Not only must this exist on paper, but all crew members, captains, tour guides, and representatives must espouse these values and educate guests during daily visitor operations.
Education has always been central to Trilogy's rapport with our guests, and we consider it our privilege to be able to educate so many visitors about the beauty of our Hawaiian Islands.
On our Molokini snorkeling tours, for example, this means explaining to guests how 25% of our fish species are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, and suggesting ways we can have a minimal impact when entering their sensitive environment. Or, on any of our snorkeling tours in Maui, educating guests about Hawaiian history and the cultural, historic, and environmental significance of everywhere we visit on our tours.
Another component of the certification progress is maintaining marketing integrity, which means any images that disrespect nature or make inaccurate cultural references will not be used in any marketing material. For snorkeling tours in Maui, this might include images of swimming with dolphins, touching turtles, handling marine life, or making inaccurate reference to snorkeling locations or sites. As a general rule, if a company calls itself an eco tour, yet handles marine life, picks up sea urchins, or prods octopus out of their holes, it isn't doing a very good job or representing the "eco tour" name.
When it comes to culture, one of the easiest ways to perpetuate local culture is simply to use proper place names. When speaking about the peaks of West Maui, for example, referring to the mountain as "Mauna Kahalawai"—a name which translates to "the gathering of the waters"—is better than using the introduced phrase of simply "The West Maui Mountains." Or, on snorkeling tours to Lana‘i, relaying the legend of Pu‘u Pehe is a more appropriate tribute to the offshore sea stack than the legend of "Sweetheart Rock." Lastly, referring to a place as "turtle town," for example, isn't as culturally accurate as calling the place by its proper name of "Nahuna."
In addition to the HEA certification goals, Trilogy is also a proud member of the Dolphin SMART campaign that aims to give accurate representation of human interaction with dolphins. Our loved Hawaiian spinner dolphins are mostly at rest during the day, and human interaction can often wake them from much needed daytime sleep.
Also required for certification are strong efforts towards environmental conservation and sustaining the local community. Trilogy's Blue‘Aina program conducts around 20 reef cleanups annually, and in 2013 helped raise $17,000 for cultural and environmental non-profits.
Outside of Blue‘Aina, supporting programs such as the Maunalei Ahupua‘a Lawai‘a Camp help educate children about sustainable fishing practices and traditional methods of harvest. The concept of stewardship is central to the traditional culture here in Hawaii, in that our role here on Earth is to care for the land which ultimately gives us life. The land, the sea, and all of its resources are what our economy and livelihood depend on, and it's imperative to first protect these resources for a healthy and sustainable future.
We'll be the first to admit, however, that the sustainable, responsible course of action isn't always the easiest way. Retrofitting all of our boats, for example, to accommodate for shore-based pump out stations, is a lot more difficult than simply dumping boat waste out at sea. With that said, it's without question the right thing to do, and it's our hope to be leaders in the continued charge towards protecting the resources around us.
Over the course of Trilogy's 40 year history, it's been inspiring to watch as the Cultural Renaissance has revived an interest in cultural accuracy, and the environmental awakening towards sustainability continues to increase every year. Mahalo to all of the certified operators for their efforts towards protecting these islands, and a special thanks to the Hawaii Ecotourism Association for promoting ecological success.