By: Gabriela Etopio
Image courtesy of Unsplash
It is no secret that Hawaii is one of the most traveled tourist destinations in the United States. Its warm beaches, sizzling volcanoes, and glorious rainforests are just a few things that draw so many tourists each year. Oahu, one of Hawaii’s more popular destinations, can expect anywhere from 450,000 to 570,000 visits per month (Hawaii Travel Guide, 2023). While tourism is an important contributor to the economy, it can yield detrimental effects on the environment. Traveling to Hawaii not only increases carbon emissions, but tourism can result in the overuse of beaches, hiking trails, and other natural wonders. This, in turn, can lead to a spike in living expenses for locals, eventually resulting in overcrowding and displacement of residents (International Relations Review, 2022).
Although the idea of imposing stringent regulations on tourism may appear to be a simple resolution to these problems, it is not a feasible option and could have negative impacts on Hawaii’s economy. Nevertheless, there are ways to travel in an environmentally sustainable manner and minimize harm to natural resources. “Ecotourism” is the term used to describe sustainable tourism. Some examples of sustainable tourism include using safe and sustainable products, considering your carbon footprint as you are traveling, and contributing to the local economy.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). TIES also incorporates cultural and environmental awareness into their definition of ecotourism and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and respecting the rights and beliefs of the indigenous people/communities in the area, and promoting indigenous empowerment (TIES, 2023).
Ecotourism has many benefits including encouraging sustainable practices. By encouraging people to travel sustainably, ecotourism can raise awareness about conservation issues, which in turn protect wildlife and the environment, as well as natural resources. It is also important to recognize the cultural significance of ecotourism, as preserving land can allow for the promotion of traditional practices and heritage, which provides a source of pride for local communities. Promoting conscious conservation practices can also support biodiversity, which is essential for utilizing natural resources to improve the economy and support the livelihoods of communities by managing habitats, ecosystems, and species in protected areas (De Zoysa, 2022).
Hawaii has already started thinking about different ways to implement legislation that acknowledges sustainable tourism through the introduction of Bill SB2208, which requires the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority to implement and administer tourism-related initiatives designed to educate tourists on the State’s vulnerable areas of wildlife (Hawaiʻi State Legislature, 2022). The proposed bill also requires transportation companies to show public service announcement videos. Education is one tool of many that can be used to encourage ecotourism. Educational materials, such as pamphlets/flyers or digital technologies can be employed to impart environmental knowledge and persuade visitors to adopt sustainable practices during their travels. By increasing their awareness of the significance of their actions, people may be more inclined to consider their individual impact on the environment. This could also encourage people to use more safe and sustainable products, such as reef-safe sunscreen.
Hawaii is also considering a piece of legislation (SB304) that would require tourists to pay for a yearlong license or pass to visit state parks and trails (Hawaiʻi State Legislature, 2023). Violators would have to pay a civil fine, and residents would be exempt from obtaining a license. Fines can provide a source of revenue that can be used to fund conservation efforts and support the maintenance of state trails and beaches.
Ecotourism regulation has also been utilized in the Galápagos, where the archipelago was vulnerable to exploitation and degradation by fishing interests. To address this, Galápagos National Park imposed limitations on the number of boats authorized to enter the Marine Reserve and charged $200 per day per person in addition to park entrance fees. In addition to this, they required naturalist guides to accompany every 15 tourists, who remained with them during the duration of their stay within the Marine Reserve (Heslinga, 2003). Hawaii could similarly benefit from imposing fees on visitors. This can generate employment opportunities such as naturalist guides, which can compensate for the potential loss of revenue from imposing park or trail fees.
Policies may vary from location to location in Hawaii and can be implemented on a case-by-case basis. For instance, one practical policy is to require visitors to watch a short video and acknowledge their commitment to respecting the land they are visiting. In places such as trails or parks, naturalist guides can accompany tourists to prevent behavior that is harmful to the environment. To further promote eco-friendliness and sustainability, charging fees for licenses or passes to access state parks can be an effective strategy. Higher fees may even dissuade tourists from visiting certain areas altogether. Revenue generated from these fees can be allocated towards the cleanup of trash in these locations and the maintenance of the land.
Ecotourism can contribute to environmental preservation through increased awareness and education. There is not one law or policy that can prevent the degradation of the environment by tourists; however, multiple tactics can be used in conjunction with one another to reduce negative impacts on ecosystems and wildlife. It is imperative that any policy recommendations address natural and cultural values, as well as strengthen preventative protection.
Despite the advantages that come with the idea of ecotourism, it is essential to acknowledge that it is still a form of tourism. As such, the over-tourism it may generate could have adverse effects on the ecosystems of relatively untouched areas of the world, particularly since ecotourism may attract more visitors to lesser-known destinations. Tourists can get involved in supporting ecotourism by making conscious choices when planning their trips and while traveling, as well as spreading awareness of the benefits of conservation and environmental sustainability. They can also support proposed legislation by contacting their local government representatives and voicing their support for ecotourism initiatives, as well as writing letters and signing petitions to support bills aimed at promoting ecotourism. Additionally, tourists can support non-profit organizations working towards sustainable tourism in their travel destinations. Raising awareness about ecotourism is crucial for ensuring a sustainable future.
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