Volunteering on Vacation

Kipuka Olowalu Taro Patch

Most workdays, Kia‘i Collier is busy removing invasive species, replanting native plants, and restoring the environment for native birds on land where two Native Hawaiian villages once prospered. But Collier, a field supervisor at the Hawai‘i Land Trust’s Waihee Refuge, recently took up another role, starring in an educational video for the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA) to encourage tourists to volunteer during their stay. “If you say you love or enjoy Hawai‘i, you think it’s beautiful, you know you can also contribute to help to keep the place beautiful. And if you have a part in that, that’s something that lasts generations,” Collier says in the video as a group of tourists snorkel over a reef.

One recent morning after clearing out an invasive weed from California, Collier explained why he participated in the Malama Hawaiʻi video campaign. “The initiative educates and teaches tourists about the area and their sense of place,” he said. “It lets them know there’s really a deep and rich culture in Hawaiʻi.” By helping to restore a culturally significant area, Collier hopes visitors will develop a reverence for Maui and Native Hawaiian culture. “If people are able to connect to the ʻaina, culture, and the native people of the area, it’s more memorable for them,” he said. “It’s something they’ve never experienced before.” 

Every Friday, the Waihee Refuge’s weekly volunteer day, Collier sees one to three tourists show up to work. “I’ve noticed the tourists that come out have been to Hawaiʻi multiple times,” he said. “They’re tired of only staying at the hotel.” When Cornelia Foster, a 70-year-old retired banker, first traveled to Maui to visit her sister, a Wailea resident, she was looking to volunteer with a group protecting native bird habitats, as she does back home in San Francisco. “Engagement brings obligation, responsibility, and ownership,” she said. In August, Foster made her fifth trip to Maui and returned to the Waihee Refuge for her fourth time since 2004.

With the reawakening of the tourism industry this summer, congested roads and displays of wildlife harassment have raised tensions and led to a decrease in resident support for tourism. A recent HTA resident sentiment survey shows the percentage of residents who feel that “tourism provides more benefits than problems” has fallen from 80% in 2010 to about 53% in 2021. 

In June, HTA partnered with the Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) to release its video of Collier in a series featuring efforts in aquaculture, reforestation, and sustainable farming. While the HTA videos are part of a marketing strategy, they do highlight opportunities for visitors to participate in conservation work, so-called “regenerative tourism.” While most travelers come to Maui to experience pristine beaches, vibrant coral reefs, and tropical rainforests, regenerative tourism aims to restore or revitalize the environment and culture through volunteer efforts.

The Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau recently created the position of destination manager to support regenerative tourism activities as well as interact with the local community and manage the county’s highly trafficked areas. Meagan DeGaia assumed the role in August. “There is a plethora of nonprofit organizations here in Maui Nui who can be brought into the fold who can directly benefit from our islands’ visitors.” Meagan DeGaia said in an email. “I’ll have the opportunity to also be a part of identifying and improving upon our islands’ residents’ quality of life while improving visitor experiences.”

The Kanu Hawaiʻi’s 2019 State of Volunteerism report stated that the annual number of tourists was just under 10 million in 2018, significantly exceeding the resident population of 1.4 million. If just 1% of those visitors volunteered, then local communities would have an additional 100,000 pairs of hands in a state that the Corporation for National and Community Service ranked as one of the worst in the nation for resident volunteer participation. 

And support from volunteers is indispensable for many nonprofit organizations. Ua Aloha Maji, a cultural practitioner at Kipuka Olowalu, said the land would not be as far along without volunteers. “We’d be fighting from behind.” 

This summer Maji hoped that all commercial flights to the islands would run a 10- to 15-minute video that encouraged more tourists to volunteer during their stay and go beyond resort lu‘au shows to experience Hawaiian culture. Regardless of whether tourists volunteer, Maji said that something ultimately needs to remind them to be considerate to the environment, wildlife, and community. 

In September, Maji’s proposal came to fruition. Hawaiian Airlines debuted an in-flight video urging passengers to “Travel Pono”—to safely and responsibly explore the islands—before arriving in Hawaiʻi. The five-minute video plays on in-flight entertainment systems, advising passengers on ocean and hiking safety, and instructing them to keep their distance from wildlife, stay out of kapu areas, and be respectful of the culture.

Out of sight from the bustling sidewalks of Front Street, beaches lined with sunbathers in Kaʻanapali, and high above Leoda’s Kitchen rests the budding nature reserve of Kipuka Olowalu. The site’s team of cultural practitioners, botanists, and field technicians work to protect the biodiversity of the valley that stretches from the mountains to the 100-acre reef below. The team implements organic farming techniques to preserve the land, reef, and agricultural methods of Native Hawaiians. And they welcome residents and tourists alike to volunteer to work in the loʻi, remove invasive species, and restore what Native Hawaiians once considered a sanctuary. 

In late July, a Girl Scout troop from Chino, California, volunteered at Kipuka Olowalu to earn a tree-planting badge. With every group of volunteers that visits Kipuka Olowalu, Maji blows a conch shell to ask for permission to enter the reserve. On the grounds, project manager Duane Sparkman shows the site’s sustainable and organic farming practices, like the lo‘i, explaining these methods are not new. Native Hawaiians created ingenious farming techniques and planted according to moon cycles, generating resources without exploiting the land.

Kipuka Olowalu Taro Patch

A California Girl Scout Troop explored the grounds at Kipuka Olowalu learning about traditional Hawaiian farming methods.

The 13 girls, ages 11 to 13, were awed by the arid terrain surrounding the wet taro patches and young green trees. Girl Scout Nala Brown was impressed that even in the absence of chemical fertilizers the area was so lush.

As the troop explored the reserve, they listened to the history of the cultural site and were introduced to a bounty of endemic plants. To earn their badge, the troop planted wiliwili, a tree endemic to Hawaiʻi. Sparkman told them they now have the responsibility of continuously caring for the land—not a burden but a commitment. 

Girl Scout Troop planting trees on Maui

As the Girl Scouts planted wiliwili trees, project manager Duane Sparkman told them, “The energy you put into this plant helps it survive. So, think about the energy you’re putting into this tree as you plant it.”

“It’s cool because we’re going to have our own tree that we grew,” Keili Hedrick, 13, said. “We can come back later and see the work we put into it.”

Lizzy Gibson, a supervisor and onsite artist said, “We want people coming away with a sense of responsibility and stewardship of the land.” Volunteers witness the relationships and fragility of these vital ecosystems in the valley. They learn how chemical fertilizers and most sunscreens enter streams, flow into the ocean, and contribute to the decline in coral reefs.

As Kipuka Olowalu’s onsite cultural practitioner, Maji has undergone the rigorous Hawaiian ʻuniki process. He explained the volunteer experience at Kipuka Olowalu expounds on Native Hawaiian culture with a “cross between botanical, scientific, and cultural knowledge.” 

In addition to Girl Scouts eager to earn a badge, Maji sees a trickle of tourists come up to Kipuka Olowalu to volunteer. “They’re up here sweating and pulling weeds. It’s not the most glamorous work, so it’s beautiful and heartwarming to see,” Maji said. 

Scott Fisher, director of ʻaina stewardship at the Hawaiʻi Land Trust, sees the Malama Hawaiʻi initiative as an opportunity to get more visitors’ hands in the soil. “Connecting people to land is really critical,” he said. “It’s the idea that people who can connect to land are more likely to advocate for its perpetual healing and stewardship.” Fisher isn’t sure how volunteer efforts will measure up against tourism’s impact on the community and environment, but, “The more people connect with the land, the deeper their love—aloha ʻaina,” he said. “That concept translates into malama ʻaina—caring for the land.”

Grace Maeda