It’s not long after dawn on a late July morning in Honolulu, and my friend Julie and I are getting our workouts in early. We’re not at the gym, but at the beach, repetitively bending at the waist to pick up other people’s garbage.
Our gloved hands dig through the silky sand to find tiny bits of single-use plastics, sushi wrappers, innumerable straws and, not surprisingly, an array of face masks. The enthusiastic return of tourists to the Hawaiian Islands has been a mixed bag – refueling the local economy and breathing life into the tourism industry but also taking a toll on the environment. More people equals more trash.
Julie and I signed up for the DIY beach cleanup through a sustainability hotel package at the Prince Waikiki. The property is one of many hotels and attractions that have partnered with the Hawaiian Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau on the Mālama Hawaii initiative, which encourages visitors to help protect and preserve the land. Those who volunteer to mālama or “give back” can receive discounts, gifts and even free hotel nights, not to mention bringing some light to the dark days of the past two years.
When Julie and I checked in at the Prince Waikiki, we were given a do-it-yourself beach cleanup kit in a canvas tote containing a sturdy trash collection bag, heavy duty gloves and a gift of reusable wooden utensils to take home. The Prince also provides a fourth night free for mālama volunteers, as do a number of other properties throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including many five-star luxury resorts. We were asked to spend a few hours, on a day and time that was convenient, safely cleaning any of the beaches on the island.
If we’d stayed longer, we would have sought out additional opportunities to mālama. Volunteer experiences include habitat stewardship, sustainable farming, planting trees to aid reforestation efforts and caring for historical sites – such as cleaning, sanding, sweeping and painting the Battleship Missouri Memorial. Most of these activities are outside and COVID-safe.
“Our request is for travelers to O‘ahu to engage in, connect and understand the aloha spirit by respecting our communities and values, and caring for the very destination they are visiting,” said Noelani Schilling-Wheeler, Executive Director of the O‘ahu Visitors Bureau. “Mālama Hawai‘i allows our guests to have a more meaningful experience and bring the importance of mālama back to their own communities.”
Lisa Schumacher and her teenage son, visitors from Los Angeles, chose to participate in the Mālama Experience at O‘ahu’s Kualoa Ranch, a popular visitor attraction on the northeast shore of the island. Kualoa’s two-hour sustainable eco-adventure includes teaching participants about the importance of taro from a cultural and sustainability perspective. As part of the experience, which they paid for, Schumacher and her son waded through the black, muddy taro patches to weed the berms where taro grows.
“I liked the idea of exploring something that is relevant to the Hawaiian people,” Schumacher says. “Not only was I interested in learning about the ecological issues related to Hawaiian agriculture, but with everything that has happened this past year, I am trying to be more mindful of other people’s experiences. And I want to expose my son to being of service to others, even when we’re on vacation, and why that matters.”
Travel volunteerism – often referred to as regenerative tourism or sustainable tourism – has been on the rise over the past decade, but the pandemic appears to have reignited interest in experiences that reinforce the interconnectedness of us all.
In fact, respondents to a recent survey by Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel advisors, determined that 78 percent (eight out of 10) of their clients believe it’s important to choose hotels, cruise lines and travel companies that have a strong sustainability policy. And 82 percent of respondents say that they want to travel more responsibly as a result of the pandemic. Mālama Hawaii provides the opportunity to do just that.
As Julie and I finished our beach cleanup, a wave of satisfaction came over us and a light cleansing rain started to fall, washing away the perspiration brought on by the heat, humidity and physical activity. “That was awesome,” Julie said, “I know it was not a big effort, but I feel like it makes a difference.” That’s mālama.
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