Can Voluntourism Offset the Environmental Impacts of Hawaiʻi's Growing Visitor Industry?

Dec 6, 2017

Credit Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i

Most tourists come to Hawaiʻi on vacation for rest and relaxation, but there’s a popular trend in visitors coming to Hawaiʻi to volunteer their time and labor. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi steps into the world of volunteer tourism or “voluntourism.”

20-year-old Tom Johnstone spent a day in Hawaiʻi on the beach in Kailua. Instead of surfing or snorkeling, he’s sifting sand for microplastics.

Tom Johnstone (right) volunteered his Hawai'i vacation to clean up Kailua Beach with non-profit Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“I didn’t realize how bad the whole plastic situation was here and from doing all this you can just see how much there is, and last week when I came here it’s the same amount if not more,” says Johnstone.

Johnstone is visiting from Dunedin, New Zealand. He is part of a group of tourists in Sustainable Coastlines Hawaiʻi’s Voluntourism Program. It’s an opportunity for Hawaiʻi visitors to engage in a range of volunteer activities aimed at coastal conservation.

“I’ve always been really passionate about the ocean. I do a little bit of surfing,” says Johnstone, “Yeah, I just wanted to do my part and help the environment I guess. Just do what I can to help.”

Microplastics are seen in the sand on the Kailua Beach coastline.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“Everybody uses plastic,” says Katie Ziemann, the International Volunteer Coordinator for Sustainable Coastlines Hawaiʻi.

“All of our personal hygiene products, our food packaging, our toothbrushes are all made of plastic. And a lot of it doesn’t end up in landfills,” says Ziemann, “It ends up in our oceans and it’s washing up on our beaches.”

Credit Max Pixel

Sustainable Coastlines Hawai’i is known for tackling marine debris and plastic pollution through beach clean-ups. Ziemann says tourism was an untapped labor market and that’s not all.

“It’s showing people who aren’t from here the issue so that they can go back home and share what they’ve learned,” says Ziemann.

Joanne Tusello is visiting from Ontario, Canada.

Joanne Tusello is visiting from Ontario, Canada, and decided to give up two weeks of vacation to volunteer with Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i cleaning up marine debris and plastic pollution on O'ahu's beaches.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“We at home are re-use, recycle and all that. But her saying is ‘refuse,’ like start at the top and don’t even buy this stuff,” says Tusello, “So it makes a lot of sense. It’s something I hope to take home with me.”

Voluntourism is a growing trend in the global visitor industry. International Volunteer Headquarters is a New Zealand-based travel organization connecting tourists with volunteer opportunities in over 40 destinations, including Hawai’i. The organization says over the past decade more than 80,000 travelers have volunteered on more than 200 projects.

“I volunteered in Bali. I helped rebuild school houses for the children,” says Tusello, “And I liked this one because it was doing something with the ocean. I wanted to come and meet some of the actual people that live on the island and are doing something about what’s going on here.”

Another stop on the volutourism vacation with Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i is the lo'i kalo (taro patches) in He'eia with stewards Kako'o 'Oiwi.
Credit Sustainable Coastlines Hawai'i

The week-long program also includes a beach clean-up at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge and a visit to Sustainable Coastlines Hawaiʻi’s plastics sorting facility. Volunteers also work on restoring the Heʻeia fishpond and farming the taro patches with non-profits Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi and Papahanakuaola.

Tourists from Australia volunteered their vacation to sift through sand for microplastics at Kailua Beach.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“I think something that visitors really value about this is being connected with the local community,” says Ziemann, “Get out of their comfort zones by getting in the loʻi (taro patch) and getting muddy because they are so inspired by these local people who it means so much to.”

As tourism in Hawai’i continues to grow, voluntourism allows the state’s estimated 8.9 million annual tourists to reinvest in the very thing that brought them here in the first place.