The word “sustainable” is a bit of a buzzword, evoking images of wind turbines, solar panels, and barefoot hippies eating locally grown kale. While the idea of living in a way that doesn’t compromise the future is gaining traction in business, academia and politics, it has long been a cornerstone of Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiians have always stressed “Aloha a malama ka aina,” for in return the land will love and take care of you. For people who depended on the natural environment to live, this was an intuitive notion; recklessness and wastefulness would spell certain disaster. The love and appreciation for the land was as much a spiritual connection as it was an economic reality.

Here’s the problem: The economic reality of Hawaii today is that we depend almost singularly on tourism, with nearly six times more visitors than residents coming to Hawaii every year. Those visitors provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and inject millions of dollars into the local economy – all well-tread information.

As Hawaii progressively strides in the direction of sustainability, it begs the question: Is there such a thing as sustainable tourism?

Hanauma Bay, Honolulu, HI

Hanauma Bay has been doing it right for years through a combination of education and limitation on use of the premier snorkeling location.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

By nature, tourism seems inherently exploitative, especially in Hawaii where the natural beauty of the landscape itself is the attraction. Coming from Kailua, almost everyone I know has lived on the same block as a “revolving door residence,” where houses are rented out for weeks or months at a time for tourists to come, stay, party and leave. Not to mention the steady stream of tour buses unloading waves of visitors on the beach. It is no surprise to see such constant human activity result in the deterioration of Hawaii’s coastal environments.

The erosion of the shoreline and destruction of the coral reef in Kailua have been greatly exacerbated — if not outright caused — by people. I would not be the least surprised to hear similar situations happening across the state.

This is not to paint all visitors as reef-killing maniacs who don’t care about the environment, or to exclude residents from any culpability, but large-scale human activity in and around nature inevitably becomes harmful. Statistically speaking, there are more visitors to Hawaii than residents, which places much of the blame on their shoulders.

So how do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory notions of sustainability and tourism?

I believe the answer lies in a two-pronged solution, one that Hanauma Bay has been utilizing for over a decade.

First, and most obviously, it is vital to increase education. Through years as a teacher, I have learned and relearned an important lesson: there is no such thing as common sense. Or at least, you cannot assume everyone shares the same common sense. Meaning, it is easy to take for granted the knowledge that occurs to us residents intuitively.

Starting in 1990, Hanauma Bay began to limit the total number of daily visitors. That practice has since extended to closing the park down to all visitors once a week. Both of these ideas are sensible ways to reduce the stress on ecosystems.

I have come across plenty of tourists in Kailua who were jumping out of their rented kayaks to stand on top of coral and take pictures, many of whom legitimately didn’t know that they were causing tremendous stress and damage to the life underneath them (or that coral was alive in the first place). Ideally, businesses that interact with tourists frequently — like ocean sport rentals — would use some kind of mandatory video to educate tourists about how and why to respect and be mindful of the environment around them, similar to what Hanauma Bay has done since 2002. Though it may inconvenience customers in the short-term, the health of the environment is much more important for the long-term success of their businesses.

It is that long-term, macro approach that we must keep in mind, especially when it comes to the admittedly more contentious second part of the strategy: developing and enforcing limits.

Starting in 1990, Hanauma Bay began to limit the total number of daily visitors. That practice has since extended to closing the park down to all visitors once a week. Both of these ideas are sensible ways to reduce the stress on ecosystems.

For whatever reason, public discourse and policymaking tends to dismiss the implementation of enforcing limits, perhaps because it can sometimes feel like an Orwellian infringement upon our freedom. However, there are very real limitations of nature’s ability to withstand punishment.

In 2009, a group of 26 scientists from around the world, including Nobel Laureates, developed a rubric of nine planetary boundaries for humans to operate within, in order to perpetuate Earth’s current habitability. Among these categories are land use, fresh water use and ocean acidification levels — all of which are particularly pertinent to life in Hawaii.

Resources are not unlimited. Hawaii especially must be careful about how its population allocates resources, as well as what apparatuses are in place to replenish those resources. We can only afford to take more than we give back for so long. Implementing those same limitations that Hanauma Bay has used by closing other parks, hikes, or beaches, or limiting the amount of people who can be there at one time, can help to establish a more sustainable balance. It may not be feasible everywhere, but it can certainly be applied in some places. I speak for myself when I volunteer Kailua to be a petri dish for these policies.

It is tempting to vilify those who don’t respect the delicacy of Hawaii’s natural beauty, but it is a human condition to be short-sighted. That is why a conscious effort must be made to establish limits for places that are overwhelmed by human activity. Aside from educating people and hoping for the best, I don’t see another option to build a sustainable model of tourism. It may hurt some businesses’ quarterly earnings, but it will allow those businesses to operate for the indefinite future.

Ultimately, I’m by no means the authoritative expert, and thus I only hope for earnest dialogue and decision-making to occur. For whatever solutions are brought forth, effective action will require rethinking our definition of sustainability. Sustainability does not simply mean riding your bike to the farmer’s market for groceries, or carpooling to work (though those are both good places to start).

Rather, sustainability is an analytical tool to help us understand the interaction of complex systems, both natural and man-made. At its core, sustainability is our attempt to understand the intersection of things like the climate, the economy and culture.

As a community, we should take a stand with shared goals that make sense for all stakeholders in Hawaii’s future. That is, goals for residents and tourists alike, for environmentalists and small businesses. We cannot completely forsake the environment for business, or business for the environment, but I believe we can compromise to find solutions.

Sometimes, it is better to bend a little to avoid breaking completely.

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