For Trilogy Excursions, it started in 2010 when the crew that works its catamarans mentioned that they had been doing trash cleanups on land through the Surfrider Foundation.
"They were seeing so much pollution, and they wanted to do more than land-based cleanup," said Magen Schifiliti, Trilogy's conservation and education director. "They asked if we could take out our catamarans and do underwater reef cleanups with a donation to Surfrider."
Trilogy started with some small groups in 2010 and built up the program in the following years. At first, volunteers' time was mostly occupied with trash collection, and they found plenty. After years of returning to the same reefs for cleanup, less litter is being collected, Schifiliti said.
"After the tsunami hit Japan in 2011 we were getting a lot of debris here for years afterward," she said. "We found a car battery, tires, big pieces of metal, big plastic industrial containers with Korean writing on them, all kinds of stuff. … Now we mostly find cigarette butts around the beach and small debris in the water, things like fishing equipment, plastic food wrappers, coffee cups."
Today, Trilogy holds an ocean cleanup excursion once a month. Participants pitch in $30 to cover the costs of taking the boat out, get a lesson in ocean ecology and conservation and then dive into the drink to complete their assignment. Sometimes they may pick up litter on the seafloor, while on other outings the volunteers may collect data on a specific reef.
The addition to Trilogy's lineup of more typical tourist excursions, like sunset sails and whale-watching outings, is reflective of increasing interest in sustainable, eco-friendly tourism.
The United Nations declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. In Honolulu, the main focus of the Hawaii Tourism Authority's annual Global Tourism Summit in September was sustainable tourism.
A 2016 TripAdvisor survey found 66% of U.S. respondents are interested in ecofriendly travel, and roughly three-quarters agree that a property's ecofriendly practices are important when booking their stay. Those numbers have been steadily rising over the last decade, and younger travelers are even more inclined to favor a sustainability-minded option. A 2015 Nielsen online study of consumer trends found three out of four millennials is willing to pay more for a sustainable product or service.
"Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today's youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power-spending millennials of tomorrow, too," Grace Farraj, Nielsen senior vice president of public development and sustainability, said at the time.
In Hawaii the need for the tourism industry to work as responsible stewards of the environment has hit home in the last few years. The coral reefs around the islands have been impacted by coral bleaching three years in a row. Bleaching occurs when water temperatures are high, causing the colorful photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral, zooxanthellae, to flee. The coral turn white, and, if temperatures do not drop quickly enough, the reefs may die. Meanwhile, the Aloha State continues to set visitor records year over year, attracting 800,000 visitors per month.
"That's a huge amount of people coming to our islands," said Monica Salter, vice president for corporate communications at Outrigger Hotels and Resorts. "At the same time it's an incredible opportunity for the hotels to engage with tourists, educate them on the issues and say, 'While you're here, be sure to take care of the oceans.'"
The Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort’s Voyager 47 Club Lounge.
In June 2015, during World Oceans Month, the company started Ozone, a variety of initiatives and programming at all Outrigger-branded resorts that provides education and volunteer opportunities focused on ocean conservation. The activities include coral planting in Fiji, snorkeling expeditions with marine biologists in the Maldives and tours of a marine rehabilitation center in Thailand. In Hawaii, the company has partnered with the Waikiki Aquarium for discounted admission for guests and operates educational excursions, such as swimming with sea turtles.
"With more than 60% of the world's coral reef depleting under immediate threat from climate change, land-based pollution and unsustainable fishing, Ozone is Outrigger Resorts' action plan that encourages our guests and our hosts to become part of the solution," Salter said.
In addition to bleaching, other stressors, such as pollution, agricultural runoff and human disturbances, can make it more difficult for the coral to recover. New research indicates a particular UV-absorbing ingredient common in sunscreens, oxybenzone, can poison coral in multiple ways. It contributes to bleaching, hinders reproductive growth and causes coral deformities.
On Earth Day 2017, Aqua-Aston Hospitality launched "For Our Reef," a multitiered program dedicated to protecting the state's reefs and environmental conservation in general. Aqua-Aston installed reef-safe sunscreen dispensers on their properties, offered sunscreen trade-ins and organized beach cleanups and awareness campaigns.
"We saw it as a problem that may detract from tourism," said Theresa van Greunen, Aqua-Aston Hospitality's director of public relations and promotions. "As one of the largest hotel management companies in the state, we saw an amazing opportunity to raise public awareness and let people know what they can do to prevent coral bleaching from getting any worse."
Aqua-Aston Hospitality has also started several waste, energy and water reduction initiatives and is re-evaluating its properties to find further efficiencies.
Outrigger Hotels and Resorts has its own branded, reef-safe sunscreen and has vigorously explored ecofriendly strategies, such as low-energy lighting and recycling bins in all guestrooms.
At other properties, guests have more opportunities than ever to engage with the science behind conservation and deepen their knowledge. At the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on Hawaii Island, a team of naturalists and marine biologists have introduced a series of ecofriendly measures and lead an array of programs and activities based around environmental conservation. A pond at the golf course doubles as an oyster farm, and the staff has restored fish ponds and anchialine pools on the property. Programs include several nature tours, a junior marine biologist course, snorkeling lessons from a marine biologist and the opportunity to "rent a marine biologist," an hourly rate for a scientist to accompany you on any ocean activity.
"It's growing more and more, and word is getting out," said David Chai, director of natural resources at the Four Seasons Hualalai. "When we first started we didn't have a lot of programs for guests and my role was mostly maintaining things. But guests started to show real interest in these things, environmental programs and fish feeding."
Outside of the resorts and hotels there are numerous environmental tourism and volunteer opportunities that take travelers close to Hawaii's natural beauty. Visitors who plant a koa or sandalwood tree in the Hawaiian Legacy Forest on the Hamakua Coast on Hawaii Island can follow the growth of their tree over the years using the reforestation initiative's TreeTracker online service. Each tree in the 1,200-acre forest has a radio-frequency identification tag linked to the application, allowing tree sponsors to track its growth.
At Trilogy Excursions, the Blue Aina volunteer excursions have continued to evolve. They are typically held the first Sunday of the month, and a company will sponsor the trip with a $1,000 donation to an ocean conservation organization. Then, Trilogy partners with a different nonprofit or scientific group conducting research or conservation activities for each outing. Sometimes the focus might be on migrating whales, and other times it will be on cataloging coral.
To date the volunteer conservationists have removed 2,500 pounds of debris from the coast and waters and raised $60,000 for local nonprofits.
"I think volunteer tourism is a new up and coming thing," Trilogy's Schifiliti said. "For the younger generation, they don't want to just sign up for your average tour, they are looking for something more local and meaningful."