The beauty of Hawaii, focusing on respect

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In Hilo, for instance, the Soul Community Planet Hilo Hotel uses energy-efficient systems, including solar power, and is on track to achieve net-zero waste by the end of this year. Guests automatically support the Hawaii Wildlife Fund when they stay at the hotel. The fund works to preserve Hawaii’s native species, keep its beaches clean and educate people on the environment. (Tourists can check the fund’s website for ways to volunteer.)

I, however, was headed to Kailua-Kona, which is convenient to sandy beaches and good snorkeling. So, from Kulaniapia, I took the free Hele-On bus to Kailua-Kona (a nearly four-hour drive) and checked into the newly renovated Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, a Courtyard by Marriot property. I chose it because it was on the beach and within walking distance to restaurants, museums and bars. But I was also drawn to the cultural work happening inside.

The lobby and common areas of a chain hotel might seem to be an unlikely place to learn about Hawaii’s history, but cultural preservation and education are an increasingly important part of many chain hotels’ efforts, including this one. In addition to paintings by Herb Kāne, an artist and historian whose work focuses on Hawaiian history and seafaring traditions, there are traditional crafts on display. The sprawling lobby also houses the Kai Opua Canoe Club’s 40-foot canoe made from a koa tree, which is endemic to Hawaii.

A few days a week, local business owners are invited to sell their products inside the hotel, an effort that began in the wake of the pandemic. Guiding guests to local experiences is part of an ongoing effort by hotel leaders around the islands.

Among the businesses suggested to me was Fair Wind Cruises. In the 1970s, Michael and Janet Dant began offering snorkeling tours in the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay. A few years later, their son Puhi and his wife, Mendy, bought the company and have continued offering these tours and added others, including manta ray tours.

In its earliest days, Fair Wind, like most tour providers, was focused on simply showing people a good time. Today, educating people about the island’s history, the region’s nature and how to protect it is at the center of how the business is run.

“We are embracing our host culture and respecting it more, and part of that is making sure travelers are being educated about what’s going on with the environment,” Mendy Dant told me. “We want to show people that our coral isn’t what it was 20 years ago, that there is a thoughtful way to be here and to interact with people and nature.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, tour participants were given reef-safe sunscreen — or, as our captain put it, “as reef-safe as possible” — upon checking in for a 3-1/2-hour snorkeling trip.

On board the custom-built power catamaran, which ran on biodiesel fuel, we drank from reusable cups and were told not to touch marine life — and to use the bathroom on board, not the ocean. We were served fresh fruit, including Hawaii’s famed pineapples and chips made from uala, Hawaiian sweet potatoes. All food waste, we were told, is composted at one of the Dants’ farms.

After an hour of motoring across ultra-calm waters in shades of blue, green and turquoise, we neared Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. The bay is not accessible by car, only by foot or by boat.

After anchoring, I spent at least 10 minutes deciding whether or not to make the 15-foot jump into the water from the boat or to ease myself in from the stairs. Embarrassed by the crew members and strangers in the water urging me to jump, I finally did it, and then did it twice more, thus adding points to my outdoor girl status. The reward in this instance was pure beauty. Through my mask, I saw fish everywhere I looked: Tang fish, striped Moorish idols, yellow longnose butterfly fish. The area’s coral, which we were told to keep our distance from, lay below in shades of pink, purple and white.

EMBRACING THOUGHTFUL TOURISM

Many things are true about tourism in Hawaii: The islands are full of tourists; the islands need tourism; tourists are often disrespectful. That lack of respect has created a great deal of tension between visitors and residents for decades.

In 2019, when a record 10.4 million people visited the islands, a breaking point was reached. By the time the pandemic hit, locals were relieved to have their home to themselves.

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