FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ethan Chang of Outrigger Waikiki and Christine Brammer of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary show the bag containing products that will be given to eco-tourist volunteers participating in the program of whale watch counts.
‘VolunTourism’ provides enriching experience
Participants learn about the state's history and culture, and help with the environment
» Kalani Oceanside Retreat based on sustainability
STORY SUMMARY »
A new visitor industry trend called VolunTourism, which stands for volunteer tourism, has spurred guests of Hawaii to leave some of their aloha behind when they come to visit.
While working hard for a good cause does not meet everyone's definition of a vacation, more and more tourists in Hawaii and elsewhere have decided that volunteering is how they most like to spend their free time. The Travel Industry Association of America has reported that as many as 24 percent of all travelers are interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation and that interest is growing.
More than one in 10 travelers told the TIA that they were more interested in VolunTourism now as compared to five years ago. That's not surprising to David Clemmons, the founder of VolunTourism.org, who reports that volunteer projects, not just amenities, are now driving destination selection. It's not surprising to Hawaii's visitor industry, either.
Now, more than ever before in Hawaii, tourists can find plenty of opportunities to give back aloha to their kamaaina hosts and to serve as stewards of the state's precious land and water resources.
In response to consumer demand, companies like Marriott have been joined by others such as the Hawaii Superferry, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts and Starwood Hotels & Resorts to foster volunteer efforts among visitors. The Kalani Oceanside Retreat in Pahoa on the Big Island is even built upon a tourism model that uses primarily volunteer labor to operate its diverse programs.
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The Nagashima family of Mililani did not travel far for its recent summer vacation; however, combining volunteerism with its trip to Maui broadened the family's horizons further than it could have imagined.
The family took advantage of a "volun-tourist" package offered by the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and the Hawaii Superferry that offered special rates and incentives for those willing to participate in Maui's fifth annual Habitat for Humanity Build-A-Thon. For $239 per night and a commitment to work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. building homes on Maui, the family got free Superferry transportation, an oceanview room, free hotel parking, several free meals and spa discounts.
"We probably saved about $1,000 by participating in this program," said Joyce Nagashima, who spent the better part of a recent Saturday morning and afternoon moving plywood and learning to build cabinets with her 17-year-old son Christopher. Son Jared and dad Jeffrey helped the cause by staying behind at the hotel to watch 2-year-old Mia.
The special rate was enticing, but Nagashima added that it was not the deciding factor in her family's decision to participate in the program.
"My husband, Jeffrey, and I feel that an experience like this to take a vacation that combines volunteer work is an opportunity to instill good values in our children," she said. "It strengthens the family bond."
While working hard for a good cause does not meet everyone's definition of a vacation, more and more tourists like the Nagashima family in Hawaii and elsewhere have decided that volunteering is how they like to spend their free time. Consumer demand from people with similar values also has spurred Hawaii's visitor industry to begin offering more volunteer opportunities for their guests. Volunteer Tourism, sometimes called VolunTourism, is an endeavor tourism executives say is a win-win for the industry, the community and guests alike.
"People come to Hawaii because it is very unique. They are coming because we have great beaches and great hotels, but while they are here they want the opportunity to learn about our history and culture and to be stewards of our environment," said Ed Hubennette, a vice president with Marriott International.
Marriott gave more than $1.5 million in monetary donations and in-kind services to numerous nonprofit and community organizations throughout Hawaii in 2007 as part of "Marriott's Spirit to Serve" corporate program.
In addition, more than 60 Marriott associates from Maui joined the Nagashima family at the recent Habitat build on Maui. And, more often, the company has begun to see guests embracing these corporate values, too.
"Our customers have begun to ask us how they can help," Hubennette said. "As people come to visit, especially in the group environments, they want to get out of the hotels and learn about cowboys, taro and coffee and they want to participate in projects that help our community."
This trend or desire for experiential travel that lets consumers mitigate the impact of their visitor footprint is even driving destination selection, he said.
"Our customers are beginning to ask us how environmentally aware and eco-conscious that we are," he said. "They want to know that we recycle and that we use energy properly and that we make sustainable purchase decisions."
Joyce Nagashima and her 17-year-old son Christopher recently vacationed on Maui to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. The family stayed at the Wailea Marriott while it worked on a "Build-A-Thon" with other volunteers. Joyce said combining a vacation with volunteer work was an opportunity to instill good values in her children. Christopher and Joyce are seen at right.
Joe Davis, general manager of the Hawaii Convention Center, said large meeting groups often see volunteer work as a necessary component of their travel experience.
"Volunteer projects help them enrich the experience for attendees," Davis said. "When someone travels to Hawaii, they want to participate in more than just the conference; they want to make a connection with the community."
Through the years, Davis said that he has seen groups participate in everything from blood drives, food donor programs and building projects. Some have even gone into the community in search of more grassroots efforts, he said.
In 2005, when Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) met in Hawaii , it raised $17,500 for HUGS, a nonprofit that supports Hawaii's medically fragile children, he said. PCMA members also donated supplies and time to a Helping Hands project at the Kalihi Community Center, Davis said.
"Many groups are committed to volunteering on this kind of scale," Davis said. "With the whole greening of meetings, there is more consideration to reducing the carbon footprint."
When VolunTourism first started, participants were picking a destination and then looking for good deeds to perform while they were there. Now, a greater percentage of volunteer tourists are looking to the quality of the projects to determine their destination, said David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org., a Web site geared to travel industry players and consumers who are looking for ways to give back to the environment and the community.
"It used to be that travelers would say, 'I've got to go to Kenya because I want to go and I want to find something to do as a volunteer while I'm there,' " Clemmons said. "Now it's different. A lot of times, the volunteer project drives the selection."
VolunTourism not only has grown in terms of importance to travelers, it also has grown in size, Clemmons said. Last year, according to a recent report from the Corporation for National and Community Service, nearly 5 million Americans chose to volunteer for projects that were more than 120 miles away from their home, Clemmons said.
"That's huge. It represents around 10 percent of the volunteering population," he said.
The good news for Hawaii is that because of its pristine and safe environment and unique culture, the destination holds much allure for these VolunTourists, Clemmons said.
"For many people who are coming to Hawaii, vacationing is not just about lying on the beach and having a mai tai anymore," Clemmons said. "They appreciate that there is a stronger opportunity for volunteer conservation projects in Hawaii than in most parts of the (U.S. mainland)."
VolunTourists want to connect to the destination in an experiential way and volunteering is a way to see sides of a destination that others might miss, he said. VolunTourism is also a way for travelers to show their appreciation for the destination, Clemmons said.
"I interviewed a couple of young women who had done a documentary on their VolunTourism trip to Hawaii," he said. "They said VolunTourism lets you bring your aloha. These tourists are bringing their aloha. They aren't just taking it."
Upcoming 'voluntourism' opportunities
The Sheraton Kauai Resort is offering tourists a chance to meet local residents by volunteering with the Sierra Club, the Kauai Monk Seal Watch, SaveKauai and the National Tropical Gardens through their "Malama Kauai" package.
VolunTourists will have an opportunity to take exploration walks with the Sierra Club Kauai or participate in beach cleanups or marine debris removal from the reefs with Save Kauai, contribute to the preservation and knowledge of tropical plants and ecosystems at the National Tropical Botanicals Garden or participate in monk seal watch counts.
The package, rate code SKEARTH, is available now until Dec. 20 with rates starting at $229 a night plus tax, subject to availability.
For more information or to make reservations, call (866) 716-8140 or visit www.sheraton-kauai.com.
Stay at the Outrigger Waikiki or Outrigger Reef and participate in a volunteer whale count to receive an eco tote of local snacks as a gift of thanks.
To book, call 1-800-OUTRIGGER and inquire about kamaaina rates. Counts take place on Jan. 31, Feb. 28 and March 28, 2009. Guests must stay during one of these dates to receive the tote (one tote per room).
For more information on whale counts, call Christine Brammer of the Hawaii Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary at 397-2651, ext. 252.
The Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas, in honor of its fifth anniversary, will offer VolunTourism packages from Sept. 22 to 26. There are no resort fees and parking is complimentary. Guests can participate in a Community Cultural Awareness Day and several community projects including: the Malama Honokawai and Taro Planting in Honokohau Valley.
Local kupuna Ed Lindsey spearheads the Malama Honokawai project where important cultural information is contained within the ruins of Honokowai Valley while cultural practitioner Kimokeo Kapahulehua plays an instrumental role in the revival of the taro patch in Honokohau Valley that has a waterfall that drops more than a thousand feet.
Additionally, the resort has planned a fundraising Hawaiian luau to benefit Na Kamalii O Ke Akua on the evening of Sept. 23.
For more information, call 866-716-8140 or visit www.westinkaanpali.com.
Hawaii Forest & Trail, a Big-Island based adventure tour company run by naturalist Rob Pacheco, offers visitors the chance to help clear invasive plant species from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Hawaii Forest & Trail has adopted one of the park's Special Ecological Areas, or SEA, and incorporates aspects of its ongoing maintenance and management into every Kilauea volcano adventure (weather permitting). Visitor volunteers gain a greater sense of ownership and understanding of Hawaii's threatened ecosystems.
Since December 2006, Hawaii Forest & Trail and guests have dedicated more than 60 hours to the preservation of the SEA by preventing the regrowth of invasive species.
For more information, call 800-464-1993 or on the Big Island, call 331-8505.