ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kalani Oceanside Retreat in Pahoa on the Big Island operates its nonprofit educational programs and accommodations with an almost exclusively volunteer staff. There are only about five full-time staff members as opposed to about 90 volunteers.
Kalani Oceanside Retreat based on sustainability
» ‘VolunTourism’ provides enriching experience
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 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.
"Spreading goodwill among our local community has always been at the core of Hawaii Superferry's culture and we were delighted to participate in Habitat for Humanity's home-building project on Maui," said Lani Olds, Hawaii Superferry's director of customer experience and community relations. "We have also used our resources to help build volunteer efforts for Special Olympics, the Boys and Girls Club, the American Cancer Society, Project Vision and many other nonprofits. It's all about sustainability and about giving back and keeping Hawaii enriched."
Sustainability has been the foundation of Kalani Oceanside Retreat's business model for more than 30 years. Kalani uses almost entirely volunteer labor to operate its nonprofit educational center that celebrates Hawaii, nature, culture and wellness.
The ratio of volunteers to paid staff is about 90 to 5, said volunteer coordinator Michael Salita, who was a San Francisco bartender before coming to Kalani six years ago to do a one-month volunteer stint.
"I loved it so much that I never left," Salita said. "It's just a really good way for visitors to see Hawaii up close and personal."
It costs volunteers $1,000 and 20 hours a week of labor to live at Kalani for one month. For $1,500 and a 30-hour-a-week commitment, volunteers can stay three months. During their stay, volunteers who lend their cooking, landscaping, maintenance, building or housekeeping talents to the operation have access to Kalani classes and activities and get discounts on workshops and body work such as spa and wellness treatments.
"You can come to Hawaii and be on vacation and have the waiters wait on you in restaurants with fine white table cloths or you can sit down at a table with 20 people who are interested in your story," Salita said, adding that visitors from all over the world wind up at Kalani.
Volunteering provides visitors to Hawaii with a more personal experience than they would get on a conventional vacation, he said.
"It's about building community within the greater world and making connections and deeper friendships with other people who are looking to fill their lives with something more," Salita said.
Of course, the experience is not for everyone, he said.
"It's very rustic," Salita said. "Our volunteers sleep in tents or dormlike accommodations."
Visitors must all be broad-minded enough to accept the retreat's emphasis on diversity and a clothing-optional swimming pool.
While Kalani is a nonprofit within the accommodations industry, other nonprofits in Hawaii such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary also have benefited from partnerships within the industry. Outrigger Hotels & Resorts is currently advertising ocean-watch volunteer packages designed to bring visitors a more authentic experience and to help preserve Hawaii's marine resources, said MaryLou Foley, the public relations manager for Outrigger's Waikiki beachfront hotel division.
"It's an important way for Outrigger to help preserve and protect the natural resources that make Hawaii such a sought-after destination," Foley said.
Christine Brammer, programs coordinator, for NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said that she is thankful that Outrigger is stepping up their volunteer commitment to her organization.
"We've worked with them in the past, but this is on a larger scale than before," Brammer said.
Each year several hundred visitors and thousands of locals volunteer their time to assist with the organization's whale-watch counts, Brammer said.
"They are a valuable resource," she said, adding that volunteers are essential in conducting the sanctuary's annual Ocean Count event.
Volunteers monitor sanctuary waters for signs of humpback whale activity, help record whale behaviors , complete a site map, and contribute to public awareness about whale-watch opportunities around the islands, Brammer said
"The majority of participants are local residents. However, expanding interest has brought us calls from the mainland, Australia and beyond," Brammer said. "This is a rare opportunity for visitors to safely get up close to humpback whales and assist us at the same time."