Rebooting tourism in paradise with purpose

By Chris Barzman

Sustainable Tourism Consultant & Principal Barzman Consulting

As tourism re-starts and visitors begin to return to the Hawaiian Islands, after more than a year-long absence, there is a ground swell from the local community to re-evaluate our model to make a concerted effort to position tourism as a force for the greater good of the community.

The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s new President, John DeFries, the first Native Hawaiian to hold the chief executive position at HTA, has set the course for Hawai‘i’s visitor industry to 'Mālama Kuʻu Home' or 'care for my beloved home' and has pivoted the conversation from maximizing arrivals and revenue, to destination management and regenerative tourism.

One of the organizations helping to lead this movement is the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai‘i (STAH).

Having championed the idea of responsible tourism since 1996, the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai‘i is proudly celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Incorporated as a 501(c)3* non-profit organization, STAH has been run and supported by volunteers from Hawai‘i’s tourism industry with a passion for preserving Hawai‘i for future generations. STAH’s mission is to protect Hawai‘i’s unique, natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel and education programs relating to sustainable tourism for residents, businesses, and visitors.

One of STAH’s most visible programs is the Sustainable Tour Operator Certification Program, which requires companies to:

  1. Operate in the most environmentally sustainable possible.

  2. Educate their guests about the environment & host culture.

  3. Honor the host culture.

  4. Give back to the community.

  5. Continually improve.

Although certification was identified as a goal as early as 2001, it got its true start as a pilot program in 2011 when the Hawai‘i Tourism Association (HTA) agreed to fund the project and STAH, then known as the Hawai‘i Ecotourism Association, successfully developed the program and certified 13 tour operators across the state.

Certification Seal

Over the next 4 years, STAH continued to refine the criteria, and its evaluation methods into the present program which exists today. As of 2020, Hawai‘i has 40 operators certified in all the 4 counties statewide. The certification is used as a measure for sustainable tourism by Hawai‘i Green Growth, a Local 2030 Hub of the United Nations and remains the only third-party sustainable tour operator certification in the United States.

STAH’s certification program provides companies with a baseline and action plan for continued improvement to become more sustainable, and it allows consumers to compare products and make sound decisions about responsible travel. The goal is to have consumers know which companies are going above and beyond and then have those tour operators compete on their sustainable practices. In 2019, Certified Tour Operators and their guides interacted with more than 20% of all of the visitors to Hawaiian islands.

Some examples of sustainable practices that tour operators have demonstrated include everything from the lower hanging fruit, such as making sure all guides have in-depth cultural training and conducting beach clean-ups prior to each tour, to harder to achieve practices such as organizations that plant endemic species of trees while on tour or going 100% locally sourced vegan in their food offerings with all food waste being composted. Additionally, each year the participants gather to meet, celebrate leaders and share ideas at STAH’s annual Hālāwai (awards ceremony).

Sea Quest Hawaii

STAH also works together with other green/sustainable programs such as the Hawai‘i Green Business Program, NOAA’s Dolphin SMART program, and the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant program to help cross-promote best practices across the various industries which are utilized in the visitor sector. The collaboration is global as well, having formalized a partnership with the global certification program, Travelife, an accredited certifier of standards for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. In this way Hawai‘i continues to refine and improve its certification process to align with global initiatives like the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Hawaii Forest & Trail

Bike Hawaii

There is a Hawaiian saying “E hele me ka pu‘olo”, which roughly translates to "make every person, place or condition better than you left it and it is with this spirit in mind that STAH continues to go about supporting responsible tourism looks forward to another 25 years of providing resources and education to those in the visitor industry that want to make Hawaii the best destination possible for both visitors and residents alike.

* Exempt from federal income tax. It is one of the 29 types of 501(c) nonprofit organizations in the US.

About Chris Barzman

I joined Skål International in 2017 and currently sit on the Planning Committee for our Meetings & Events. In 2019, in support of the North American Skål International Congress, my team provided concierge services for arriving guests and I was a panelist for the Educational Program: Ecotourism, Voluntourism, Cultural Tourism, speaking alongside the current CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. I also had the pleasure to be a guest speaker for a Skål International Vancouver meeting in April where I shared about Hawaii's pandemic recovery plan and progress. Being a part of the organization has opened up a number of opportunities for me and I've made some really great friends along the way too.