Green Travel Hawaii

Is Marine Tourism in Hawaii Sustainable?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my final term paper for one of my university courses. My paper focuses on marine tourism in the Hawaiian islands and whether or not it’s a sustainable practice. When I had originally picked my topic I thought for sure I would be arguing in favour of marine tourism in Hawaii being sustainable; after all, I’d participated in many marine tourism activities during my trips to the islands and hadn’t seen any prominent issues. I’ll be honest and say I was definitely a little bias going on this paper, as I really didn’t want to say anything bad about the place I loved do much. But, low and behold, the research and science do not lie. Through my weeks of reading through academic journals and scientific studies conducted on the five main islands, I realised that sustainability is a huge issue for marine tourism on the islands.

I’ve decided to share some bits and piece from my term paper with you today, in order to share my findings and hopefully open your eyes to some of the sustainability issues within the tourism industry.

This post is going to be a little bit longer, and because this was pulled almost directly from my term paper, have a more academic tone. I’ve included some sources at the bottom of the page for anyone interested in during their own research further. Thank you for reading! 

Exploring the Sustainability of Marine Tourism in the Hawaiian Islands  

The Hawaiian Islands comprise a secluded archipelago that includes the largest reef area in the United States, making it a popular tourist destination for over seven million visitors annually. This number of tourists has increased 65% over the last 20 years and is only expected to continue to rise. Over 80% of these tourists participate in marine tourism activities throughout the five main islands; Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, and Lanai. Marine tourism includes active activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as passive activities such as dolphin and whale encounters on boats. This paper will explore the sustainability of these marine tourism activities in the Hawaiian Islands. In order to do that, we must first define the term “sustainability”; the United States Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as “the ability to meet our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. Keeping in mind this definition of sustainability, this paper will argue that marine tourism in the Hawaiian Islands is an unsustainable practice because of the limited regulation on marine tourism expansion, the harmful effects on coral reefs and marine life, and the lack of behavior changes that environmental education is inspiring.

Overdevelopment and Limited Regulation

Over the years there has been little management or regulation of tourism expansion in the Hawaiian Islands, which has raised an ethical concern for marine tour operators. Many tourism industry leaders see overdevelopment as one of the greatest tourism-related environmental concerns for Hawaii. The increasing number of marine tourism operators in Hawaiian waters has led to mass amounts of ocean pollution and marine debris, which pose a danger to Hawaiian sea life, as well as land animals such as birds. Studies have found evidence of dead and injured birds, turtles stranded on land, and disturbances to migratory routes of tuna and whales, all as a result of mass pollution in the ocean. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Hawaii’s most remarkable natural assets, is slowly being degraded by mass amounts of pollution resulting from overdevelopment and an increase in tourist populations. This area is famous for its biodiversity and is home to multiple species of turtles, seabirds, fish, invertebrates, coral, and plankton; however marine debris has already begun contaminating the area, threatening the integrity of the entire monument.

As the industry has become so saturated and more competitive, even companies claiming “green practices” have been observed cutting corners and participating in harmful behaviors such as dumping food scraps overboard, feeding fish, and harassing or removing marine life. An investigative study into these “green” marine tourism operators uncovered that many operators were hesitant to enforce their green policies or correct harmful behaviour by tourists in fear of losing tips. One operator was quoted as saying “we let guests get away with things like touching sea life and kicking corals, because if we say something we risk upsetting the guest and losing our tip, or even worse receiving a bad review online”. It is important to note that in Hawaii, marine tourism operators are heavily dependent on customer reviews and receive a lot of their clientele through word of mouth; thus operators are generally willing to let guests do whatever they want if it ensures a good review – even if their behaviour is harmful.

Putting Marine Life at Risk

The biggest selling feature of marine tourism is the opportunity for up-close encounters with marine life which pose an incredible risk to the animal. Even passive activities such as whale or dolphin watching from a boat can have a long-lasting impact on these animals. Vocalization is the primary sense of cetaceans and is used to communicate, navigate, and locate prey. These vocalization patterns are altered by the presence of tour boats. In humpback whales, this can affect the song phase and duration leading to animal stress and confusion. Sleeping spinner dolphins are also affected by these excursions from boats. Spinner dolphins feed off-shore at night and return to sheltered bays and coastlines during the day to rest and tend to their young. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to tour boats. Operators offering dolphin sighting excursions often target these bay areas because they know dolphins will be sleeping here. This interrupts crucial rests periods for dolphins, which leads to dolphin aggression and leaves them fatigued and more susceptible to prey later on. This has also been a source of long-term stress and anxiety for spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Although the state of Hawaii has a law restricting boats from coming within 45 meters of resting dolphins, this has still proven to be close enough to have a harmful impact on the animals. Hawaii has many other marine species that are also protected under state law and the Endangered Species Act and Marine Protection Act. However, these policies are ignored in order to impress guests; for example, by removing an octopus from its resting place and making it ink. Touching a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is punishable by law under the Endangered Species Act and Hawaiian state law, however, many tourists are either unaware or indifferent to this law, and punishment usually is not carried out in these circumstances.

Damaging Coral Reefs

One of the most frequently observed damaging behaviours by tourists is the kicking, stepping on, and sitting on of coral reefs. Coral reefs are one of the most ecologically diverse, valuable, and productive systems on the planet, however, their destruction is often overlooked because the immediate social and financial returns from the destructive practices often outweigh the long-term benefits of coral reef conservation. Studies conducted on Oahu showed that over 30% of marine tourism businesses offered introductory diving for non-certified participants, which involved placing inexperienced divers directly into reef locations. These divers are unfamiliar with diving and thus unsure how to maintain buoyancy, which results in them constantly kicking or touching fragile coral. Underwater cameras are also overlooked as a threat to coral reefs when scuba diving or snorkeling, inexperienced divers and camera users can damage coral reefs when they become distracted and lose their balance.

Conservation Education

While marine tourism does cause negative impacts such as crowding and pollution, it is also capable of fostering environmental awareness that may help facilitate protection of marine mammals and other species; this is one of the main arguments in defense of the sustainability of marine tourism. The industry aims to provide environmental education that promotes knowledge, skills, and a commitment to work towards environmental problems. However, few of these marine tour operators provide the type and depth of information that causes tourists to change their lifestyle and adopt more conservation-orientated behaviors. Studies examining environmental education in marine tourism settings found that the information presented is selectively distorted to omit harsh realities and rarely translates to environmental cognitions or behaviours. Tourists engaging in these types of marine tourism activities claim wanting a valuable, educational experience; but after their trip commences, this does not translate to action. For example, a study done at a sea turtle beach surveyed 452 visitors regarding their stance on marine conservation after their interaction with the sea turtles. Only 18% of respondents recognized the need for behaviour change and only 9% reported adopting new behaviours like donating money or telling others about conservation issues. The eye-opening experience at the sea turtle sanctuary only extends as far as their social media; never into real life action. The success of educational efforts for visitors in the future will depend on appropriate management of marine animal encounters and interpretation programs integrating knowledge.

So, what do we do?

A survey of local Hawaii residents showed that people ranked restricting the number of people as the number one solution to preventing or minimizing coral reef damage across all marine areas on the islands. Many other solutions have been suggested such as spatial zoning, user fees, site rehabilitations, and the advertising of alternative sites. However, regardless of what lawful regulations are put in place, the outcomes of marine tourism sustainability will ultimately depend on values; nothing will change if people don’t care. Considering the state of our oceans, it is more important now than ever that people care enough to exercise sustainable practices in marine tourism. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 80% of the world’s coral reefs are in danger and 15% have already been permanently destroyed. With no sight of marine tourism activities stopping or slowing down, it’s time to find solutions to execute them sustainably, without causing any further harm to oceans. Tourism in Hawaii also represents 17% of gross state product. Should marine tourism and human activity continue to have such a detrimental impact on our oceans, there may soon be no marine tourism industry in Hawaii, which would be devastating to the state’s economy. In a larger perspective, quite simply if the oceans die, we die. The oceans are Earth’s biggest carbon sink and without it, life on earth cannot survive. Industries like marine tourism with such an impact, and also such a voice, need to be change makers and pave the path for a more sustainable future.

In conclusion, while marine tourism may have honourable intentions to expose people to new experiences and educate them, the externalities of this industry is doing more harm than good. The lack of regulation has caused rapid expansion that is leading to overcrowding and mass pollution, marine life and coral reefs are shouldering the burden of marine tourism activities, and the education provided through marine tourism operators is not enough to provoke long-term behaviour changes.



Marine Wildlife and Tourism Management: In Search of Scientific Approaches to Sustainability. 

Diel and Spatial Patterns in the Singing Behavior of Humpback Whales off Oahu, Hawaii.

The Rise of Coastal and Marine Tourism.

Waikiki homeless, overdevelopment top concerns for Hawaii tourism leaders, straw poll finds.

Encounters, Norms, and Crowding at Six Coastal Marine Areas in Hawaii.

Situational Influences on Normative Evaluations of Coastal Tourism and Recreation Management Strategies in Hawaii.

Value orientations toward coral reefs in recreation and tourism settings: a conceptual and measurement approach. 

Hawaii’s Real Life Marine park: Interpretation and Impacts of Commercial Marine Tourism in the Hawaiian Islands.

Education and Conservation Benefits of Marine Wildlife Tours: Developing Free-Choice Learning Experiences.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Rosie March 18, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    This was a really interesting read, thank you for sharing it. What really shocked me was that tourists had been observed damaging coral reef, and that companies let tourists get away with harming the environment because their business was more important. As you pointed out, some of it could be prevented by not putting inexperienced divers near coral reefs, but I can’t imagine why some people would sit on, kick, or stand on it. It leaves me speechless. When I was in Canada last year, there were signs up asking people to stick to the trail to allow vegetation to grow, and so many people ignored it to get “the perfect photo” and it made my blood boil. I don’t care how many likes you’re going to get on Instagram, get back on the path and stop trampling the vegetation!

    It’s hard to know how to solve a problem like this, but I think education is a big part of it. I think it’s easy for people to visit places like that and get excited about the beautiful scenery and the wildlife, without thinking about damage or the environment because it’s so beautiful and amazing that it probably doesn’t even cross their minds. I think education could help a lot, not just for tourists while they’re visiting Hawaii (or any other location) but maybe it would be encouraged to think about what they can do to protect the environment as a whole.

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