A rock wall at the Alii loko ia fishpond. | Photo by Heather Goodman, Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority
A rock wall at the Alii loko ia fishpond. | Photo by Heather Goodman, Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority

In 2022, Visit Hawaii with Mālama in Mind

New year, new philosophy.

For decades, if not centuries, tourists have romanticized Hawaii. Fire dancers and luaus, coconut drinks and lei ceremonies became the de facto cultural experiences of this "tropical paradise," just beyond the high waterfalls and alluring beaches. And with the islands’ natural beauty sharing no rival in the Lower 48, of course mainlanders—millions of them—flocked here every year, craving their own slice of the pineapple paradise pie.

But this narrow "vacation destination" lens ignored the bigger picture of this complex state.

“If you look at the longer legacy of how tourism portrayed Hawaii and native Hawaiians, it wasn’t in a way that I think promoted mutual respect,” says Kalani Kaʻanāʻanā, Chief Brand Officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “There was this idea and this fantasy of hula maidens and grass skirts and mai tais, this paradise and playground.” As he explains, the fantasy ignored the realities of real people trying to make it through life on the islands, with an incredibly high cost of living, limited natural resources, and limited space. “It really sort of neglected the reality on the ground.”

Now that Hawaii has been declared back open for business with a number of pandemic restrictions lifted, tourism numbers are projected to bounce back to pre-Covid levels: 10.1 million annually by 2024. There are already measures in place to curb overcrowding at hotspots like Waianapanapa State Park on Maui and Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu, both now requiring reservations to enter. Some popular activities have long required reservations, like sunrise viewing at Maui’s Haleakala National Park.

But it’s the tourism authority’s new initiative that could create true impact: introducing visitors to the Hawaiian concept of mālama. It echoes something that’s been on the minds of many travelers during pandemic quarantine—how can tourism be more sustainable? How can we give back to the destinations that give to us? How can we leave the places we visit better than we found them? Turns out a word for all that has long existed in the Hawaiian language.

“‘Mālama basically means doing good,” says Kaʻanāʻanā. “In its most simple definition, it’s ‘to care for,’ for someone or something. As an Indigenous person of this place, it’s baked into our DNA and built into how we treat each other.”

Volunteers plant kalo (taro). | Photo by Heather Goodman, Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority

The mālama approach aims to educate visitors on the connection between Hawaiian culture and the precious resources the land provides, offering opportunities to give back while connecting to—and preserving—the land, or aina. “‘That which feeds us’ is one definition of aina,” says Kaʻanāʻanā. On the surface, mālama can seem like simple voluntourism, but here, it goes deeper. The opportunities are tied to protecting and restoring the islands’ environs, creating more enriching travel experiences, and allowing visitors to see a side of Hawaii they might miss if they were just lounging on pristine beaches, drink in hand. Equally important, there’s also mālama kai, or to take care of the sea, and mālama ka poe, to take care of each other.

“Tourism at its best form is reciprocal,” says Kaʻanāʻanā. “We’re really just trying to re-shape how people see us and see the Hawaiian islands: a place of deep spiritual connection, of human connection. When you understand that, you understand that traveling here is very different from other places.”

Here’s just a sample of mālama opportunities: help restore a native Hawaiian fishpond, whose bounty can sustain local farmers and fishermen; get your reforestation hands dirty by planting a tree; spend a morning cleaning up the coastline; or build trails and clear weeds. If you’re visiting soon, check the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s website for opportunities—some lasting a few hours, some a few days—and ask your accommodations about any partner programs. Over 70 hotels are currently offering incentives for giving back, from discounts to extra nights to value added to your trip.

Removing invasive grass. | Photo by Heather Goodman, Courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority

And since there might not be room for everyone who descends upon the islands to volunteer, Kaʻanāʻanā suggests donating to a nonprofit of choice. “I’ve run nonprofits,” he says, “and there are two shortages we often have: labor to get the big work done, and cash.”

Of course, mālama—and the idea of giving before you receive—isn’t just limited to Hawaii. It’s a worthwhile philosophy for travel in general. “Voluntourism is a natural concept to us because we understand that as we go places in the world, or even to other islands, we are a guest or visitor in that place,” says Kaʻanāʻanā. Start in Hawaii, but take malama with you wherever you go. It’s a bit selfish, really: Taking care of the land ultimately takes care of our own health and wellness, gives us deeper, more memorable travel experiences, and helps protect all the places we love, from Hawaii to home.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer.