FAQ

What is Ecotourism?

While different definitions of ecotourism exists, everyone agrees that ecotourism is a type of of sustainable tourism. HEA defines ecotourism as natural and cultural based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well-being of local communities.

In what range of issues are you interested?

Visitors, Travelers, Adventurers

What is Ecotourism?
Hawaii Ecotourism Association defines ecotourism as nature and culture based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well being of local communities.
How do I find a HEA Certified tour operator in Hawaii?
On this website you will find the most comprehensive listings and information about legitimate ecotours and accommodations in Hawaii. You can research this site by using our search or the Travel Pono page to find activities based on island, keywords, and categories. Contact us and one our several specialists who will put together a package for you.
Why would I use HEA's certified sustainable tourism operators versus those that are not certified?
To quote Carol Patterson’s Reinventure(R) monthly ezine, "Too often, North Americans resist spending money on a guided tour while on a domestic trip, preferring to lead themselves. Perhaps they want to save money or the environment seems too familiar to require an expert, but I’m convinced hiring a guide is the way to find the best in every destination, even the ones you think you know!"
Why is sustainable travel popular?
A significant portion of the population are interested in traveling and learning on their holidays or vacations. Another portion of the population are also interested in being more sustainable, and in their travels seek out ecotourism or sustainable travel options.  That, and they enjoy outdoor activities in cleaner areas!

Joining the HEA Ohana

Is the entire HEA Ohana listed on this site?
Yes. You will have a listing on the number one portal for Ecotourism information in Hawaii with a place for your logo and a link to your website. View all our members using our Travel Pono Planner or see our member list here
Who can join HEA's Ohana (become a member)?
Anyone can! If you are a provider such as an ecotour operator or bed and breakfast operator you will join as a Business Member. If you support the principles of ecotourism and the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, you can join as a Friends of HEA Member.  There are also categories for Student Members, Non-Profit/Government Members and a new category for Corporate Supporters.

Market & Benefits

Is there a market for this type of sustainable travel in the tourism industry?
There is a market for this type of sustainable travel, although it is not large.  Hawaii Ecotourism Association members are providing ecotours to Hawaii's visitors daily.  If all of the more than 8 million visitors to Hawaii each year wanted to do ecotourism, however, we soon would not have anything left to see. Natural and cultural resources are very fragile and many people do not understand the impacts large groups of people have on a resource. Ecotourism and sustainable travel are considered niche markets.  The people who want to lay in the sun and drink mai tai's might also love to shop, so they can utilize the paved areas, while leaving the natural areas to those who deeply appreciate nature and want to learn more details about the environment. We hope that our visitors recognize that Hawaii is a mass tourism destination, not an ecotourism destination.  We would never want Hawaii to be an ecotourism destination entirely, unless we could control the numbers of visitors and the impact to the resources.
What are the benefits to this type of holiday / vacation?
The benefit of this type of holiday is that people are learning and experiencing topics, and seeing sites, that fit their interests.  A large pre-packaged tour can never be personalized because of the commercial nature of it.  The typical tour provider is more interested in the profit than in providing an unforgettable experience to the guests, but this is not the case with an ecotour.
Can you justify the price for this type of vacation / holiday to this destination?
In Hawaii we do not have ecotourism destinations, but rather have providers of day trip activities that focus on natural and cultural resources.  Because of the impact of many people on  the natural resources, most tours are for small groups of 10 to 15 passengers.  Day trips can run from less than $100 to $500 depending on various factors.  Someone visiting Hawaii for a week or two, can plan a trip that encompasses several “ecotours”, so paying for a tour does not add that much more to the price.  We have board members who can plan personalized itineraries for visitors that provide them the planning expertise, the accommodation and the transportation that are in general less expensive than a commercial package for a vacation to Hawaii, who can tailor the itinerary to their interests and hobbies.

For Visitors

I went on a tour that I thought was really good and they are not certified. What should I do?
Mentioning your positive experience with the company on social media and urge them to seek certification. Others may agree with you, which may be the encouragement the operator needs to seek certification. The cost of becoming certification is not excessive and HEA wants visitors to know about operators that are using best management practices to support sustainable tourism. You can also email HEA at [email protected] and we will follow up with the company.
Who is the Hawaii Ecotourism Association and why are they qualified to certify tour operators?
HEA is a 401(c)3 educational non-profit who has served Hawaii for over 20 years. Our mission is to protect Hawaii’s unique natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel. The certification program was designed as a way to educate tour operators about best practices for tourism and to educate visitors about which tour operators were actually committed to those principles. Click here to see the full history of the certification process.
Why should I choose to travel with a certified tour operator?
When you travel with a certified tour operator the benefits are many!
  • Enjoy more authentic and memorable experience by choosing a tour operator that cares to create these experiences for you
  • Learn from highly trained tour guides who provide accurate insight about Hawaii’s unique culture and environment
  • Feel secure knowing that you are traveling with companies that meets or exceed all state and federal safety requirements
  • Support businesses that use best practices to protect Hawaii’s precious environmental and cultural resources
  • Gain permitted access to protected areas otherwise off-limits to other groups
  • Embrace local companies who minimize your impact and give back to the community
I’m considering an “Eco/Geen” tour, but they are not certified. What does this mean?
The certification fees for HEA are very low and the process is very inclusive, so it might be a red flag about greenwashing if the “eco” tour you are considering is not certified. The most current list of certified tour operators can be found on the Travel Pono page. Of course, plenty of great companies out there exist who do offer legitimately “eco” friendly options and if you think you’ve found one, you should encourage them get certified and join the community of tour operators committed to responsible travel. Have them contact us at: [email protected]
Who can join HEA's Ohana (become a member)?
Anyone can! If you are a provider such as an ecotour operator or bed and breakfast operator you will join as a Business Member. If you support the principles of ecotourism and the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, you can join as a Friends of HEA Member.  There are also categories for Student Members, Non-Profit/Government Members and a new category for Corporate Supporters.

General Questions

One of your Certified Tour Operators is doing something that I don’t think is sustainable, what should I do?
Email us at: [email protected] HEA’s certification is not intended to say that every tour operator is 100% sustainable. What we are doing is helping to identify tour operators that are going above and beyond to try and reduce the impacts of tourism on the natural environment; improve the community in which they work; and share a sense of place with visitors. We look at the company as a whole, particularly their management practices, to see that they have a commitment to continually improving how they operate. For example, our tour operator of the year in 2014 was Hawaiian Legacy Tours. Every tour they operate, a portion of the proceeds are donated to a local non-profit, they operate as a certified B-Corporation, and they work to reforest the Hamakua coast with native Koa trees. Nonetheless, to offer tours up the mountain and into the forest, they utilize 4 wheel drive, fuel inefficient vehicles. With limited alternatives, an emphasis on vehicle maintenance to minimize impacts, and a full portfolio of other positive actions, HEA certified this operator because overall the company uses the best management practices that are available to them.
What best management practices do you base this certification on?
The following sources of information were used to develop the ecotourism certification program:
  1. Green Globe 21 International Ecotourism Standard (Green Globe, Asia Pacific)
  2. Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program (Eco Australia)
  3. Sustainable Travel and Ecotourism Program (Sustainable Travel International)
  4. A Simple Users’ Guide to Certification for Sustainable and Ecotourism (TIES, Rain Forrest Alliance, CREST)
  5. Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria)
  6. Peer Review Process (Hawaii Ecotourism Association)
  7. Putting Traffic Lights on the Road Less Traveled: Ecotourism Certification & its potential for Hawaii (Wendy Bauckham, 2005)
  8. West Hawaii Voluntary Standards (Coral Reef Alliance)
  9. E Malama, The Ecotourism Manual for Hawaii written by Barbara Mills
HEA also worked with experts at the University of Hawaii, tour operators, other local non-profits and concerned citizens to ensure that the certification was relevant specifically for Hawaii.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
Sustainable Tourism is defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization as Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities. The Hawaii Tourism Authority defines it as a way to maximize social and economic benefits to Hawaii’s communities and businesses while respecting, nourishing, preserving and enhancing Hawaii’s natural, cultural and human assets. We try to incorporate the spirit of both definitions into the checklist process we created.
How does HEA authenticate Hawaiian culture?
While HEA does work with local cultural practitioners to integrate Hawaii’s host culture into our programs, we do not intend to be the authority. Certification requires that each tour operator provide credible references for the cultural material they share with visitors.
What is Ecotourism?
Hawaii Ecotourism Association defines ecotourism as nature and culture based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well being of local communities.

Residents

It frustrates me when I see big tour buses pilling visitors onto my favorite beach/hiking trail/etc. Doesn’t certification encourage more of this?
At HEA we do encourage visitors to travel with tour operators versus traveling on their own for a number of reasons:
  • When visitors travel on their own, they do not get educated on how to interact with the area they are visiting, or what types of behaviors can cause issues. Tour operators can provide this education.
  • We highly encourage our tour operators to work with the communities they visit to rotate the locations they visit and avoid peak times when residents might want to enjoy these places too
  • If all the people on a tour bus got into rental vehicles, traffic would actually be much worse
  • The carbon footprint of a tour bus compared to rental vehicles is substantially lower
  • By educating visitors about the splendor of Hawaii’s resources, they are more likely to feel connected to them and protect them
How does Certification help Hawaii’s environmental and cultural resources?
Since we require all our certified tour operators to provide fact based interpretation, all their tour participants learn about Hawaii’s unique environmental and cultural resources. Through this education, visitors learn how to travel pono and preserve the beauty of Hawaii for future generations.
Does the program encourages tour operators to buy and hire locally to keep profits within the State?
Yes! This is one of the points of emphasis and we work to find resources for tour operators to make this cost effective and practical.
What benefits are in it for residents?
As a part of certification, it is a minimum requirement for all tour operators to ANNUALLY participate in at least TWO community service projects AND TWO natural resource protection/restoration projects. Tour operators must demonstrate a commitment to serving Hawaii and the community in which they operate.
Who can join HEA's Ohana (become a member)?
Anyone can! If you are a provider such as an ecotour operator or bed and breakfast operator you will join as a Business Member. If you support the principles of ecotourism and the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, you can join as a Friends of HEA Member.  There are also categories for Student Members, Non-Profit/Government Members and a new category for Corporate Supporters.

Tour Operators

Our company offers multiple tours, how does certification work with that?
No, Evaluations are conducted on only one tour, with an emphasis on the tour that offers the most narrative along the way. Certification focuses mostly on management practices, the tour evaluation is conducted to ensure those practices are actually put into place. HOWEVER, if a company markets their different tours under different names, we do require each type of tour to be certified separately. We want to ensure that each of the tour operations are meeting HEA’s standards, once again to avoid greenwashing. (i.e. you offer sightseeing tours and zipline tours and they are marketed under different names, the two companies need to be certified separately.) Most companies find certifying a second company is very simple as most of the checklist answers will be the same.
What are the benefits of certification?
See our Benefits of Certification page for the most up to date list of benefits.
How long does it take to get certified?
Generally certification takes approximately 4-6 weeks to complete. Generally, the longest portion is the self-evaluation checklist. Many tour operators begin to see easy areas for improvement as they work through the checklist and therefore the time to complete varies. Once HEA receives a completed checklist, it is assigned to an Evaluator who will then schedule a tour. After participating in a tour, the Evaluator will meet with the tour operator’s management to seek clarification and review their findings. This portion usually takes approximately 2-3 weeks to complete.
Who can use the certification seal of approval?
Tour operators who complete the certification process and are awarded HEA’s seal of approval are eligible to use the seal for a two year period. They can also utilize the HEA logo too. After two years, the tour operator must complete re-certification or remove the seal from their marketing materials. To avoid Greenwashing, non-certified tour operators are NOT allowed to utilize the seal of approval or HEA’s logo in any fashion to assure our certified tour operators are easily identified.
Who is eligible for certification?
Tour operators principally engage in activities which involve guided excursions for the purpose of engaging Hawaii’s natural environment and/or cultural resources.
What is the cost of certification?
HEA charges a yearly re-certification fee based upon the size of your organization.  A $200 Certification Administration Fee for new certified operators is also taken. Tour operators must also host an Evaluator on one of their tours and for re-certifying operators provide 2-tickets for our Pono Traveler program. Finally, tour operators must remain current with their annual Ohana membership dues.
Who can join HEA's Ohana (become a member)?
Anyone can! If you are a provider such as an ecotour operator or bed and breakfast operator you will join as a Business Member. If you support the principles of ecotourism and the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, you can join as a Friends of HEA Member.  There are also categories for Student Members, Non-Profit/Government Members and a new category for Corporate Supporters.