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Conscious Travel: What Hawaii Can Teach Us About Exploring Places Mindfully

“The planet isn’t full of ‘vacation destinations.’ The planet is full of places with real people, real environments, real issues. As a traveler, it really is our responsibility to at least leave the places we visit the same way we found them, and at best, leave them even better than before.”

As someone with a career in travel, I’ve long been aware of conscious travel and how small decisions can have big impacts. But it wasn’t until 2020 that I really reckoned with what this looks like for me personally. And I wasn’t alone – nearly 50% of Americans changed their views and began considering more sustainable travel as a direct result of the pandemic.

So, when I was asked this question in the midst of 2020 craziness, it stopped me in my tracks: “Rachel, how strict is Hawaii, really? Any tips on getting around Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine? Flights are SO cheap right now!”

It made me realize that no matter how many reusable straws we use, how many sustainably made outfits we buy, how many times we bring our own canvas bags to the grocery store, none of it can offset our learned tendency to think of faraway places as ‘dream destinations’ instead of what they are at their core – somebody else’s home.

So what is conscious travel, exactly? How can we actually become more respectful travelers, so that we can meet this global movement towards a more eco-conscious world with a healthier understanding of how we, ourselves, should move around in it?

In a nutshell, conscious travel is where curiosity meets empathy. It’s where we can look beyond our own “travel must-haves” and consider how our trips impact locals and the environment. It’s where we can approach new places and people with an open mind and hopefully, leave places the same or even better than when we arrived.

In 2021, I went back home to Hawaii for two months to explore what a conscious traveler might look like visiting one of the world’s most popular “dream destinations.” I worked with a local tourism board, reached out to countless local companies, and had dozens of conversations with friends, colleagues, and locals both working in and impacted by tourism. Here’s what I learned, and how we might be able to apply this POV to any place we travel as the world continues to open back up.

1. To Receive Aloha, You Must Give It.

Visitors to Hawaii have long been accustomed to the islands’ hospitality. Lei, luaus, and the soft, soothing lull of a live ukulele performance have a way of making anyone feel as if they’ve made it to a tropical paradise. But leave the resort, and you might be met with hostility. The sentiment towards tourists has in many ways gone downhill, especially since the pandemic. And it’s understandable – crowded islands make it harder for locals to live their lives. High costs of living get even higher as demand goes up and supply goes down. Too many tourists arrive without a basic understanding of Hawaii beyond the beaches and the palms.

Rather than traveling with expectations, we should lead with respect. Read about places beforehand. Learn about their history. Google “do’s and don’ts when traveling to _____.”

While we don’t know what we don’t know, the internet makes it easier than ever for us to do our homework so that we can show up more informed and less ignorant.

2. Buying Local Is More Important Than Ever Before.

Supporting local businesses, local restaurants, and local artisans has a huge impact, no matter where we travel. Buying local means your money directly impacts – and recirculates within – the local economy. In Hawaii, it also means empowering local makers and growers in an economy that’s largely influenced by massive retailers, hospitality chains, and outside investors.

From shopping at a local maker’s collective in Kaua’i, to visiting a farmer’s market in Oahu, to booking a locally owned tour to swim with manta rays on the Big Island, these small decisions can move mountains for Hawaii businesses.

The next time you travel anywhere, what small things can you do to buy local more intentionally?

3. Places Are Not Playgrounds, But That Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have Fun.

Calling a place a “playground” or a “dream destination” is a double-edged sword – when we use these terms, we inflate the expectations of a place and disassociate it with reality.

Unless you’re going to Las Vegas or an all-inclusive resort, places are not playgrounds. Especially places with complex cultural history and fragile natural ecosystems. Here’s an example:

On a boat cruising along the coast of west Oahu, I and four other hopefuls were scanning the waves, looking for spinner dolphins. We finally found a pod not far from the beach, but were surprised to see another boat already there. As we moved closer, we noticed that not only was this motorized boat following the dolphins, there were people in the water chasing after them too. Our captain, a marine biologist, noticed behaviors telling us that these dolphins – who were probably trying to sleep – were stressed. Because we didn’t want to add to the chaos, we called off our own distanced spinner dolphin swim, all due to another boat’s carelessness.

It’s easy to blame tour operators in a situation like this. That motorized boat definitely shouldn’t have been tailing dolphins. But tours are shaped by demand, and we’ve become such a demanding audience.

Much like we don’t go into someone else’s home and expect to be able to run around recklessly, tormenting their pets and throwing trash into their gardens, the same applies for the way we travel.

4. Volunteering On Vacation Is the New Normal.

Volunteering with a reputable local organization – even if it’s just a couple of hours – doesn’t only benefit the place you’re visiting. It also gives you the unique opportunity to understand a place and its needs more intimately. You impact each other when you give your time, and that stays with you long after you’ve misplaced your souvenirs and accidentally tossed out your postcards.

Hawaii’s tourism board is working to normalize volunteering on vacation by working with hotels to provide discounts and free nights in exchange for a couple hours of tourists’ time cleaning beaches, planting trees, or learning about Hawaiian agricultural practices.

And, they’re not alone. More and more companies and tourism boards are stepping up to make volunteering on vacation more accessible. How can you volunteer your time (or your money) to the preservation of the places you love, the next time you go on vacation?

5. When You Go, and Where You Go, Matters.

By this point, we’ve probably all heard of the term “overtourism.”

Beautiful places with tourism demand and a lack of infrastructure, resources, or personnel to handle it unfortunately fall victim to overtourism all over the world.

On Maui, one of the most popular road trips in the entire country – the Road to Hana – has faced this firsthand. Hundreds if not thousands of rental cars wiggle down this windy road every day in search of waterfalls and multi-colored beaches, which has strained local communities that live in Hana town.

Hawaii has introduced a reservation system for some of its most popular places, like Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach and Hanauma Bay, to help control the number of visitors that arrive on a daily basis. But we can take that one step further – by intentionally choosing less crowded places, going to popular places at non-peak times, or booking organized tours instead of taking your own car, we can also do our part to reduce the strain on the places we love.

To be a conscious traveler doesn’t mean needing to have it all figured out. But traveling with meaning, approaching things with curiosity and openness, and seeing places as more than a “top destination,” are all things we can all do right here, right now as we look ahead to the new uncharted era of travel.

Mindful Guides to Hawaii by Rachel Off Duty:

- Rachel - Jean Firchau AKA Rachel Off Duty

Rachel is a content marketer and travel blogger living in Los Angeles, California. A Hawaii-born jetsetter and shameless career climber, she is an advocate for women with careers gaining the confidence to travel, and live, on their own terms.

Interested in traveling more in 2022? Join Rachel in October for her very first all-women retreat in Morocco. Find more information and reserve your spot here.

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