Far back in Oahu’s Makiki Valley, where the stream chuckles through the lush grounds of the Hawaii Nature Center, Ena Sroat kneels and gently hefts a hibiscus sapling into a shallow hole.
“This is a kokio [hibiscus],” she says, using her fingers to shovel soil around its roots. “When it blooms, it has brilliant orange flowers.”
By now, the small group of visitors listening to Sroat knows that the kokio is an endangered native plant, one that’s become almost impossible to find in the wild. Adding it to the center’s patchwork of native gardens is their small contribution to the survival of this rare species. Solemnly, they douse the little plant with water from their Dasani bottles.
Sroat is one of the guides and owners of Hina Adventure Tours, and this stop is the last on a tour called Ancient Waikiki and Sacred Valley Exploration. Like all the tours offered by the young eco-tourism company, this one is built out of the intricate stories, legends and natural history associated with a very particular place the royal sites of Waikiki and the inshore valleys that supported them.
“We want to show visitors why Waikiki was so beloved by the Hawaiians,” Sroat says.
The tour includes a short hike down Kalakaua Avenue, a stop at Tantalus Lookout for spectacular views and an exclusive tour of the Manoa Cultural Center. But for clients, it’s the quiet planting ceremony at the Nature Center that sets this tour apart. This simple act tourists giving back to the community they visit makes the tour a part of the growing field of voluntourism.
Sroat and her partner, Uluwehi Hopkins, have based their voluntourism program on their unusually close relationships with several of Oahu’s cultural and environmental organizations.
“That’s really why we started this company,” says Hopkins. “To help these kinds of groups succeed.”
For clients, the charms of voluntourism are obvious: They get the satisfaction of doing good work and the opportunity to interact with locals. But Sroat is quick to point out that community groups are also excited about the tours.
“They’re very open to tourism done with respect,” she says.
Hina Adventure Tours works with organizations like Hui Malama o Lokahi, a group that cares for sacred sites on Oahu’s windward side; Pae Pae o Heeia, the caretaker organization for an historic fishpond; Kaala Farms, a cultural education center for Hawaiian youth; and the Nature Center, which manages natural sites on three islands.
Hina Adventure Tours offers several different levels of voluntourism. The least demanding is the brief visit to the Nature Center, perfect for clients who just want to know their visit has had a positive impact. It’s also the easiest to schedule, since it runs more or less like a regular tour. Their most popular voluntourism offering is the Hoolaulima Community Service Project and Sacred Sites Tour, when clients work side by side with members of Hui Malama o Lokahi. Afterward, they have a potluck lunch with the work group before heading down to the beach for a swim.
With enough advance notice, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange work trips with any of their community partners. Each has its own charm. The Hawaii Nature Center, for example, manages a couple of wetlands on Oahu.
“That’s good for bird-lovers,” says Hopkins.
At Pae Pae o Heeia, clients join local volunteers in rebuilding the lava stone walls and removing invasive plants in a 1,000-year old fishpond. As an option, the staff will take visitors out into the pond on a small boat to fish for moi (threadfin), then cook it up for lunch.
For corporations and community service groups, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange more traditional voluntourism opportunities. These programs often a week or longer blend real community service with a series of tours and cultural activities. This kind of voluntourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry, and the women of Hina Adventure Tours see it as the future.
“That’s the direction we want to grow,” says Sroat. “I believe there are a lot of people out there who want to reach out that way.”
For Hopkins, the commitment of this new kind of tourist is inspiring.
“They have no investment in this place,” she says, “and yet they work so hard.”
Obviously, local communities benefit from all the dedication. But the payoff voluntourism offers clients is equally clear.
As Sroat points out: “They can actually touch Hawaii as it was in ancient times.”