To Discover and Defend

Photography by: Ghislain and Marie David De Lossy/Getty
To Discover and Defend

Instead of setting off fireworks on Independence Day, employees and guests at Mauna Lani Resort on Hawaii mark the occasion by setting turtles free. Spawned at Sea Life Park in Oahu, the green sea turtles, known as honu, arrive at the resort as hatchlings to be raised in saltwater ponds for a year or two until they're ready to face the world on their own.

Pi'i Laeha is the caretaker of the ponds. Tossing food pellets into the water, he explains that the turtles get their green color from their algae diet, grow up to 400 pounds, reach sexual maturity when they're about 25, love to crawl onto the beach to bask in the sun, and can travel significant distances. One turtle, tracked by satellite, swam 3,000 miles to circle the island chain and return to the resort nine months after being released. The honu is a threatened species; its greatest predators are hunters, sharks, habitat changes and ocean pollution. As the juvenile reptiles swim around the pond, peer out from under rock crevices and lumber after the food, their well-being suddenly seems vitally important and personal.

"Nature, God and people are all one entity in Hawaiian culture," Laeha says. "Everything is connected to everything else." That, in a nutshell--or turtle shell--is the essence of ecotourism.

an ancient legacy
The turtle-release program is one of several measures that the Mauna Lani has undertaken. The resort maintains acres of petroglyph fields and lava caves that served as shelters for the original island inhabitants, along with ancient loko i'a (fish ponds), which provided them with physical and spiritual nourishment. Around the time of the full moon, guests and natives gather to share songs, hula dances and "chicken-skin," or ghost, stories.

"All these things perpetuate our heritage," says Daniel Kaniela Akaka, Jr., Mauna Lani's director of cultural affairs. His "office" is a 1920s oceanfront cottage on the grounds, which, rather than being bulldozed, was converted into a museum showcasing Hawaiian history and culture. "This resort takes pains to preserve and perpetuate the stewardship of our lands and traditions," Akaka says. "We are continuing the legacy that was set before us."

The Mauna Lani is at the forefront of a worldwide move toward ecotourism, defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people" by the International Ecotourism Society. Those so inclined take proactive steps to protect the environment, show respect for indigenous cultures, preserve the native heritage, enhance the economic well-being of the community, and include local people in their planning and operations.

Education plays a vital role, says David Weaver, Ph.D., professor of ecotourism at George Mason University in Manassas, Va., and author of Ecotourism. "A learning- oriented interaction with the environment sets ecotourism apart from, say, adventure tourism." These travelers like outdoor activities, but they also seek intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth. So rather than promote the thrill of white-water rafting, companies are more likely to offer guides who see their primary role as advocates to foster respect and appreciation for rivers and wildlife.

The concept of ecotourism has been around for at least a century, starting with organized woodland walks. "The term itself appeared in the mid-1980s, when it emerged as a nature-based form of 'alternative' tourism," Weaver says. "Now, green consumers are a significant part of the travel market and growing fast." But green interests don't always run deep. "Travelers like to think of themselves as ecologically responsible, but most of them are 'veneer environmentalists,'" adds Weaver. "They're superficially committed to the environment, based on convenience. So many hotels take a veneer approach to sustainability."