June 16, 2022

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Malāma: How Native Hawaiians Are Achieving Environmental Justice By Advancing Regenerative Tourism - Andrew Alsdorf


         To visit Hawaii is to understand that it is a magical land unrivaled on this Earth: a marvel of thriving natural beauty and abundance, surrounded by nothing but ocean for thousands of miles. Millions of people each year[1] recharge, relax, and find renewed purpose by spending just a few days in this paradise. Even though tourist visits are short in duration, the impression left by the land tends to be long-lasting. For those familiar with the power of such a visit, curiosity about Native Hawaiian culture follows closely behind. If a week in Hawaii can foster such awe and reverence for the environment in a tourist, how much more of this ethic must seep into the soul of a person who lives a lifetime there, caring for its land, waters, and creatures? How much deeper is the connection to nature for a person practicing lifeways inherited from ancestors who found a home and forged a culture by trusting that the stars would carry them to safety across an ocean?

        Native Hawaiians hold these answers, along with a growing sense of their unique role in shaping a tourism industry that both sustains their economy and threatens the perilous balance between nature and humans. This article considers the newly-expanded role of Native Hawaiians in shaping the tourism policies of their state, and how they are applying their cultural knowledge to achieve the fair treatment and meaningful involvement that environmental justice demands.As seen through examples below, there are many opportunities for the core Native Hawaiian values of sustainable living and respect for nature to improve the stateʻs tourism industry. These efforts show great potential and should be supported.

The expanding role of Native Hawaiians in tourism is long overdue, having taken a back seat for too long to mainlanders with hospitality degrees. Unsurprisingly, the artifacts of colonialism are literally written into Hawaii state law. One example is the The Hawaii Tourism Authority, a state government agency whose twelve-member board of directors is statutorily-required to have six members with tourism industry experience, but just one member with knowledge of Hawaiian cultural practices.[2] Despite this inequity in the statute, recent changes in the composition of the board have gained attention for achieving majority “Native Hawaiian”[3] representation for the first time.[4] Beyond the board of directors, two of the four executives running the agency on a daily basis are Native Hawaiians. This fact alone is cause for polite golf-clapping, if not outright celebration, according to the procedural justice tenet of environmental justice which holds that representation, having “a seat at the table”, is a goal in itself.[5] But while most would agree that these first steps (whether we call them feet in doors, seats at tables, or voices to be heard) are important and over-due, itʻs what you say in those rooms and at those tables that matters more.

How are Native Hawaiians using their influence to imbue tourism policies with their deeply-held cultural values? Is it even possible to maintain a focused policy program that conveys the enormity of the interdependant connection between humans and nature? It turns out the Hawaiian language has a single word capable of doing most of that very heavy lifting: Malāma.

In 1973, near the dawn of the modern environmental movement, a Native Hawaiian state senator named Kenneth Brown delivered a speech to the Hawaiian legislature called “The Malāma Ethic.”[6] The speech today is considered a foundational document of Native Hawaiian culture due to the eloquence with which Senator Brown wove the history of his ancestors into a vision for how to carry on their values in modern society. The entire speech is highly recommended, but the following section defines the Malāma Ethic:

Because he knows so many ways to destroy his natural environment, Man must now become its custodian and caretaker for his own sake. He must exercise malāma, because if he starts selling parts of his natural environment abroad for creature comforts, he will lose it all, and be unable to survive here. If he uses up his landscapes, mountains, valley and vistas, or if he degrades his air and waters, he will destroy the beauty and hence the spirit of Hawai`i, and in so doing, his own spirit. Malāma is thus an imperative.

The concept of Malāma has taken on a new mission thanks to the influence of Native Hawaiians at the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) and two non-governmental entities, the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NHHA), and a Hawaiian nonprofit organization called travel2change. These latter two organizations, which are well-funded courtesy of deep-pocketed corporate heavyweights eager to burnish their EJ credentials, have collaborated with each other and with HTA to usher the somewhat abstract value of Malāma into a more accessible and glossy tourist experience. The Malāma Program, run through the HTA website, offers tourists the opportunity to book packages offering a free extra night at major hotels in exchange for a commitment to engage in regenerative tourism. Regenerative tourism is an ethic that asks tourists to go beyond “leaving no trace” or “doing no harm,” instead challenging tourists to actively seek improvement of the environment as a means of enhancing their travels by establishing a personal connection to the land. The opportunities to volunteer and improve Hawaiiʻs environment through this program vary widely, and some of them are more effective than others at connecting the tourist to Native Hawaiian cultural values.

For example, one of the offerings that falls quite a bit short of the Malāma spirit gives tourists the opportunity to volunteer at Pearl Harbor restoring the USS Missouri battleship. While the ship is certainly an important part of American military history, the battleshipʻs connection to Native Hawaiian culture could only be described as extremely negative. Itʻs also unclear just how much the ship is truly in need of restoration at all: the description of this project boasts that the ship used to host a crew of 2500 sailors, but at present has a mere 25 full time maintenance staff dedicated to keeping this decommisioned vessel ready to impress its tourist visitors. Nonetheless, to the extent a rusty and leaking battleship would surely tarnish the marine environment below, these volunteers can enjoy a free hotel night knowing they contributed something akin to the Malāma spirit on their vacation.

A much better example of this programʻs ability to connect tourists with Native Hawaiian culture can be found on the much less visited island of Molokai, where the nonprofit Ka Honua Momona offers tourists the opportunity to learn about Native Hawaiiansʻ 800 year history as some of the worldʻs first aquaculturists. This group has reclaimed two ancient fish ponds that demonstrate the ingenious methods Native Hawaiians used to capture fish from the ocean in a brackish-water pen engineered from lava rocks along the shore. [7] Tourists can help by removing seaweed and invasive mangroves from the site, but in the process they are also educated about the cultural importance of asking permission to enter a sacred place by reciting a traditional chant. This is followed by a chanted response that invites the tourist to enter, and in this way provides an excellent metaphor for the entire experience of being a tourist in someone elseʻs sacred home.

It is easy to imagine how an experience like this would immediately inspire visitors to learn more about the unique environmental challenges on the very isolated island of Molokai. For example, Ka Honua Momona is happy to educate people about its solar-based nano-monitored smart micro-grid, which not only eliminated the 50+ blackouts per year they experienced under their old electrical system, but also severred their dependence on fossil-fuels to generate electricity.[8] This organization has managed to present Native Hawaiian cultural values in a modern, visually-compelling and accessible website that beckons people to envision a wise elder casting a fishing net across the sea, capturing the five core principles of Native Hawaiian culture: each principle has its own Hawaiian word, translated as cultural rootedness, environmental stewardship, intergenerational exchange, lifelong learning, and health & wellbeing. [9]

This article has described just two of the many offerings of the HTAʻs Malāma Program, but they serve as a stark reminder that the details of each opportunity for regenerative tourism are critically important to the touristʻs experience. It is surely no coincidence that the opportunity to interact with Native Hawaiians directly as they proudly demonstrate their cultural lifeways has a greater potential to amplify the Malāma spirit than the chance to swab the decks of a battleship. In one sense this distinction is so obvious that it begs the question: why has it taken so long for Native Hawaiians to play a leading role as ambasadors of the stateʻs greatest asset? Without dwelling on the tragic themes that answer that question, perhaps it is more productive to look at the inspiring ways Native Hawaiians have helped chart a new course for regenerative tourism in Hawaii.

Many people who travel have a heartfelt desire to truly learn about other cultures, to connect with people different than themselves, and to make a positive contribution to their destination. Even more people are now likely to embrace these aspects of tourism because they are offered as accessible, entertaining additions to a typical itinerary, thanks to the skillfully-marketed Malāma Program. If the program enjoys success, it is a reason not only to celebrate the changes brought by the newly diverse HTA, but also to consider how indigenous people might play a larger role in promoting regenerative tourism around the world.


[1] 13.6 million visitors in 2019, according to Fact Sheet: Benefits of Hawaiiʻs Tourism Economy. Hawaii Tourism Authority, available at https://www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/media/4167/hta-tourism-econ-impact-fact-sheet-december-2019.pdf.

[2]See H.R.S. §201B-2(b)(4). The HTAʻs mission is to “strategically manage Hawai‘i tourism in

a sustainable manner consistent with economic goals, cultural values, preservation of

natural resources, community desires, and visitor industry needs.” See https://www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/who-we-are/our-strategic-plan/.

[3] The term “Native Hawaiian” can carry different meanings due to Hawaiiʻs unique history. In one sense, anyone born in Hawaii may justifiably claim this identity, and indeed there is a rich mix of cultures and ethnicities in modern-day Hawaii, each with their own valuable history of how they came to call the land their home. It is not entirely clear how other journalists employ the term, hence the quotation marks in this particular sentence. The precise geneology of each HTA board member is not easily discernable, and to some extent is besides the point of this article. This article uses the term Native Hawaiian to generally reference indigenous people of Polynesian descent, because of the primacy their culture places on subsistence lifeways and the implications of that lifestyle for fostering an environmentalist ethic.

[4] See Nikki Ekstein and Jen Murphy, Indigenous Groups Are Finally Getting A Seat At Tourismʻs Table, Bloomberg, Jan. 12, 2022, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-12/indigenous-groups-are-finally-getting-a-seat-at-tourism-s-table.

[5] See Robert R. Kuehn, A Taxonomy of Environmental Justice, 30 Envtl. L. Rep. 10, 681 (2000).

[6] Remarks by Senator Kenneth F. Brown, July 25, 1973, Hawaii State Capitol, Senate Floor. Available at https://www.hawaiigreengrowth.org/senator-kenneth-browns-1973-speech/.