Thursday, August 26, 2021

Sustainable Maui?

We just got back from a lovely, regenerative vacation on Maui to attend my niece's wedding. Dan and I enjoyed learning about what Hawaiians were doing to become more sustainable and their efforts to restore the island using traditional methods. We took pictures of the massive Banyan Tree planted in 1873 and read about the history of the island at the Lahaina Courthouse Museum. We were delighted to learn how their traditional food systems worked with nature. On an awe-inspiring tour of the King's Garden and waterfall, we saw how they grew the different foods on terraces that climbed the mountain. But my most cherished moments were the quality time we spent with family members we hadn't seen for some time, especially the heartfelt talks with my little sister and mom that ended in tears and warm hugs. 

Since we got back, I have been struggling about whether or not to write this blog. To be honest, I feel guilty. I'm not sure I come across that good in this story. When I heard that most of my family was heading to Maui to attend the wedding, I didn't want to miss out on seeing them. I overlooked my fear of traveling with only a cloth mask to protect me from the dreaded new variant of COVID. (I was somewhat reassured since we had to register proof of vaccination on the Hawaii Safe Travel Pre-clearance app.) But the day after we purchased our tickets to Maui, I saw a post from a Facebook friend musing about why so many of her friends were posting pics of themselves in Hawaii when the Mayor of Maui had issued a statement asking visitors to stay away. 

When we got to Maui, we discovered another motive besides COVID. The Mayor was trying to protect the island. A record number of visitors were escaping the confinement of COVID on this island paradise. A quarter of a million every month!  The streets were crowded with rental cars. Dan said that it reminded him of LA! During our 10-day stay we became increasingly concerned with the environmental impact on the island. 

We had indulged in the privilege that allows those of us who can afford it to have an "experience of a lifetime" at the expense of the sea creatures and reefs. One young man, bobbing in the water next to us, shared what he learned on a his turtle island tour - that you shouldn't disturb or touch the endangered turtles, and then proceeded to grab at a turtle that swam by. 

I know. I know. We were keenly aware that our presence negatively impacted the island (from the pollution and CO2 on the long plane ride, our Lyft to and from the airport, and the diesel-powered snorkeling and wedding boats.) Dan and I did what we could to lessen our impact.  We chose not to rent a car.  We got a senior discount on a pass for the bus and used it. We even rode the bus to the thrift store to get Hawaiian shirts and dresses for ourselves and some family members. On the bus, we went by several sea-bird restoration areas.  

On our first day there, we discovered a cool restoration trail where we learned about how the island in the distance, Kaho'olawe, was a sacred place to the Hawaiians, once used for navigation training. The island people developed an innovative and sustainable lifestyle of fishing and farming. But outsiders brought too many sheep and goats that destroyed the soil with over-grazing. Then the U.S. conducted their bomb tests on the island. Signs showed how the Hawaiian people are restoring the preserve by planting native grasses. 

Kaho'olawe Educational Walking Trail

We were shocked by the amount of trash along the nature trail. We picked up what we could. But it got us thinking. Where was all the trash going? How much of it ended up going out to sea? We saw recycling bins all over the island and signs asking people to consider reducing their plastic consumption. A sign along the highway read, "Landfill full." We were concerned about adding to the trash on the island. So we carried reusable grocery bags and water bottles, and brewed our own tea (instead of buying the bottled variety.) My sister, bless her heart, was doing her best to recycle - unaware that it wasn't all recyclable in Maui. (They only recycle two kinds of plastic bottles.) Dan helped her out by looking up the website on his phone.

There were also signs warning people of the impact of sunscreen on the reefs. So we wore tee-shirts over our swim suits and I used "reef safe sunscreen." (Dan burned.) During the family snorkeling outing, we saw the impact of all those visitors on the reefs in the Marine Life Conservation Area. These were not the colorful reefs we saw at the aquarium. These reefs were gray and dying. Dan started calling our vacation, "The Environmental Disaster Tour of Maui." 

There were several other boats at the Marine Life Conservation Area

Despite efforts to educate the public with signs and displays, the impact of the tourism industry was clear. The side of the island where we were staying is actually a desert. But they have planted tropical trees and flowers to create a paradise for the resorts, using up the island's groundwater (that the farmers on the other side of the island rely on.)  Everyday, shiploads of consumer products are unloaded in the harbor. And planes bring more tourists. Rental cars line the shorelines and scenic routes. Perhaps the best thing we can do to heal the island is follow the Mayor's advice, and stay away. Give their restoration efforts a chance. 

There is a glimmer of hope. In addition to restoration projects, they are installing some sustainable  infrastructure. There are plans for a fleet of electric rental cars and charging stations. Some of the hotels and houses have solar panels and wind turbines line one of the mountains. A solar farm shines in the distance. 

We are thankful for the opportunity to enjoy my family on this beautiful island and learn about important work being done there. We feel a sense of responsibility to the native Hawaiians, so we won't be returning to the islands any time soon. We want to ensure they don't become a paradise lost.

Mahalo Maui! Aloha and blessings on this island in the sun. And congrats to Alexa and Clayton! 

More Information: 

Things You Should Never Do While Snorkeling in Maui

Maui Launches Stainless-Steel, Zero-Waste To-Go Container Program 

Regenerative farming bears fruit
Maui farmers look to heal soil, grow sustainably for next generation

Hawaii Is Rethinking Tourism. Here’s What That Means for You
A more sustainable, less colonial experience awaits.

'Most beautiful place in the world': Hawaii destination Waipio Valley closes indefinitely

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