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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2001

Ecotourism, culture trips booming in popularity

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Ah, summer vacation. A resort hotel, lazy days at a beach or pool, maybe an amusement park.

Baby boomers are finding ecotourism to their liking, so the Hawai'i tourism industry is creating experiences for visitors including everything from Hawaiian archaeology to small-group bicycle trips along former cane haul roads.

Advertiser library photo • 1999

Dream trip? Not for many baby boomers, who are redefining the tourism industry with a frenzied quest for vacations of significance, from ecotourism to heritage tours to educational and language-learning trips.

Barbara Deeming, 51, looks back disapprovingly on the pampered but monotonous family trips she went on as a child to a hotel in Palm Beach, Calif. "I can't imagine doing that kind of vacation," she said.

She and her husband would rather wear themselves out on a sea kayaking or cycling trip, go hosteling in New Zealand or soak up local offerings in Mexico.

"We like to experience where we are and learn a little about the history of the place," said the retired forester from Bend, Ore. "Whether it's a mountain or a beautiful lake, we want to experience it rather than a hotel room."

And some in the Hawai'i tourism industry are capitalizing on the boomers' thirst for meaning, creating experiences for visitors centered around everything from Hawaiian archaeology to small-group bicycle trips along former cane haul roads.

But crafting activities that will engage these visitors is anything but easy, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua'i Visitors Bureau.

"It's a big responsibility for people to develop a tour or experience that will be true to the culture, true to the area that they're putting people into, and then do something that's enjoyable to the visitor," Kanoho said.

"It's almost like you have to create something that's safe, enjoyable, respectful of the land and the culture, but it can't be too, too difficult, either. ..."

Countless businesses have sprung up in recent years to fulfill the desires primarily of baby boomers — those born in 1946-64 — for meaningful, active vacations.

"They want to involve their mind, body and soul as opposed to just taking a trip," said Doug Lehrman, principal at Greenwich, Conn.-based North Castle Partners and a boomer himself at 45.

Lehrman's company invests in healthy living and aging enterprises, and founded a business, Grand Expeditions, to take advantage of the growing market for ecological and high-end travel destinations.

"Purposeful travel will explode," Lehrman predicted.

Dominic Kealoha Aki, co-owner of Mauka Makai Excursions in Honolulu, is benefiting from this trend. His 2-year-old company offers small-group tours of little-known Hawaiian cultural sites on O'ahu — both wahi pana, the legendary places, and wahi la'a, the sacred places, he said. "We use these cultural and archeological sites as visual props to try to give an imaginative glimpse into ancient Hawaiian civilization and culture," Aki said. "We're a cultural ecotourism company, and our strength is in Hawaiian cultural sites."

Mauka Makai Excursions limits the number of customers in each group to 10 and offers half-day or full-day tours of up to about six places, including petroglyph sites and heiau.

Aki said he tried to start his company 10 years ago, "but the markets weren't ready for it." Now, he said, "ecotourism is booming internationally, and in Hawai'i, we are ready for it."

Blessed with greater financial wherewithal than any generation before, boomers can afford to splurge on getaways. What's known as environmental tourism, or ecotourism, is particularly intriguing to boomers seeking purposeful vacations.

This fast-growing form of specialty travel is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as "responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." And the typical ecotourist is a baby boomer with a college degree; at one thriving ecotravel agency, Oregon's Wanderlust Tours, boomers comprise 70 percent of the 2,000 customers a year.

Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp., calls ecotourism and purposeful vacations a perfect fit for boomers because of four generational traits: They're environmentally friendly, like hands-on involvement, love learning and are interested in their own culture.

"One of the things that makes ecotourism so popular with boomers is it gives them a chance to interact with the environment, which is something they love, as well as to have control over their itineraries," she said.

Aki, of Mauka Makai Tours, said his customers include older and younger boomers, and even some Gen-Xers in their 20s and early 30s. Not all of them are well-heeled, he said.

"We're seeing all walks of life now — a lot of blue-collar, a lot of college kids."

But no matter who comes along on his tours, Aki said he feels the mission of his company is of crucial importance to the larger industry of Hawai'i tourism.

"Basically, we try to leave them with a sense of reverence for the culture and the 'aina, the land," he said. "We weren't savages, we had a social structure, a civilization, we had artisans. A lot of people think of us as Stone Age or heathens, but we had a very, very rich culture. I think if we can impart to them the way we feel about Hawaiians as a people and a culture, then we've done our job."