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9 Ways to Be a More Sustainable Traveler in Hawaii

19.8968° N, 155.5828° W

Person standing in a volcanic crater.



Hawaii is often touted as one of the most beautiful places in the world. With its white sand beaches, lush and rugged coastlines and numerous volcanoes, it is no surprise that people flock to this paradise in droves. In fact, in 2017, almost 10 million people visited the Hawaiian Islands. That is an incredible amount of people when you consider that the islands are home to a population of 1.4 million.

Due to the popularity of the islands, there has been a sharp increase in environmental problems due mostly to overtourism; including, an increase in plastic pollution, a degradation of beaches and a need for more urbanization (which usually leads to habitat loss).

While some of these problems are pretty big and widespread, we still believe that every traveler to Hawaii can do their part to make a positive impact (or at least decrease their negative impact). By making a few simple changes, you can definitely be a more responsible traveler.

Below are 9 ways to be a more sustainable traveler while exploring and adventuring in Hawaii.




1 | Make Sure You Are Snorkeling Sustainably

Snorkeling is one of the top outdoor adventures throughout Hawaii. The opportunity to interact with marine life - including sea turtles and rays -while gliding above some truly colorful and stunning coral is an opportunity that all travelers should have. But it is important to remember that you are a visitor in these often fragile environments and you need to therefore act with the utmost respect.

By being a responsible snorkeler, you can help prevent damage to the marine environments you are exploring. A few of the key ways you can do this are to:

| Never touch or damage the coral; this includes not stepping on it with your feet or grabbing it with your hands. If it is too shallow or if the water is too rough and you need to take a break, make sure you only touch the regular rock and NOT any coral. Also, watch out for those crazy looking sea urchins - they hurt!

| Never feed or touch the marine life - even if they come really close to you. This is true for all marine life - including fish, eels, turtles and rays. When snorkeling, always keep an eye on your surroundings for you never know when an animal might pop up.

| Never litter or leave any trace of you being there. This should be a no brainer but it is worth saying again: when snorkeling (or doing anything else outside) NEVER litter or leave any items behind. This means you pack out all trash, food and gear with you.

People sustainably snorkeling in clear blue water.

2 | Follow All Rules When Interacting with Marine Life

As mentioned above, it is incredibly important to be aware of your surroundings and to always stay a safe distance from marine life. For many animals, coming in close to the coast means they are either resting (like dolphins) or feeding. By getting too close to them you keep them from doing either - which is dangerous and harmful.

Below is the minimum distance you should stay when around marine wildlife:

| Sea Turtles: 10 feet

| Monk Seals: 50 feet

| Spinner Dolphins: 150 feet

| Humpback Whales: 300 feet

Obviously, this is just a minimum distance and therefore you should instead try to stay even farther away when possible. When out in the water, always stay aware of your surroundings and make sure you are putting enough distance between yourself and any approaching wildlife. This includes some animals that may sneak up on you (like sea turtles). If you find yourself in a situation where you may be getting too close to an animal (maybe even unwittingly due to the tides) then you need to be proactive and focus on getting farther away quickly.

We were once snorkeling in an area with a lot of sea turtles. But due to the extremely bad visibility we were worried we would unknowingly run into one. So instead of risking it, we decided to just get out of the water and view them from the beach (which was still amazing).

3 | Always Use Reef Safe Sunscreen

The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that around 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters areas in and around coral reefs every year. Furthermore, studies have shown that the major chemicals in those sunscreens - mainly oxybenzone and octinoxate - are a large contributor to the declining health of coral, mostly through coral bleaching (when coral turns white). This issue has gotten so bad that even a few popular vacation destinations, including Hawaii, have banned the sale of anything but “reef-safe” sunscreen.

The terms “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” are typically used to identify sunscreens that do not contain those two chemicals that lead to coral bleaching. When coral gets bleached, it is still alive, but it is under severe stress, which then makes it more susceptible to disease and even death.

If you are planning to spend any time in the water while in Hawaii (which obviously you should!) then you will want to make sure you are only using reef-safe sunscreen. Luckily, you can buy it at many stores on the islands - including in dive shops and grocery stores.


Mineral-based sunscreens - which use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide - are not thought to cause coral bleaching. Check the ingredients on sunscreens to make sure they have these two listed.

Likewise, when purchasing a reef-safe sunscreen make sure it is also labeled as "non-nano" - which means the particles in it are larger than 100 nanometers and therefore are less impactful to coral reefs (they are too big to be ingested).

Finally, use a rub-on style of sunscreen instead of the spray style. The spray sunscreens often lead to more sunscreen landing on the sand near you, which in turn, eventually gets washed into the ocean.

💬 INSIDER TIP: if you want to take this idea of helping the coral reefs one step further, then consider just wearing sun-protective clothing instead of sunscreen altogether.

// BUY REEF-SAFE SUNSCREEN: if you don't want to purchase reef-safe sunscreen in-person once you get to Hawaii, then we recommend buying a bottle of sunscreen online from Mad Hippie. All products from this eco-conscious brand are vegan, cruelty-free and benzene-free.

Clear blue day on the Hawaiian coast.

4 | Always Leave What You Find Behind

Think that cool shell you found on the beach will be the perfect addition to your home's bathroom. Or that cool lava rock is a good reminder of your adventures in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As cool as it might seem to take home these "small" items, in truth, this act has many negative consequences.

Millions of people visit Hawaii annually, so you can imagine the environmental destruction if everyone just took one "cool" shell from the beach. Eventually, there would be no cool shells left!

Just like in USA National Parks, there is a strong push from Hawaiian officials and locals to stop tourists from taking home pieces of Hawaii in the form of rocks, plants, animals and artifacts. You can do your part to protect the island's fragile and unique environment by only taking photos instead of actual physical things back home with you.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: Hawaii culture centers heavily on ancestral beings that are often represented in the natural environment. For example, Hawaiians view Haleakala as their ancestor, so taking something from the national park (located on the island of Maui) is considered highly disrespectful.

5 | Respect All Sacred Sites and Cultural History

There are numerous national park-run sites across the various Hawaiian Islands. And many of these protected places are focused on preserving the important heritage and history of Hawaiian culture.

When visiting these sacred and historically significant places - which range from sacred places of refuge to a one-time leper colony to mountains spewing with bright red lava - you should always make sure you are treating them with the utmost respect. This means that you follow all rules and regulations, take only photos, and of course never destroy or damage any buildings, structures, artifacts or landscapes.

By being a good cultural steward of this planet, you can ensure that these culturally significant places continue to be places of education and wonder for generations to come.

➳ Explore the full list of the historical sites and parks in Hawaii.

Ancient Hawaiian wall on the Big Island

Hawaiian petroglyphs on rocks.

6 | Clean Your Shoes After Exploring

Due to the swift spread of the Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (ROD) disease - a fungus that effects the ‘Ōhi‘a tree (the most abundant native tree in the whole state of Hawaii) - there has been an increase in safety precautions across the Hawaiian islands.

One of the most common ways to stop the spread of ROD is the use of shoe-cleaning stations (like the one in the photo below) that come with bottles of isopropyl alcohol. According to scientists in Hawaii, the use of 70% isopropyl alcohol kills the pathogens that cause ROD. That is why there has been a movement to put bottles of the alcohol at major trailheads - including ones frequented heavily by tourists.

Besides spraying the soles of your shoes right after hiking, it is also recommended that you use the boot brushes that are also commonly found at major hiking trailheads to get rid of excess dirt and possible contaminants. By following these basic safety precautions, you can do your part to stop the spread of the fungus - which, unfortunately, has already killed over 185,000 acres of native forest on the Big Island of Hawaii alone.

7 | Do Your Part to Take Care of the Islands' Plants and Animals

Over 90% of the animals found on the Hawaiian Islands are endemic - meaning they are ONLY found there (except maybe in a few zoos). Because of this, it is very important to make sure you are doing your part to protect the island's unique species.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: want to know a crazy (and pretty sad) fact? Since the arrival of humans in Hawaii, 28 bird species and at least 10% of the native plant species have gone extinct. And today, over a quarter of Hawaii's native species are on the endangered species list.

Over the years, invasive species (meaning animals and plants not native to the island - aka species brought to the islands by humans) have caused widespread damage. While you could write a book about the negative impacts caused by the various invasive species - from pigs to stinging red ants to mongooses - we instead are focusing on how you as a traveler can do your part to protect the animals and plants that presently call the islands home.


1 | Always looking out for animals while driving. This means you follow the posted speed limits and slow down in areas where various wildlife often frequents (like the highly endangered nēnē, a large flightless goose). Also, take extra precautions when driving in places where signs are posted warning you of possible wildlife crossings. In these areas you will likely need to be even more aware of your surroundings - especially during dusk and dawn when animals are usually more active.

Likewise, if possible, try to not drive at night for this is when some animals are more active and also when it is tougher to avoid possible animal collisions. On the Big Island in particular, driving at night can be incredibly dangerous due to the insanely high number of wild goats. The medium-sized mammals, which are often seen munching on grass near major highways, can cause some very real damage to your vehicle if hit (this will also likely kill the goat). If you do have to drive at night, definitely follow the speed limits and stay aware of disturbances near the roadside.

2 | Do not litter. This should maybe be a no brainer by now, but it is always worth repeating. One of the biggest environmental concerns in Hawaii is an increase in plastic pollution - most of which eventually finds its way into the ocean where it causes severe damage to the island's marine life.

In fact, according to, an estimated 15-20 tons of marine trash gets washed up on the shores of Hawaii every year, 96% of which is made from plastic material. This insane amount of plastic trash has been shown to have direct impacts on already threatened marine species like monk seals and Hawksbill sea turtles.

While it might be easy to say that the Hawaii plastic problem is due to outsiders (most of the plastic does wash up on the beaches of Hawaii and is from other places), that still doesn't mean you can't do your part to decrease your own impact. Recycle everything you can, pick up any litter you see (on land and in the ocean), and try to decrease your use of single-use plastic overall.

8 | Don’t Geotag and Always Share Responsibly

There has been increasing evidence supporting the idea that social media (and geotagging in particular) can lead to major environmental problems. Geotagging - which is when you embed a photo with the exact coordinate of where it was taken - has led to numerous environmental and social problems around the world. From poachers using it to find wildlife in the African bush to once-remote hiking trails being overrun with people, geotagging can have large negative effects on once pristine and untouched places.

Hawaii is chock full of amazing landscapes and hidden gems. While it might be tempting to post every place you visit - from that stunning beach that is home to dozens of sea turtles to that giant waterfall that requires a rigorous hike to visit - it is important to stop and think before you let the world in. In Hawaii in particular, the increase in social media and geotagging has led many spots to become overrun with tourists, which then often leads to destruction and environmental damage.

➳ Learn more about the negative effects of geotagging and social media here.

💬 INSIDER TIP: we visited a couple of spots during our trip to Hawaii that vocally opposed the use of social media. In some places - especially spots that are historically or culturally significant or which are already environmentally fragile - locals and rangers specifically ask that you do NOT post to social media. If you find yourself in a place like that, follow their rules and don't post (no matter how pretty it is).

9 | Leave it Better Than When You Found it

As with any place you visit around the world, it is important to remember to always leave a place better than when you found it. This might mean picking up that bit of trash you see on the beach, or fixing a sign that has fallen down.

By doing your part - no matter how small it is - you can make a positive impact and help keep Hawaii the tropical paradise that it is.


Hawaii is a magical place full of wonderful, unique destinations. From the lush green mountains and valleys on Kauai to the volcanoes of the Big Island, this special place has a lot to explore. We just hope that when you find yourself adventuring on the islands yourself you are doing it in a way that is sustainable and responsible.

Sustainable travel doesn't have to be complicated. Instead, it can consist of just being mindful of your surroundings, leaving a place better than when you found it and being respectful of a place's environment and culture.

Hopefully, these 9 sustainable travel tips will inspire you to be a more responsible traveler while exploring Hawaii. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment or question below or reach out to us directly.

Happy adventuring!



Pinterest pin on sustainable travel in Hawaii.



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