MAUI, Hawaii – Instead of just laying on the beach or by the pool during my vacation to Maui, I was standing barefoot in the mud after my sandals slid from my feet, dirt was lodged under my fingernails and, even though I was wearing one of those plastic ponchos, I was drenched from the pouring rain.
I spent my Saturday morning at the Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve, the state’s largest private nature preserve in West Maui. In partnership with the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, I joined a group of around 30 volunteers who woke up early to hike up a hill and hand-plant hundreds of native tree saplings as part of the preserve’s conservation efforts.
Through its tree-planting events, the preserve hopes to steward rare animal and plant species native to Hawaii. More trees help set up the watershed against erosion and attract more rainfall. A healthy watershed also has a ripple effect throughout the island.
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The watershed, located just a five-minute drive from the resort, is one of the wettest places on Maui, feeding about 60% of the island’s freshwater supply. Eventually, the rainwater flows down into the coastline and into the ocean.
During the event, we also learned about the cultural significance of these native species, like how koa trees have been carved into canoes for many years by Native Hawaiians.
I left my trip feeling more connected to Maui and with a sense of fulfillment that I had done something beneficial to the place I was visiting.
I’m not alone in the desire to have a more positive impact on my travels. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. travelers said they want to leave the places they visit better than when they arrived and to have vacations with “maximum positive impact,” according to the 2023 Booking.com Sustainable Travel Report of over 33,000 respondents.
At the same time, locals are concerned about overtourism and its effects on their homes. In a 2022 survey, 67% of Hawaii residents said they feel “their island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
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There are plenty of opportunities to have a similar voluntourism experience and make your trip to Hawaii more rewarding – while also possibly saving you hundreds of dollars.
As the islands reopened from the pandemic, the Hawaii Tourism Authority launched a program called Malama Hawaii – malama meaning to “take care” in Hawaiian – to incentivize visitors to volunteer with a local nonprofit and qualify for a special discount from participating hotels. The deal can be free meals or even a free night.
“I think a lot of people are initially attracted to Hawaii for its natural beauty and they find out when they arrive, it’s the warmth of the people and the community that are equally as important,” T. Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for Hawaii Tourism Authority, told USA TODAY. “Volunteering in a natural space with community members is a way to bring all of that together and have an even more memorable experience.”
As of early April, the program included 35 organizations and 59 hotels throughout the state, including opportunities like beach cleanups, reforestation events and marine wildlife projects. Those interested in participating in the program should book directly through the hotel website and choose the package.
Below are some voluntourism opportunities from hotels to consider when planning your next visit to Hawaii.
The Prince Waikiki is an upscale, modern hotel that overlooks the Ala Wai Harbor, meaning every room, including the pool, has an ocean view. There’s even an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. The Prince is located on the edge of Waikiki, about a 20-minute drive from the airport.
As part of the hotel’s partnership with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, guests can get a do-it-yourself beach cleanup kit, including trash bags and gloves, to clear some trash from the beach and nearby Ala Moana Beach Park and get their fourth night at the hotel free.
Outrigger Resorts & Hotels
Choose from four of the Outrigger Resorts & Hotels locations in Waikiki, which all have their own perks. The Outrigger Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel is the brand’s craft hotel with a more boutique feel while the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort has everything you could need while staying in Waikiki. The properties are about a 25-minute drive from the airport.
If you book their Malama Hawaii Experience, you get 25% off your nightly rate. Through that offer, you’re also signing up for a two-hour eco-adventure at Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve, where you help tend to an on-site loi field, where kalo is grown.
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Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort & Spa
The Andaz is a modern resort with a boutique feel set along the south Maui coast, providing views of Kahoolawe and Molokai in the distance. The resort is about a 35-minute drive from Kahului Airport.
In collaboration with the Pacific Whale Foundation, guests can become “community scientists” and participate in the organization’s Coastal Marine Debris Monitoring Program. All they have to do is stop by the Ocean Store in Maalaea or Lahaina to grab a beach cleanup kit and pick up litter from any beach on Maui – there’s direct beach access from the Andaz to Mokapu Beach. When they book a stay for five nights or more, they’ll get their fifth night and daily breakfast for two during their entire stay for free using code “Malama” during checkout.
The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua
Away from the bustle of Lahaina, the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua is a spacious luxury resort with spectacular ocean views. You can reach the resort from Kahului Airport in an hourlong drive.
I was staying here when I was invited to join the tree-planting volunteer event, but the opportunity offered until Sept. 30, is to volunteer with any of the Malama Program organizations before you check out. In return, you’ll get 20% off each night of your stay if you stay for five nights or more and a $300 credit for the activities offered by Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment, such as an e-bike tour or snorkeling excursion. Discount is applied automatically when booking the Malama Hawaii package.
Sheraton Kauai Resort
The Sheraton Kauai Resort is an oceanfront property located on the iconic Poipu Beach, known for its calm shallow waters and soft sand. Guests who are staying at least five nights and get 20% off each night (which totals one free night) when they volunteer with any participating organization in the Malama Program. To get the discount, they can book online and use promo code ZZ1. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to the resort from Lihue Airport.
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Halii Kai at Waikoloa Resort
Nestled along the South Kohala coast, the Halii Kai at Waikoloa Resort offers a lagoon pool, spa and gorgeous ocean views from its property. Families can rent vacation villas and townhomes and enjoy the beauty of Hawaii Island’s west side. The drive from Kona International Airport to the resort takes about 30 minutes.
From now until Dec. 15, if guests volunteer with one of the participating organizations during their trip to Hawaii, they’ll get 15% off plus free early check-in and late check-out if available. The discount is applied via an honor system.
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Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected]