Visiting The Hawaiian Islands with Kamau Bell, CNN
Updated: Jun 14
The only B Corp certified onsite in the Hawaiian Islands specializing in customized journeys that make a positive impact on the community and environment. Our goal is to design exceptional holidays, engage the most dynamic experts, and deliver flawless itineraries while using business as a force for good.
A massive note of THANKS to all of our clients who have generously participated in our Responsible Tourism Fee which supports local organizations whose work benefits the Hawaii community and environment, and naturally visitors, too. To date, we have $41,007 to donate this Giving Tuesday. This exceeds the 2021 total of $19,693. We're further ahead than we could have imagined this year and are currently vetting additional organizations that support native Hawaiian culture.
Visit our Responsible Tourism page and calculate the positive impact of your visit to the Hawaiian Islands with The Coconut Traveler.
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CNN's W Kamau Bell, United Shades of America, full Q&A with The Coconut Traveler's Founder
The Coconut Traveler was recently humbled to be tapped by CNN to respond to Q&A for the recently aired United Shades of America. W Kamau Bell visited Hawaii with his family to gain insight into the impact of tourism. Our Founder responded to a Q&A.
Why did you found The Coconut Traveler? Was there a specific experience that motivated you to create it?
I come from humble beginnings, the granddaughter of Filipino immigrants who came to Hawai’i in 1910 to work on the sugarcane plantations. Somehow, my 30-year hospitality career culminated in selling the most luxurious, international hotels and experiences globally. All the while, I’ve watched Hawai’i struggle to find its footing amidst rampant overtourism and the strain that goes along with it.
After an amazing seven years selling and marketing the first, luxury brand resorts in Bhutan, it just clicked. Hawai’i needs what Bhutan already has -- Hawai’i and Bhutan share so much in common, both are isolated, both Kingdoms, small, finite resources, steeped in culture, and economies geared towards the tourism industry. What differentiates these two destinations is
the way they regulate and structure their respective tourism industries. One is mired in transactional, low-cost overtourism while the other is focused on experiential high-end, low impact tourism.
As the industrial tourism machine chugged along in Hawai’i, there were slaps on the backs of tourism executives when benchmarks were reached, 9 million arrivals, then 10 million. But the local community and environment were burdened by these skyward numbers. Everyone wanted to go back to 1986 when there were 6.5 million arrivals spending the same amount of
money as the 10 million. We were on this unending rat race of increasing volume to maintain revenue and it started taking more and more volume to offset the dwindling daily visitor spend.
As the community talked about too much, the executives at the time, scratched their heads. How do we fix it? What to do? What’s the answer? The answer could be found in Bhutan’s high cost of entry. The Bhutanese enjoy benefits from tourism while Hawai’i’s community slogs it out for low wage jobs, unable to enjoy the crowded beaches and hiking trails. Per visitor, Bhutan’s daily government tariff and taxes alone are at times higher than Hawai’i’s average daily rate.
Clearly Hawai’i has demand. What if we pushed back on this demand with pricing and focused on the high-end traveler that appreciates Hawai’i’s vulnerability? Before starting The Coconut Traveler, I just kept thinking that tourism could work for our community if there were fewer, higher spending visitors that paid the community to visit. It wasn’t a unique thought; global tourism has become a bargain hunter’s daily delight.
And I wasn’t suggesting travel to Hawai’i should be for the wealthy. I was just thinking, if you can afford to go every year, then go every year. But if it were more expensive and you couldn’t go annually, then you’d save your money and go every second, third, or fourth year. Making Hawai’i affordable for everyone, all the time is a race to the bottom and damages Hawai’i’s culture, community, and environment.
Like other states, our current model is a percentage attached to the hotel room rate split between our state tourism office and general fund. This model leaves Hawai’i’s tax revenue vulnerable to room rate fluctuations. Room rates set by revenue managers working in windowless Waikiki hotel basements, buying market share by reducing their room rates which in turn reduces the tourism tax collection. Why should they control the taxes that are needed in our local community and environment?
The Coconut Traveler was founded when I put a Responsible Tourism Fee in place. How is this fee structured? Using the carbon offset model as the basis of the fee, I began adding this fee to every invoice and giving 100% of it away to local organizations whose good work not only benefitted my community and environment, but the visitor as well. Last year on Giving Tuesday, we gave just under $20,000 in equal donations to ReTree Hawai’i, Malama na Honu, and Hawai’i Association of Watershed Partnerships who’s work benefits locals, but every visitor, too. If I was going to put my son through university using my luxury tourism business on the backs of my community, then my community was going to get a piece, too.
What are some of the sustainable, socially responsible activities that The Coconut Traveler offers?
You can learn a lot about what we’re doing at The Coconut Traveler by watching the video on our Responsible Tourism page, here. First, we vet our partners using multiple criteria. We prioritize working with local companies that are either Hawai’ian, woman, or veteran owned. A second priority is selecting partners that are mission aligned on revenue sharing. Activities
providers that contribute a portion of their revenue to local volunteer organizations get our business. We also seek out activity providers that demonstrate goodwill in the community, organizations who, for example, aid marginalized people, improve their skill set, or even changing their life’s work. The more we can support these companies, the more good they can do and this multiplies the positive impact in the community and environment.
We were just B Corp certified in March of this year after a 22-month process. This certification removes greenwashing, it wipes anyway any perceived BS from our business model. We had to open our books to this highly regarded third party organization and prove that we put our money where our mouth is, there’s no greenwashing. To become certified, we had to share our Quickbooks, partner list and show our revenue is kept where it’s earned, Hawai’i; we had to prove that we are using our business as a force for good.
Last year we chose three unique volunteer organizations within the community. The results of the donations were ReTree getting closer to their 1 million trees planted goal, Malama na Honu purchasing two trackers to study sea turtles, and the Hawai’i Association of Watershed Partnership to continue doing their good work in protecting the islands’ watersheds which play a major role in our clean drinking water. Again, these volunteers do good for the community and visitors enjoy the benefits.
This year, The Coconut Traveler has surpassed $37,000 in Responsible Tourism fees and is on track to achieve our goal of doubling last year. We’re secretly hoping to surpass $50k. And we have our clientele to thank. They could choose another Hawai’i onsite to plan their bespoke itineraries, but they align with our mission, they want to do good here and be a part of something positive in the destination they love.
How can tourists to Hawai'i be mindful of that social responsibility throughout their trip?
Travelers need to be mindful here, and any destination. First, Hawai’i is home to over a million people. I’d say, be mindful that it’s not just a tourism destination, it’s a culture, a home for many.
I’d suggest visitors read the room, when I hear a visitor say, “that’s a rip off,” I want to ask, “if you think an $18 Mai Tai is a rip off, try raising a family here with the average cost of a home over $1M, a loaf of bread at $8, and a gallon of almond milk at $7. There are cheaper hotel rooms for a month than rent on a one-bedroom apartment. And the apartment doesn’t come with free Wi-Fi or daily housekeeping. They come with utility bills well over any resort fee.
I would suggest that visitors think about that the fact that the peak of Hawai’i tourism coincides with our own children’s school holidays, our family’s Christmas, and Spring break. And, like everywhere else in the world, we’re short staffed and working double, maybe triple time.
And finally, the Hawai’ian belief that their nation was stolen from them is based in fact. Much like the Native American Indian, this land is sacred to Hawai’ians and not just a playground or site for tourism transactions. Engagement with and respect for the Hawai’ian culture and people is a must.
Hawai’i is paradise, the flora and fauna are extraordinary. But the truth is, the visitor is entering an indigenous community that’s fighting for its life in an environment known by scientists as the “extinction capital of the world.” We’re losing species at unimaginable speed. Of 140 species of birds, nearly 50% have been lost, and our rare and endemic Hawai’ian flora are on the brink of extinction.
I’m all for coming and enjoying the islands but encourage people to find ways to be part of the solution. It might be trite, but spend your money locally, your hotel room paid with loyalty points doesn’t do anything for the local economy. Go deeper and spend locally.
In your opinion, has tourism been an issue in Hawai'i? What are some of the problems it's caused, if so? And is there a way to do it right without harming Native Hawai’ians or the islands?
The volume of visitors, year-round demand, the loss of any seasonality, and social media geotagging everything meaningful has adversely affected the islands’ community and environment. The traffic congestion, degradation of hiking trails, overcrowding of beaches, kayak tours into turtle sanctuaries has eroded the peace for the wildlife and locals. But beyond that, and more important, are the negative impacts of resort and golf course development on Hawai’ian culture. We’ve seen burial sites disturbed along with the loss of the traditional practices of fishing, gathering food along the shoreline, and medicinal plants for healing. Hawai’ians face restrictions to their culture. The videos of the early days of tourism show just how the Hawai’ians were marginalized and their culture was adversely affected by tourism. From the monetization of the luau to the loss of language, loss of family land due to increased property taxes, the list long. Undoing it will be a challenge, but travelers can start with mindfulness and respect.
Like everyone here, I enjoyed empty beaches and wide-open hiking trails during the pandemic shut down, but it goes much further than reducing the numbers. It takes increasing the percentage of tourism revenue that benefits the community and environment directly. I truly believe in charging a fee that goes directly to the volunteer organizations or social benefits. Bhutan has just introduced a Sustainable Tourism Fee to benefit the Bhutanese, and Hawai’i should be compelled to take the same action.
Is there anything else about The Coconut Traveler, Hawai'i tourism or responsible travel you'd like to mention?
It’s time to flip the narrative, we know that more is not better. Hawai’i’s environment and community can’t continue welcoming more visitors, it’s simply not sustainable. It’s time to look at what works for the community, Hawai’ian and non-Hawai’ian residents, and build a tourism model that includes the community and environment as stakeholders.
Tourism demand is proven; we need to use the industry to make positive impact in Hawai’i. And I don’t mean have visitors go pick taro and burden farmers who have work to do and a living to make. Voluntourism has its place, but it relies on someone else to make the choice to volunteer. I mean, institute a financial commitment that will support organizations who’s work protects the islands. Ultimately, these local volunteer organizations that are protecting our trails, beaches, and mountains benefit our community and the visitor industry. And with that, local businesses need to make the financial commitment to revenue sharing like The Coconut Traveler in that we will pay up to 100% of our Responsible Tourism Fee for any traveler who
won’t – to date just two.
At The Coconut Traveler, no one told us to create a Responsible Tourism Fee, it was the right thing to do, and we now have proof of concept. It’s scalable, replicable, beta tested.