There are as many ways to visit Hawaii as there are people who make the trip. Beach lounging, surfing, volcano hiking, farmers market browsing — whatever you do, you’re basically assured an incredible vacation. But for travelers looking for something more, there’s a different way to experience Hawaii, one that will leave you feeling a deep, authentic connection to the islands and the spirit of malama (meaning “to care for”): voluntourism. Volunteering in Hawaii will be the best vacation you’ve ever had. Here’s why…and how to make it happen.

What is voluntourism?

volunteering in hawaii

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Conrad Morgan

Participating in volunteer activities allows you to experience a destination more deeply and create a positive impact at the same time. In Hawaii, that sense of duty and spirit is called malama aina, or giving back to the land and ocean. It’s an integral part of the islands’ culture.

How you take part is up to you. Do you want to sink your hands into the dirt on a farm? Would you prefer beach cleanups or coral preservation? Maybe you want to volunteer for a day, weekend, or just over your lunch break. There’s a tremendous variety of volunteering opportunities in Hawaii, from planting native trees to restoring native fishponds to transcribing historical documents. Here are some specific programs of note:

  • Stay at Haiku House (Maui), and you’ll have the chance to tend to the private estate’s gardens, harvesting oranges, Meyer lemons, pomelos, and avocados. A portion of your haul goes to local food banks and area families in need.
  • Outrigger Hotels and Resorts on Oahu have partnered with Kualoa Ranch to offer an immersive eco-adventure from land to sea that involves cultural learning and community service.
  • You’ll earn a free night at Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa (Island of Hawaii) if you participate in one of their beach or cultural-site cleanups.
  • Surfrider Kauai and The Cliffs at Princeville (Kauai) have collaborated to create an opportunity for visitors to participate in beach cleanups — on some of the prettiest shorelines in the world.

For a more exhaustive list, the Hawaiian Islands offers plenty of resources and information on volunteer opportunities, as well as event calendars for the islands.

What can I expect from volunteering in Hawaii?

volunteering in hawaii

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Today’s travelers are looking for more than the standard relaxation vacation. And in voluntourism, many have found it. Taking the time to immerse yourself in the culture of a place; making genuine connections with locals; and learning a bit about the land, its history, or the project you’re working on sticks with you far longer than any tan. It sticks with the land and people, too.

We spoke with some folks who recently participated in voluntourism in Hawaii to find out more. Ronald Quintero took part in the new Malama Aina tour with Kualoa Ranch, spending an afternoon “getting his hands in the mud” and farming kalo (taro).

One of the coolest things during my entire trip to Hawaii was getting to understand how spiritually connected the locals are to their land, to their agriculture… I got to see the true, spiritual culture of Hawaii during my time with this experience. You don’t get to do that by just staying at a resort.

Belinda Haynes, another volunteer with Kualoa Ranch, had similar thoughts:

It was so inspiring to see how locals continue [ancient] traditions that are still valuable today… It’s one of my passions to give back to communities that are so generous to me — and everyone else who comes to visit Hawaii… Giving back to this community was such a beautiful opportunity to do so.

Eva Garcia-Gonzales participated in a family beach cleanup through Surfrider Kauai’s Ocean Friendly Visitors Program and The Cliffs at Princeville. Originally from Barcelona, she knows the impact that over-visitation can have on a place.

Tourism can be very beneficial for the economy, but sometimes that comes with environmental — as well as cultural — costs… Going down to a beach and filling up a couple buckets [of debris]…everyone becomes more aware of their own impact, and that can lead to small behavioral changes with great positive outcomes.

Garcia-Gonzalez recommends all visitors try and find a way to give back to the community that welcomes them: “It will enhance anyone’s experience.”

Instead of “leave no trace,” leave a positive impact.

volunteering in hawaii

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

At the end of the day, all of us would benefit if we vowed to leave places better than we found them — and that’s doubly true for our favorite destinations, like Hawaii. And when you “voluntour” here, the next place you travel will benefit, too. Taking time to volunteer once will encourage you and your family to recognize and become more aware of your impact on the world at large. So while this might be your first voluntourism experience, it likely won’t be your last.

Hawaii’s the perfect place to start. The aloha spirit dwells within the land, the locals, and their culture, and as guests here, experiencing and engaging in malama is one of the most beautiful things we can be a part of. Before planning your next vacation to the islands, take some time to think about how you can positively impact this sacred place — and how you yourself could be better for it.