Pay It Forward: Hawaii’s Malama Campaign Encourages Visitors to Give Back

From the time humans arrived in the Hawaiian archipelago an estimated 1,500 years ago, they began altering the ecosystem. Polynesian voyagers found easy prey in now-extinct flightless birds, while their descendants’ sophisticated systems of fishponds and taro patches, although feeding thousands, permanently changed native habitats. 

taro patches
Taro patches and a young visitor at Limahuli Garden Preserve. Photo by Jeanne Cooper.

But these early inhabitants’ impact has been minimal compared to that of Captain Cook’s landing in 1778, which had calamitous effects on the islands’ people, as well as indigenous flora and fauna. Environmental and social issues tied to the explosive growth of tourism — from 17,500 in 1927, the year Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened; to nearly 250,000 in 1959, the year jet service began to the new 50th state; and to 10.4 million in 2019 — sparked calls for a new mindset even before the coronavirus pause.

Inspired by regenerative tourism, in which visitors leave a place better than they found it, local authorities now encourage travelers to mālama Hawaii — to protect and care for the island’s natural resources and unique culture by acting pono, doing the right thing. Luckily, the main islands all offer unique opportunities to do just that, from planting native trees to supporting local artisans and animals. Bonus: They just may be the best part of your vacation.


Clean Up

Realizing there were so many residents and visitors picking up the trash left behind by others, or brought in from the sea on beaches, trails and parks, the founders of 808 Cleanups decided to make it easier for good people to do these good deeds. The folks at 808 Cleanups support volunteers by providing supplies, connecting them with other volunteers and helping them organize their own cleanups. Check their events calendar next time you’re heading to Oahu.

Plant a Tree

plant a tree
Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve. Planting native plant. By Bob Carlin photography.

Hawaii’s forests are disappearing due to wooded land being converted for other uses. Since 2010, the Hawaiʻian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) has been working diligently to reforest the islands, primarily with indigenous koa trees. Other goals they’re undertaking include protecting endangered species, sequestering carbon and recharging watersheds.

Shop for Good

The ultimate small local business meets savvy global shopper win-win can be found of all places in the middle of Waikiki at The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. House of Mana Up offers a vast selection of food, fashion, home, beauty and art made by Island entrepreneurs. Can’t make it to Waikiki? No problem, shop online.

Hawaii Island

hawaii tree in lava rocks
Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve. Photo by Bob Carlin Photography.

Plant a Tree

The Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative protects one of the last native dryland forests in Hawaii, home to rare wiliwili, mamane and iliahi (sandalwood) trees, 5 miles above the Waikoloa Beach Resort. If you can’t volunteer to help with planting, seed collection or weeding the second and fourth of Saturdays of each month, take one of the free guided sunset hikes through the rugged but breathtaking preserve the first Friday of the month, or donate to have a tree planted.

Walk a Dog

Shelter dog field trips. Photo by Hawaii Island Humane Society.

Ideally, you’d also adopt one of the many shelter dogs on an island overflowing with canines, but if you can’t, consider a field trip with one, courtesy of the Hawaii Island Humane Society. Sign up online to take a pooch out for the day from either its Kona or Hilo shelters, and the nonprofit will provide a leash, tips on where to go and a backpack with everything you’ll need.

Buy Local

Visit the wealth of farmers’ markets — two of the best are Saturday mornings at Pukulani Stables and Parker School in Waimea — for jewelry, textiles, woodworking and other crafts, as well as delicious prepared food and fresh produce. Also, check out for the latest location of a roving monthly market of more than 30 island artisans.


Protect Native Habitat

Kipuka Olowalu team member + valley view. Photo by Jeanne Cooper.

The Hawaii Land Trust offers the opportunity to help restore wetlands and coastal dunes in areas both easily accessible and intriguingly remote. Close to Kahului, volunteers help with conservation efforts every Friday and the third Saturday of the month at the 277-acre Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge, which also holds significant cultural sites. On the backside of Haleakala, near Kaupo, the nonprofit hosts volunteer workdays four times a year at its 81-acre Nuu Preserve, popular with native birds and local fishermen. Donations are also welcome.

Restore a Valley

Kipuka Olowalu breadfruit
Kipuka Olowalu breadfruit. Photo by Jeanne Cooper.

In Olowalu Valley, a historic place of refuge about 8 miles south of Lahaina, the nonprofit Kipuka Olowalu welcomes volunteers to prune native trees, plant taro, remove invasive plants and otherwise improve its 72-acre cultural reserve.  Sign up in advance for a Wednesday or Thursday morning shift, which includes experiencing a traditional welcome chant and refreshments; tools and gloves are provided.

Buy Local

While there are many fun farmers’ markets around the island, the Maui Sunday Market may have the best local vibe while still being visitor friendly. It’s held from 4 to 8 p.m. Sundays at the Kahului Shopping Center, with a wide variety of food trucks and food vendors to satisfy your dinner and dessert cravings (look for taro muffins or the Molokai Hot Bread stand), plus lots of great souvenirs like island-style T-shirts, caps, woven hats, jams and more.


hanalei bay
Clean sand and sea at Hanalei Bay on Kauai_s North Shore.

Clean Up

Although the Garden Island’s beaches are naturally gorgeous, ocean debris and litter left on the sand can accumulate to the point of harming green sea turtles, endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other marine life. Make a morning meditative practice of beachcombing for trash, or volunteer with the Surfrider Foundation for one of its frequent cleanups.

Protect Native Plants

limahuli garden
Director Lei Wann leads tour in Limahuli Garden Preserve. Photo by Jeanne Cooper.

The National Tropical Botanical Garden provides a spectacular setting for native and other plants in its McBryde Garden on the South Shore and an equally scenic enclave for learning about indigenous plants and Hawaiian culture in its Limahuli Garden and Preserve on the North Shore. You can contribute to the efforts as a volunteer — e-mail [email protected] to find out what days and times are available — or sign up for a paid tour, shop their excellent gift shops or make a donation.

Buy Local

Gourmets will love the Kauai Culinary Market, every Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Shops at Kukuiula. It not only includes delectable Kauai-sourced products but also chef demonstrations, tastings and live music. Also browse the made-on-Kauai wares — including chocolate, dried fruit, soaps, clothing, art and gifts — at the Kauai Store, open daily in Kapaa.

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