Hawaii’s renowned beauty draws travelers from around the world. But can too many visitors spoil what made it must-see in the first place?
Twenty-three SUNY Cortland students traveled more than 4,700 miles this summer to study the impact firsthand.
Their July 30 to Aug. 9 trip to Hawaii was part of a SUNY Cortland ecotourism course that explored the cultural impacts and opportunities linked to ecotourism, vacation travel focused on environmental conservation and local communities.
According to trip instructor Kenneth Cohen, associate professor of recreation, parks and leisure studies, the time spent experiencing authentic Hawaiian culture rather than mass tourism’s “postcard impressions” strengthened students’ passion to preserving local landscapes and cultural traditions.
“The immersive experience can’t be replicated in a classroom,” Cohen said. “Standing knee-deep in water clearing invasive species side by side with local leaders who describe the intricacies of their ancient fishponds is not something students can absorb by reading.”
It was a feeling shared by the students.
“With people I just met, we shared laughs, made the most of it, and worked as a team,” said Grace Buscemi, a senior majoring in therapeutic recreation from Wantagh, N.Y. “It was a privilege to be helping native Hawaiians and learn about their culture. I expected to be humbled by their rich culture and I definitely was; humbled in a good way, in a sense that all people are different and share different beliefs. It was quite honestly a beautiful and extraordinary experience.”
According to Cohen, the goal of the course is to explore the cultural, environmental and economic impacts of ecotourism at the community level. The class focuses on Hawaii’s history and the negative impacts of mass tourism. While there, students helped on projects overseen by Hawaiian nonprofits.
Declan MacDevitt, a senior sport management major from Centerport, N.Y., also praised his time in Hawaii, saying he wants to make sure he always remembers the lessons from the experience.
“I came on the trip expecting to learn some new things about a new place and culture,” MacDevitt said. “But I learned so much more than I expected. I learned about the way people coexist with the land they live on. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was able to learn from this trip.”
That didn’t mean everything was picture-perfect sunsets and sand. Among the projects the students helped with was removing 310 pounds of plastic from a beach. There were also online course elements, but it was a summer challenge that the students relished, according to Buscemi.
“I expected some of the project work that we did there to be hard and tiring, but it was some of the best times I had in my life,” she said. She hopes to do a similar beach cleanup near her hometown on Long Island, and in Bangladesh, India, where a cousin of hers lives.
It was the first time Cohen’s ecotourism class visited Hawaii. In past years, destinations have ranged from Nepal and Nicaragua to Thailand and Zanzibar. SUNY Cortland’s International Programs office, which manages the elective course, will offer Ecotourism: Tanzania next summer.
Cohen views it as a unique opportunity for students to understand more of the world.
“It was a long flight, and for some students this was their first time traveling far from home,” Cohen said. “In the end it was worth it. These students learned the difference between being a tourist and a traveler, and for many this is just the beginning.”