HONOLULU — On a rainy afternoon somewhere in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a group of hard-hatted tourists accompanied by park rangers scramble through an inactive lava tube on the slopes of the Kilauea Volcano.
In the inky blackness, their headlamps play over enormous brown grooves in the rocky floor and past the translucent fingers of lava hanging from the ceiling. Awed by the unusual sights, one man from Texas says, "It's like nothing I've ever seen."
Hawaii's spectacular natural beauty has always been its biggest draw. But today's tourists are no longer satisfied to just sit on a beach and look at the mountains. They also want to learn about the islands' flora, fauna, culture, and natural history - and are willing to hike over broken rocks in a lava tube to do it.
Their curiosity is driving a new wave of business called ecotourism - loosely defined as environmentally friendly travel with an emphasis on outdoor activities and education. But this push into the wilderness has meant increased impact on the environment. And as more and more businesses tap into Americans' appetite for green travel, the Aloha State and other tourist destinations around the United States are having to take a closer look at regulating the industry.
Here in Hawaii, the state with the greatest number of endangered species, the push to protect some of the world's most breathtaking landscape is particularly acute, and conservationists and businessmen are seeking to strike a delicate balance.
"If the industry continues to accelerate without any guidance, not only will it put the natural resources at risk but it will impact the public who pay tax dollars to maintain and use them," says Curt Cottrell, director of Hawaii's Na'Ala'Hele state trail system.
Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, this fastest-growing sector of Hawaiian tourism brings in between $600 million and $1 billion a year - a significant portion of the state's $10 billion tourism industry.
In some parts of Hawaii, the impact of ecotourism has already caused problems. Kauai's fabled Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast was decimated by hiking traffic before the state took action in 1995 to reduce the number of trekkers. On Oahu, Honolulu recently imposed a user fee at Hanauma Bay after thousands of tourists trampled the fragile reef in their quest to view colorful tropical fish. And across the islands, numerous tour operators have jumped on the eco-bandwagon with adventures such as eco-air helicopter tours.
To be sure, the sheer volume of visitors venturing off the beaten path is taxing an already-strapped state environmental bureaucracy. But tour operators say that responsible ecotourism is possible and that Hawaii's incomparable beauty should not be roped off.
Big Island tour- operator Rob Pacheco shows this beauty on guided hiking trips that feature lectures on native plants, culture, and geography. His business has grown 100 percent in each of the past three years to about 2,000 customers in 1997. A handful of similar operations have also sprung up to compete for ecotourist dollars.
But Mr. Pacheco is leery of the boom. "Conservationist and businessman - those are two tough jobs to juggle," he says. "You have to realize that no matter what you do, it will have an impact."
So far, the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources has been reluctant to step into the fray, but now it appears a consensus is building for some kind of regulation.
Mr. Cottrell and other state officials are hashing out a plan that would require permits for commercial operators on state land. In exchange, the state will either collect money from the operators for the privilege or require in-kind service in the form of trail maintenance or other tasks that the state currently struggles to keep up with.
Although they worry about excessive government bureaucracy and paperwork, many ecotour operators recognize the need for some form of regulation and taxation. A newly formed trade group called the Hawaii Ecotourism Association is trying to create a certification and education program as a template for future state regulation efforts that could work together with ecotour operators.
Enforcement of any regulations will be difficult, but clearly the most important determinant in Hawaii's ecological future is whether tourists, tour guides, and locals alike are willing to take a more active role in maintaining the state's environment. Says Hawaii Sierra Club director David Frankel, "If people are operating under the true spirit of ecotourism, they should give back to the land."