Photo: North Shore EcoTours
North Shore EcoTours offers both off-road and hiking adventures - but all of their tours are grounded in aloha ʻāina and share the culture, history and moʻolelo of Hawaiʻi and the wahi pana of Haleʻiwa. - Photos: Courtesy

Like many Hawaiians, Noah Keola Ryan was unhappy with the way that most tour companies portray Hawaiʻi. But instead of staying upset, Ryan decided to form his own tour company.

Today, Ryan is the owner of North Shore EcoTours in Haleʻiwa, Oʻahu.

“I want to show the richness and culture of Hawaiʻi as a whole,” Ryan said. To this end, he and his staff provide Hawaiian-focused nature, history and cultural tours to visitors and locals alike. North Shore EcoTours is one of the few aloha ʻāina eco-tour companies in the state.

“As a Native Hawaiian-owned company, aloha ʻāina is at the heart of everything we do,” said Ryan. “Aloha ʻāina is a cultural value that expresses deep love for, and responsible stewardship of, nature.”

Founded in 2009, the company’s efforts include preserving the cultural integrity of Oʻahu’s natural resources by restoring its native forests while also creating fun and engaging educational tours for its guests.

The company’s philosophy states in part, “Hawaiʻi’s uniqueness actually lies in ʻāina. ʻĀina is a wonder. From an ecological standpoint, the unique characteristics of Hawaiʻi’s natural environment are considered a scientific marvel. For the Native Hawaiian, ʻāina represents the source of cultural beliefs, artistic expression, values, and identity.”

Accordingly, Ryan and his team promote ʻāina appreciation; respect for ʻike Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian knowledge); and sustainable communities. Their goal is to hoʻomana lāhui (empower our lāhui) by contributing to the local economy, promoting healthy living, and strengthening cultural identity.

Ryan previously worked in ecotourism for another company, but he wanted to conduct his tours the way he thought they should be done – with an emphasis on Hawaiian culture and history.

“Tours conducted by foreign-owned tour companies aren’t working,” Ryan said. “We need more locally owned companies. We need to do more reforestation. We need to mālama ʻāina and work with the schools and universities.”

Born and raised on Oʻahu, Ryan’s Hawaiian lineage is from Kaʻū and Kona on Hawaiʻi Island. As a child, he developed an appreciation for his culture and the outdoors and grew up hiking, surfing, spear diving, canoe paddling, and camping. He is also a hula practitioner who has participated in numerous performances and competitions here at home and abroad.

Ryan has B.A. and M.A. degrees in Hawaiian studies with a specialization in mālama ʻāina (Hawaiian natural environment) and kumu kahiki (comparative Polynesian studies) and has also worked as a kumu (teacher) for students ranging from primary-age children to college adults. In addition to running his tour company, Ryan is also an instructor at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa.

Ryan says if there is anything that gives him joy, it is sharing his aloha for Hawaiʻi and his culture with others.

North Shore EcoTours operates on several thousand acres of private conservation land owned by Kamehameha Schools in Haleʻiwa, giving visitors a truly immersive nature experience. Their guides take visitors off the beaten path for hiking and off-roading activities, allowing them to take in the breathtaking views and experience the beauty and peace of Hawaiʻi’s native forests far from the noisy crowds of Honolulu. Their tours show visitors a side of Hawaiʻi that many people, including locals, may never see.

Ryanʻs earlier experience in ecotourism did not satisfy. The ʻāina was talked about in a purely scientific context with focus placed on things like volcanology, geology and botany – it was a sterile presentation, lacking in the moʻolelo – the unique history and stories – of the wahi pana (storied places) they were visiting.

“When people travel, they connect to new places through the culture, the food and the stories,” Ryan reflected. “So we prefer to highlight the relationship that Hawaiians have with our natural environment and share about Hawaiʻi from a cultural perspective.”

Ryan believes that Hawaiians and locals should take an interest in eco-tourism and contribute to the accurate portrayal of Hawaiʻi’s culture and history.

“I think eco-tourism is a natural thing to get into,” he said. “It has a bright future. Imagine if we had community-led tourism as an industry and we incorporated conservation and education. That would be regenerative tourism.”