Hands-on tourism

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By Gord Stewart

There are lessons in this Kiwi-Seychelles connection. Lessons for conservation, for tourism, and for business.

But, first, back to 1998. My wife Sandy and I had come to New Zealand for a year with our young sons Will and Charlie (this prior to shifting here permanently in 2002). Before returning to Canada, we spent three weeks in Australia including a few days on Heron Island, a speck in the ocean at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

“I can’t believe I’m on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Charlie, then a wide-eyed 9-year-old. I felt the same way. I remember spending the entire time in a sort of stunned sense of awe.

Snorkeling the first day, Will, then 12 years old and ever the brave one, called out, “Dad, a shark!” before diving back down for a closer look.

The next day, snorkeling with Charlie, the call came, “Dad, a turtle!” And there she was. A lovely Green sea turtle, gliding along peacefully. We swam along beside her. Stopped whenever she did. There we were. The three of us. Together. Then we watched her swim slowly away.

Recently, I asked Charlie about Heron Island and our turtle encounter. “An experience like that is burnt onto your brain for life,” he said.

New turtle arrival
Bird Island – new arrival

Which is maybe why he was drawn to Bird Island, part of the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean far off the east coast of Africa. His partner was working in the Seychelles so they qualified for a mates rate and spent a few days on the island in February. “No TV, no phones, just plenty of birds, turtles, and palpitatingly beautiful beaches” is how it’s promoted.

They pitched in on the sea turtle monitoring and protection programme (learning along the way of the island’s 25 years of turtle nesting and hatching data). They were told about earlier rat infestations on the island and the instrumental role played by Kiwi Don Merton in an extermination programme based on his knowledge gained in pest control efforts in New Zealand. (This was a lifesaver as the island is a way-station for migratory birds and a ground nesting home for Noddy Terns.)

And they learned about the genesis and philosophy of the island’s operation from Nick Savy, third-generation owner and manager. As he explained it, there is a symbiotic relationship between business and conservation. The beauty and wildlife stemming from conservation efforts bring tourists to the island. This tourism provides income and a source of funds for conservation and island upkeep efforts to maintain its beauty and wildlife. A simple, virtuous circle.

Charlie Stewart with a new friend
Charlie Stewart with a new friend

Savy noted he relies on no government or other external funding which could be pulled at any time. This approach will have hit hard with Covid-19, but in time keen tourists will return to Bird Island just as they will to New Zealand.

And when they do come back, we need to be sure we are on a sustainable path. Just like Bird Island we must be sure to protect the precious beauty that we have. And their funding model should be a warning and reminder for us. While the current Government puts value on nature and is now funding some meaningful conservation efforts, there’s no guarantee National would continue with it if they came to power. Indeed, given past performance and with the same old hands on deck, we can expect quite the opposite.

The conservation-tourism-business symbiosis has merit here and ties in with the ‘slow tourism’ model being floated. Perhaps high-end lodges and resorts could ‘adopt’ (and support!) local landscapes in need of protection and encourage guests to contribute to conservation efforts. How about a ‘conservation passport’, stamped as tourists move around, roll up their sleeves, and help out? Some might be quite keen to pitch in; others could do it to assuage any long distance air-miles guilt they might have.

All overseas visitors and locals on the move could be encouraged to lend a similar hand. Conservation Volunteers New Zealand makes it easy to do this. Their website allows a search of locations and dates of active projects. Signing on to one of these is a great way to truly experience a new place, meet others of similar persuasion, and contribute to a worthy cause.

Finally, there’s the bit about having an experience that is burnt onto your brain for life. Dr Jan Wright, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, says we need citizenry who care deeply about conservation and the environment. She has called for facilities in wilderness areas where groups of 13-to-15 year olds, for example, could spend time immersed in nature and learn new skills.

Time we spend in nature helps us learn more about it, and surely nurtures in us a deeper respect for it. There are all sorts of ways to achieve this.

  • Gord Stewart is a sustainability consultant with a background in environmental management and economics

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