Care to make a reservation?

Wealthy philanthropy-minded individuals are creating a new model for eco-tourism by developing high-end resorts and destinations where conservation is not a by-product but the core experience, as Sophy Roberts reports.

May 21 2011
Sophy Roberts

Ten years ago, South Africa-born conservationist Colin Bell – then CEO of travel company Wilderness Safaris – set out a blueprint for what he called a Noah’s Ark in the Seychelles. “We see it as an opportunity to create a legacy second to none,” he said at the time.

The project would return a 201-hectare island to its natural state. Such a rehabilitation was more ambitious than most believed possible: guano mining, copra plantations, rats brought in by ships and cats brought in to kill the rats had, between them, decimated bird populations on North Island. “It was under so much environmental stress that no environmentalist cared about it,” remembers Andy Payne, a former North Island shareholder and current CEO of Wilderness, who first identified and purchased the island in 1997. The ecosystem was close to collapse.

But there was a plan. The initiative to bring North Island back would be jump-started by a cash injection from four conservation-minded individuals, and ultimately sustained by dollars generated from a mere 11 rooms. Wilderness would turn the industry standard upside down – pushing way beyond optional linen changes and energy-saving light bulbs. In short, conservation would come first, and tourism would pay for it. It was a model made possible by the commitment of engaged private stakeholders from the start.

It is this perfect triangle – of wealthy individuals, commercial tourism and conservation – that defines a trend spreading much further afield, from Africa to Patagonia, from the Seychelles to the Flores Sea. “The tourism industry, if it is to be responsible, sustainable and effective in terms of conservation, can no longer exist in a bubble; the innovators understand this, which is why we are seeing a far greater impulse to invest in this arena,” says Will Jones, founder of specialist African tour operator Journeys By Design. “The desire is there, with real projects now taking shape on the ground.”

But the results are a slow boil, as evidenced at North. In 2003, I rocked up in a boat for a few hours to tread the island’s blistering white sands. The buildings had gone up, the first guests were beginning to arrive, and the beach was the most compelling I had ever seen. But as I ate a simple foot-in-the-sand lunch, a rat ran through the copra plantation behind. If this ever got out in the press, I reasoned, the paradise myth would be a very tough sell. I kept my own counsel, because North was an Edenic vision, and like anyone who saw its potential – and the new model it represented – I wanted it to work. Last November I returned, just days after North had been bought by a Russian couple.

I was nervous. Had Wilderness failed and sold out? Last time I’d come across a Russian in these islands, conservation wasn’t at the front of her mind; it was a woman who spat her chewing gum into the swimming pool as she walked its edge in high heels. At North Island, however, the new owners were, I was told, strong subscribers to the conservation ethic around which the Noah’s Ark was conceived. “If that wasn’t the case we would have neither sold nor remained involved with the marketing and management of North,” says Payne. “With Wilderness listed on both South Africa’s and Botswana’s stock exchanges, a mistake would have jeopardised everything we have built up over the years.”

The fact is that North’s successes aren’t just the deeply complex logistics of putting extreme luxury in place – the perfect beach houses, the exquisite food, the 135 staff – but the delivery on the conservation aims that Bell outlined at the start. The last rat was seen in 2005. The Seychelles white-eye, an endangered warbler, was reintroduced in July 2007. The black mud terrapin arrived in 2008. The island’s conservationist, Flemish-born biologist Linda Vanherck, hopes that the magpie robin, which at the time of North’s purchase had a worldwide population of 52, will be next. Non-native trees have been replaced, and lazy giant tortoises sit beneath the shade of thriving takamaka trees.

Of course, at €2,115 a night, only very few get to witness this transformation. And there’s no denying that some clients couldn’t give a damn about the wildlife. Testimony to this are the hazard markings on the shell of Brutus, a giant tortoise struck by a guest on a drunken binge with his golf buggy. But North’s clients are also some of the world’s wealthiest people, who have the power to influence. They help create acolytes, and sometimes – if they are moved by their experience – choose to spend their own fortunes in the pursuit of protecting the planet, as evidenced by the island’s recent sale. What is clear is that the momentum is here to stay, with Wilderness now only a few steps from securing the Russians’ investment to take the island “off the grid once and for all,” says Payne. If these acts of engagement become not just possible but fashionable, then surely this is one of the most exciting things to have happened to that fusty notion of responsible travel – tangible responses among a profligate and, let’s face it, sometimes grotesquely free-spending clientele.

It is an impulse recognised by Jones at Journeys by Design. So far he has raised $3.8m in five years for communities and wildlife through one-off donations and auction events. “These occasions opened our eyes to the people who were prepared to drop $1m in three minutes; I want to see what can be done by extending that commitment from three minutes to 30 years,” he says. Such is the genesis of Wild Philanthropy, an advisory, purchasing and logistics service that Jones launches this month to help the very rich move from being a guest and occasional donor of these great conservation projects to investing in visions of their own. An environmental scientist by training, Jones became a tour operator by default when he began to understand how travel was a way for many people to make a living in a part of the world that survives under enormous contrary pressures from farming and wildlife. “Nor is tourism always the sole answer,” says Jones. “Local enterprise and micro-financing are vital too. But in recent years I’ve also noticed an opportunity – to leverage the desire among wealthy people not just to engage and give, but to invest. Wild Philanthropy is about building bridges between donors and practical conservation initiatives on the ground. It is about harnessing the spending power of our top tour operator clients because the will is now there.”

Jones is possibly one of the best examples of the phenomenon that Pedro Ibáñez, the Chilean philanthropist and founder of the Explora group of hotels in South America, describes. “We are always worried about the impact tourism makes,” he says. “It’s true; we have to do things properly. But we can conserve places better if they are visited. If totally abandoned, worse can occur.” To support this thesis, Ibáñez recently set up the Explora Foundation – “a step forward in taking care of the local communities and conserving nature”, he says, to complement Explora’s hotels in Atacama, Patagonia and Easter Island, all of which display a strong commitment to locals, landscapes, wildlife and archaeology. “Every day we are noticing the requests from people,” says Ibáñez: “They now demand we explain how we are protecting this part of the world.”

In this more rigorous, active context, urging guests to turn off their lights when they leave the room is no longer enough. “We don’t sell green,” says Payne. “We try to inspire guests by showing them a different way.” In this, eco-tourism has moved into a more ambitious gear, although Wilderness is under no illusion about the difficulty of surmounting the belief that conservation doesn’t pay. According to Payne, this point of view has affected North in the past when, in 2005, a guest offered a large donation. By the end of the client’s stay, the offer was withdrawn. “He felt the beneficiary would be the lodge – the tourism element – and not the conservation initiative,” says Payne. “What we failed to make clear was that the lodge pays for the rest – €60,000 a month, for the past five years.” It was after this that Wilderness started to shift its message. “Wilderness is now no longer a tour operator. It is a conservation organisation,” says Vanherck. “There is a lot riding on the brand.”

Likewise Great Plains Conservation, the company Colin Bell set up in 2006 with four other leading Africa-based conservationists. It funds projects from a variety of initiatives. Primarily, its schemes in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles are paid for by high-end, low-impact tourism, which pays in the most part for conservation programmes in crucially important wildlife havens, which otherwise would be threatened by human encroachment. Great Plains wants such projects to inspire others around the world to replicate a model that triangulates communities, conservation and commerce to create profitable alternative land use to farming, poaching and, in marine environments, over-fishing.

The wheels are turning. Vamizi in Mozambique, for instance, appears to echo the North Island concept with villas and conservation projects. Misool Eco Resort off remote West Papua in Indonesia is another. But it is Paul Lister, heir to the MFI fortune, who is the most candid of all about why sometimes difficult, demanding but moneyed guests are to be tolerated at all in pursuit of a much bigger idea.

Lister has recently completed three luxury lodges at Alladale, his private 23,000-acre estate in Scotland where he wants to reintroduce wolves as part of a mission to “re-wild” territory from the UK to Romania and beyond. He admits the mechanics of hospitality can be challenging: “But it’s very important. I could just stick up fences, chuck in the wolves, and let them all get on with it. But you can’t do these sorts of things without involving people.” Lister may have the private funds to bankroll his Scottish project, but pure philanthropy isn’t the point. Tourism engages local communities by way of employment, he explains; it involves outsiders by the promise of a unique, transformative experience. In this mission, Lister connects with his mentors, Kristine and Douglas Tompkins, who have both used their private wealth – she was formerly director of Patagonia clothing, he the co-founder of Esprit – to help create or expand national and provincial parks (for now, in Chile and Argentina), protecting wildlife, reintroducing locally extinct species and developing eco-tourism projects to support the commercial objectives as well as drive the emotional engagement of visitors and locals. Because conservation is rarely just about nature; it is about communities seeing how conserved nature pays.

In this arena, the challenges are immense, with Norwegian Svein Wilhelmsen at Basecamp Explorer one among a new gang of mavericks trying to lead the charge. A traveller-turned-investor-turned-philanthropist, Wilhelmsen believes that tourism and conservation will only ever work together if they become truly sustainable in showcases that can be scaled up across different parts of the world. “Isolated experiences are nice, but they don’t have a lot of impact,” he says. “I want to tell a global story, not a one-dimensional one.”

Wilhelmsen is an unusual mix. He wanted to be a social anthropologist; instead, he pursued a different career, and in 2007 sold Norway’s then biggest privately owned fund management company. “I wanted to do something with the last part of my life that had some kind of impact – and which protected the wonder my youngest child expressed when I took my family to Africa,” he says. Basecamp Explorer was the result, a company currently made up of several different, high-end eco-tourism experiences, including camps in the Maasai Mara, dhows sailing out of Lamu in Kenya, a renovated farmhouse in the Pyrenees, lodges in Spitsbergen, a fort in Rajasthan and a guesthouse in Dharamsala in northern India. All share an authenticity and cultural richness that Wilhelmsen deems as worthy of protection as wildlife and wilderness. All Basecamp projects also engage the local population on the understanding that ultimately the communities will manage and staff the business themselves.

“The usual thinking is to consider the indigenous people as difficult to train in tourism,” says Wilhelmsen. “With Basecamp, we try to show how they should be valued as a resource. The old model of buying them off and putting them elsewhere is no longer viable.” But is it profitable, this vision of his? “It is vitally important that Basecamp is self-financing. I have to prove that the concept of long-term conservation and cultural preservation doesn’t need to be completely donor-dependent. But no, it doesn’t need to make me rich. ”

Wilhelmsen thinks the demand is on an upward curve: “By travelling you are exposed to experiences that you can contribute something to, and help sustain it. People really want to give – that is becoming more and more prevalent.” But while every contribution counts, says Jones, what is truly compelling is the engagement of the very rich, and their ability, like Wilhelmsen’s, to drive the next cycle of change.

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