A year ago I embarked on an Australian Government funded project with the WWF exploring the potential for Nature-based Tourism to play a more central role to the sustainable socio–economic development of the 6 Coral Triangle Countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste).
It was interesting on a number of levels, not least because of the potential it had to drive change across the region, but also because of the real opportunity it seemed to offer to help some of the most disadvantaged and climate change threatened communities of the Coral Triangle.
It was, however, work done at a macro scale, consisting of a healthy dose of theory and research that sought to open up potential pathways for more sustainable long–term tourism growth to support local populations whilst also protecting some of the most bio–diverse marine environments on the planet.
My involvement with the project has continued since then, and September saw me joining others from the project team on a field trip to PNG to explore what the reality of growing Nature–based Tourism at the micro level really looks like.
Now I love working on strategy, but I also like connecting that strategy to the real world – and, ideally, working directly with the people who will be both affected by the changes being explored and have to work to make them happen.
It was an inspiring, if exhausting, trip.
For just over a week, we got to explore the potential for the project with senior Government officials in Port Moresby as well as the Provincial Government in West New Britain (the province of PNG selected for the initial test site); we met with local community leaders, business owners and industry representatives; and we got to explore Kimbe Bay – an underdeveloped marine paradise surrounded by volcanoes, WWII relics, cultural sites and wildlife everywhere you looked.
And whilst my initial involvement in the project will potentially have the most impact for the Coral Triangle, it was my journey to the potential start–point of a 20–year socio–economic shift for the region that affected me the most. Meeting locals genuinely excited by our interest in their region and personal story; eating a simple meal with the village pastor after a particularly challenging trek into the jungle to find some volcanic springs; being taken out to snorkel in what we later found out were waters saltwater crocodiles happily called home.
I returned home with a tangible sense that the project had reached a real turning point. That as more and more people started to hear about the potential changes Nature–based Tourism could bring to the region, the more momentum behind those changes was being built.
Yes, there are massive challenges to overcome before the project becomes reality; from finding adequate funding to build the Tourism Infrastructure needed, to creating suitable multi–country governance arrangements to ensure the project can evolve and grow (and to make sure the funding goes where it is meant to). But the energy and belief I got to see in the smart, driven and pragmatic individuals I met in Kimbe Bay gives me confidence that, whilst it might take time, pretty much all those barriers are surmountable.
I hope so, because I'm already planning my return in a few years' time with my wife and daughters to enjoy a world–class Nature–based Tourism holiday amongst my new friends in Kimbe!