A sustainable solution bringing change to the Coral Triangle
When I started looking for a diving destination somewhere within the Coral Triangle I soon realised that the resorts all look fabulous on their websites, but that’s to be expected. I don’t believe the 'pristine waters and reefs' hype so commonly splashed around in promotional materials. I doubt most people do. There are now few, if any, coral reefs in the world that are pristine, meaning in their original condition, and unaffected by human activity. Coral Triangle reefs, like any other marine environments rimmed by large populations, have been fished, exploited, and polluted for centuries.
Then, this passage of text caught my attention on the Wakatobi website: 'Prior to the (conservation) program, the locals were largely dependent on working with foreign, illegal fishing boats to make a living. In the area around Wakatobi, this kind of fishing still occurs, limited however by our patrols, by boats from other areas of Indonesia or other countries. These boats are owned and crewed by people who don’t consider the pressure they are putting on the marine life. The owners don’t pay local taxes, the crew doesn’t care where they throw anchor or deplete marine resources. In the end, locals get very little gain from this kind of activity.
'But there is no way that anyone with a sustainability agenda could have marched in and simply told the locals to not walk on the reefs and stop supporting the foreign fishermen, as these activities provided part of their living. Instead, what was needed was an alternative source of income whereby people could choose whether they wished to preserve or destroy. We believed, and still do, that the best and most sustainable alternative is to create employment and education opportunities through responsible, conservation-linked tourism.'
This frank summary of the problem of illegal and destructive fishing, and Wakatobi Resort’s stated commitment to invest time and money in pursuit of a sustainable solution for it, seemed like a good enough reason to seriously consider Wakatobi as a dive destination.
Then my own selfishness kicked in. Wakatobi Resort offered a charter flight from Bali to the resort’s own private airstrip. This is a flight from an international airport right into the heart of the Coral Triangle, without having to run the gauntlet of multiple domestic flights. The unreliability of many domestic services across Southeast Asia, combined with the increasing hassles and costs associated with traveling with heavy diving and fragile photographic kits, and the lack of authority of the front line counter staff to solve even minor problems for paying customers, have all worked to take the gloss off traveling as a diving photographer. The idea of simply handing off all those logistical issues to someone else and just enjoying the ride was irresistible.
So we went to Wakatobi Resort to see for ourselves. And now we’ve been there, so far, five times, with a couple of those visits extended into three-week stays. We continue to return because they have done what its founder first committed to achieving some 20 years ago. Given its remoteness, the challenges of building and maintaining substantial infrastructure under foreign laws and culture, the difficulties of introducing and sustaining change in the face of generations of entrenched practices, it could not have been an easy task—and very probably, still is not.
But it is paying off. Wakatobi Resort’s efforts are creating economic value that is sustaining the reefs. Education and conservation programs are creating new employment and career choices for local people. Around 18 area villages benefit directly from revenues generated by the resort through the provision of direct lease payments, electricity and educational support. Local fishermen have a reliable customer willing to pay premium prices for high-quality, sustainably-harvested fish. No-take areas are generally recognised and respected by those local fishermen, who understand these area's roles in replenishing the reefs.
Sustainably managed reefs are a joy to dive. For me, they give some insight into the abundance and diversity that once existed. Secrets emerge from them dive by dive as the terrain becomes more familiar and the lives of the marine life cycle through time and tide. Clearly, many other divers feel the same way. That’s why Wakatobi Resort is attracting so many of them.
When they come, they bring with them the revenues that fuel Wakatobi’s economic engine. When they leave, they can take away more than their memories and photographs. We live in a world where the lottery of birth means that some people have to scavenge reef-tops at low tide for food, while others are able to earn the means to dive the reefs on holidays, with camera systems worth more than a local house.
Diving around Wakatobi Resort brings with it the satisfaction that our hard-earned income has yielded not only pleasure and relaxation for us, but also helped support their conservation program. Individually, it might only be a drop in the ocean, but each guest here is part of that program. Drop by drop, it is making a difference.
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