Setting up shop in a marine protected area (MPA) is certainly no simple feat; just ask these liveaboard and dive resort owners and reps behind some of Asia Pacific’s most well-known green businesses.
Running a dive business in a regular tourist hotspot is one thing, but to do it in a marine protected area (MPA) – that’s a whole new ball game. It’s clear that it’s all about finding that right balance of profit and conservation, so what does it take to ensure the scales aren’t tipped in a negative way? We zoom in on three MPAs and three dive operations that – after overcoming plenty of hurdles – have managed to make their green businesses work.
WHY ESTABLISH A DIVE RESORT IN AN MPA?
It actually started the other way around. When resort founder Lorenz Mäder first discovered the site that is now Wakatobi, he wanted to protect it. To do this, he made agreements with fishermen and villagers in the area before he opened the resort; in exchange for halting destructive fishing practices and agreeing to honour no-take zones, the local people would receive a portion of resort revenue and other civic benefits such as electricity and funding for village schools. This led to the creation of Wakatobi’s Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme, which now protects more than 20 kilometres of reef.
WHAT STEPS IS WAKATOBI DIVE RESORT TAKING TO MAKE THE RESORT SUSTAINABLE AND ECO-FRIENDLY?
Conducting reef monitoring and cleaning whenever needed; ensuring resort structures are created by local craftsmen using locally-sourced, sustainable materials; treating all wastewater in biological ways (microbiological decomposition under ideal conditions at 28°C/leach fields/ other treatments to prevent nutrients from entering the sea) – just to name a few. We also work together with Project AWARE to advise operators worldwide how to contribute substantially towards the marine ecosystem, and we’re managing a turtle nursery on the resort grounds – this operation is returning hundreds of healthier, stronger hatchlings to the wild each year.
DOES THE RESORT HELP OR SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESSES AND COMMUNITIES?
We provide direct employment for over 100 local people and share revenue with 17 village areas and hundreds of fishermen in the form of lease payments for the protected reef zones. We supply clean water and electricity to villages. We fund schools and other social programmes, and we employ widows to fabricate the palm-thatch roof tiles used on all buildings.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WAKATOBI DIVE RESORT HAS TO DEAL WITH?
One of our greatest challenges is the remoteness of the property. In the past, it took more than 36 hours to reach the resort from Bali. We now provide direct charter fights to the resort. To reduce our dependency on the outside world, we source all appropriate materials and commodities locally.
HOW DO YOU MARKET THE ECO RESORT?
Our primary message is that Wakatobi is a place where you can discover one of the world’s most pristine marine environments and enjoy the pleasures of a luxury resort while at the same time benefitting and sustaining this natural setting so that all can enjoy it for many years to come.
We also promote that our privately sponsored reef sanctuaries lie within the Wakatobi Marine Reserve; in 2012 this National Marine Park was designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and is recognised as one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on Earth.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN SETTING UP AN ECO RESORT LIKE WAKATOBI?
Start small but be willing to dream big. Wakatobi started with nothing more than one man’s passion to protect a very special place. Working with limited resources, on a remote beach in an area the world scarcely knew, our founder created a simple dive lodge. Two decades later, it has grown to become one of the world’s premier diving destinations.
TELL US THE STORY BEHIND MISOOL ECO RESORT.
Rampant shark finning and destructive fishing methods were destroying some of the most important and biodiverse reefs on Earth here in Raja Ampat. We actually set out to build a conservation centre in the area, but we couldn’t figure out how to raise the money for it, and so our funding mechanism was to build a dive resort. Most eco resorts start the other way around, with the business leading the way and conservation following after.
Together with the local community, we transformed a shark finning camp into the beautiful resort island that it is today. We trained up local rangers to patrol the 880 square-kilometre no-take zone, and over a five-year period, the biomass on our reefs has increased by over 250%. We now see sharks on every dive!
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS BUSINESS OWNERS HAVE TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN EXPLORING OPPORTUNITIES IN ECO-TOURISM?
It’s a commitment to locate the sweet spot of sustainability, somewhere where conservation and profitability intersect. This commitment needs to be written into the business plan from day one. There will be some hard choices to make along the way, but we need to always keep the long-term vision in mind; if we don’t protect our reefs none of us will be in business much longer. New businesses often face real cash flow issues, and sustainable choices can be more expensive than quick fixes.
ARE THERE NEW SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES THE RESORT IS PLANNING TO ADOPT?
We’ve managed to find eco-friendly solutions to many of our infrastructure and development challenges, but our next big hurdle is to turn off our diesel generators without compromising our guests’ comfort. We’re working on a super exciting renewable energy project now which will start with photovoltaics. I can’t reveal any more right now, but hopefully we’ll be ready to unveil the first stage of this project before the end of 2015.
DOES THE RESORT HELP OR SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESSES AND COMMUNITIES?
Misool Eco Resort’s initial construction crew of five local labourers has grown into a team of over 120 members, about 75% of whom are local community members. Throughout the development of the resort, we’ve also offered apprenticeship programmes, on-site job training, explanation of our mission and vision, English lessons, and internal promotions – resulting in an incredibly high staff retention rate. We also have our charitable foundation called Misool Baseftin. In addition to patrolling our no-take zone, the foundation has also created a community recycling project which provides economic incentives for proper waste management. In our first year, we collected and recycled over 200 tons of rubbish. We’ve also built kindergartens, supported local school teachers, and created libraries.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SET UP AN ECO-FRIENDLY DIVE RESORT? DO THE OWNERS OR MANAGERS HAVE A BACKGROUND IN CONSERVATION OR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, OR DID YOU BRING IN CONSULTANTS?
Well, actually none of the founding partners had any background in conservation. Though we did find that our training was useful at unexpected moments – anthropology and psychology have broad applications! We surrounded ourselves with people who shared the same passion for nature and conservation, but made sure everyone had a different set of skills to offer. If we had had the means to hire consultants, I’m sure we would have avoided a lot of mistakes! The learning curve was steep indeed.
DOES MISOOL ECO RESORT WORK WITH PARTNER NGOS?
Yes, we work closely with WildAid, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, CORAL, Reef Check, Seacology, Shark Savers, and of course, our own marine conservation foundation, Misool Baseftin.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN SETTING UP AN ECO RESORT LIKE MISOOL?
My advice: Do it now. We don’t have the luxury of time anymore. We simply cannot wait for governments or NGOs to fix things. We need to all take some responsibility and hopefully we can steer the future of this planet in a safer direction.
WHY START A LIVEABOARD BUSINESS IN AN MPA?
For one, marine park fees collected from divers cover more than half of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park’s operating expenses. Another reason is – the way I see it – divers are the unofficial policemen of the reef. I have personally come across MPAs where diving is prohibited; one time, an NGO gave me the opportunity to study and document the “success” of one such MPA and all I found was a decimated reef! Since no one was actively checking up on the reef for the longest time, no one knew that the guardians themselves: A) never ever showed up to perform their duties, and B) were in fact the most destructive and harvesting from the MPA what they were supposed to protect. The bottom line is this – whenever I learn that an MPA does not allow any diving, I have doubts about its success.
IS DISCOVERY FLEET DOING ANYTHING TO MAKE THE OPERATION SUSTAINABLE AND ECO-FRIENDLY?
Plastic cups are no longer available in the water dispenser area; instead, from next season onwards, the loot bag we provide divers will include a water bottle so they can just refill it. For the toiletries in the bathrooms, we are doing away with small plastic containers, and using pump bottles filled with biodegradable shampoo and body wash. Ditto for the dishwashing stuff. Also, we’ve installed solar panels on the bar deck roof in order to reduce our carbon footprint, and are currently trying to find anchoring areas.
WAS SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR THAT HELPED MAKE IT EASIER TO OPERATE IN AN MPA LIKE TUBBATAHA?
As far as liveaboard operations go, I think the park manager, Angelique Songco, and the rest of the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) staff have done a marvellous job in conveying the do’s and don’ts in Tubbataha, making it easy for all of us to comply with the rules. They always treat liveaboard operators as partners in terms of conservation, which is really, really important. So for most liveaboard operators, we see protecting Tubbataha as a common goal that all of us share. Other MPAs have this “us against them” attitude. The TMO are in constant contact with us, the operators, to inform, educate, and seek opinion on several issues (new regulations, marine park fees). This is a partnership we appreciate very much.
DOES DISCOVERY FLEET WORK WITH PARTNER NGOS?
Yes, as long as they are endorsed by the TMO. One example is the Large Marine Vertebrates Project (LAMAVE), who launched a new research project to assess the biodiversity of sharks and rays in Tubbataha’s waters earlier this year in March 2015. Personally, I also make it a point to host members of the NGO community, tourism, and other government offices on dive trips to expose them to this aspect of the business.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN ESTABLISHING A LIVEABOARD IN AN MPA LIKE TUBBATAHA?
Maintain good relations with the government office in charge of overseeing the MPA. Think of the marine park as your second home and be active, supportive and most importantly, vocal about protecting it and the people who are tasked with protecting it.