Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Add to a very long list, populated in part by lions, whales, tortoises, monarch butterflies, gorillas, wildebeests and polar bears, a new wildlife encounter that has sparked tourism activity: the firefly.

And last week, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) Chairman Richard Fain, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) CEO Carter Roberts and I found ourselves together in a narrow, motorized outrigger on the Ogod River near Donsol, Philippines, looking for them.

The Ogod meandered among mangroves, and our conversation meandered a bit, as well. The fireflies we were looking for are small, about three-eighths of an inch long, and have taken a liking to the flowers of a certain species of mangrove found only in Southeast Asia. As there are wet seasons and dry seasons where the mangrove take root, these trees had evolved a water conservation strategy: They only open their tiny flowers at night.

Fireflies, distinguished among hundreds of thousands of insects by their own distinctive nocturnal strategy, became the mangroves' obliging partners in pollination: The small fireflies move from tiny flower to flower in what looked to us in the boat to be an undulating cloud of light.

Their lighting behavior was noticeably different from what we in North America observe in our backyards. Fain described the effect by saying, "It looks like they're doing the wave." The flashes seemed synchronized rather than random, and the insects' taillights seemed to stay on more than off, creating the "blink" in the moments they went dark rather than bright.

Although we had been told by our guide that the full moon we were under was a liability -- it produced light pollution --Roberts felt it was additive. What we may have lost in darkness, we more than made up for in context, seeing the trees' shadowy shapes and the moonlight reflecting off the brackish water below.

There were parallels in what we were seeing and what had brought us there in the first place. The fireflies and the mangroves had, in essence, formed a mutually beneficial partnership, triggered by the need for water conservation. The following day, Fain and Roberts would hold a press conference announcing a partnership designed to help protect the oceans, incorporating the context of the destinations where RCCL brands call around the world.

Beneath a particularly numerous and active flock of fireflies, Fain asked the pilot to cut the noisy motor and then asked me what my reaction to the partnership was when I had first heard about it.

I didn't yet have the details, but I told him that I receive press releases about partnerships from cruise lines fairly regularly and that most are linked to brand positioning or customer experience. I was thinking, for example, about Norwegian Cruise Line and its godfather-partner Pitbull, or Princess Cruises and its partnership with Discovery Communications. These seemed natural alliances, ways to strengthen bonds between brands and their target demographics.

This is different, Fain said. Yes, it's linked to the company and brand, in that RCCL's mission statement has strong service elements. And it's tied to the company's culture, which strives for constant improvement. It's very closely connected, Fain continued, to his personal belief that targets are critically important to improvement because "what you measure gets better."

"Targets are the coin of the realm," Roberts agreed. "They are bedrock."

Fain said that he and Roberts spent a great deal of time selecting goals and devising strategies to achieve targets to reduce carbon emissions, to source sustainable seafood supply chains and "do things in ways that protect the destinations we visit rather than exploit them."

"We both have certain expertise, and we both can touch things in a big way," he added. "We really feel we can make a difference."

Roberts said that one thing he found attractive in partnering with RCCL was educating "the millions of people who choose to take a vacation on the ocean" about threats to the seas. "It's more than just putting material in the cabins," Roberts said. "It's about really explaining what's at risk and how to turn things around."

Roberts asked me what I thought were the best examples of responsible, sustainable tourism that I had come across. I said the best I had seen were actually small in scale: eco-lodges that were able to control a relatively contained operation with near-100% sustainability.

"Sometimes it starts small and expands," Fain said, making a case for the impact that large companies can have. "For example, we wanted to develop a ship that would have zero landfill impact. Everything on board would be recycled, reused or incinerated. We now have 12 ships that meet that criteria."

Roberts, too, emphasized the importance of scale. "Generally, trends on the state of the planet are going in the wrong direction," he said. "Engaging leading companies in the private sector is increasingly important. We want to work with large companies that have a track record of continuous improvement and want to go further."

Richard Fain’s shirt reflects a common concern in Donsol, the Philippine’s whale shark-watching capital.
Richard Fain’s shirt reflects a common concern in Donsol, the Philippine’s whale shark-watching capital. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The firefly tours themselves could be seen as an example of how, sometimes, "it starts small and expands." They developed as an ancillary attraction to a larger source of local ecotourism activity: the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. After the WWF learned that whale sharks were becoming vulnerable, in part because other communities in the Philippines were hunting them, the organization facilitated the development of a swim-with-the-sharks program in Donsol. The local fishermen who went into Donsol Bay at night could supplement their income handsomely by ferrying tourists to the whale sharks during the day.

In partnership with the municipal government, the WWF helped establish best practices to ensure the tours were run responsibly, and soon visitors began to come to Donsol in earnest. The village had no hotels, however, so visitors stayed in Legazpi, about a 90-minute drive away. And there was no particular reason to stay in the town overnight after seeing the giant creatures: There was nothing else to do.

Enter the fireflies. Pairing firefly tours with shark tours created enough stayover demand to develop 300 rooms in small beachside resorts within Donsol.

And it was later discovered that the mangroves themselves were critical to whale sharks, providing the nutrients that attract the plankton they feed on.

As a result, the municipality, working with the WWF, passed laws protecting the mangroves as well as the whale sharks.

The Philippines have more conservation programs than most developing countries, Roberts had told us, and after we got off the boat he asked the guide how long the citizenry would keep conservation as a high priority. "For as long as people benefit from it," the guide answered.

"That is the whole story," Roberts told Fain and me.

The experience and conversation reminded me that nature itself operates in an extraordinarily complex matrix of partnerships. The fact that trends are going in the wrong direction for the planet is largely the result of man interfering with those partnerships.

But just as economic activity can be disruptive to the planet, so can it motivate people to act in the planet's interest. Donsol's protection of its natural resources is a model of how communities can be inspired to act locally, and the RCCL-WWF partnership is an example, writ large, of the benefits of enlightened corporate self-interest.

The self-interest can extend to travel advisers, as well. At the press conference the next day, Fain was asked what role travel agents could play in the partnership.

"[Cruise lines] are all moving forward" on sustainable practices, Fain said, and the targets of Royal's partnership with the WWF provide something tangible to talk about. "It can be used as an example not only of what a committed company can do but provides [guidance] about what a committed individual can do."

To "reverse the curve," as Roberts put it, and improve rather than degrade the planet will require involvement from governments, businesses large and small, communities and individuals. Although nature creatively adapts so that trees, insects, plankton and sharks unknowingly partner for mutual benefit, humans have the advantage, or disadvantage, of self-awareness. We're often in a position to choose our partners, target and strategies.

"We can accomplish a great deal," Fain had said in the boat. Beneath a swirl of fireflies, he summed up the question RCCL is addressing, and that all of us must address: "How do we get everyone moving in the right direction, together?"


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