Dispatch, Southern Africa: Tourism builds a community

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KKAFRICA200x115Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is spending two weeks traveling in South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana. His second dispatch follows. Click to read his first dispatch.

It was if I got an instant answer to the questions I posed in my first dispatch from southern Africa — how to balance tourism development and cultural preservation, or how to ensure local communities benefit from foreign-owned resorts, for example.

One of the very first things I learned after checking in at Rani Resorts’ Indigo Bay Resort and Spa — a 44-unit, luxury beachfront property lapped by the turquoise, aqua and, yes, indigo waters surrounding Mozambique’s gemlike Bazaruto Island — was that each guest is asked to contribute $10 to a community-services fund.

Dubai-based Rani matches each $10 donation, and then uses collected funds to improve local infrastructure and buy school supplies for island students.

The people of the Bazaruto Archipelago, which consists of five sandy islands about 450 miles northeast of capital city Maputo, live a subsistence lifestyle largely reliant on fishing, with little agriculture due to poor soil conditions.

Mozambique-BazarutoHut-KKRoss Mackay, deputy general manager of Indigo Bay (which opened in 2001), told me that the 3,500 inhabitants of Bazaruto Island proper, home to both Indigo Bay and Pestana Bazaruto Lodge, until quite recently had no access to proper education or healthcare.

Today, they have use of a medical clinic, a two-room schoolhouse that will be expanded and several new water pumps, all thanks to the community-services fund.

“Our projects have been building the school, the clinic and the water pumps, as well as just developing the careers and opportunities in terms of buying local produce —mainly just fish as there’s not much agriculture — and running our little boutique, for which we can get local people making art and crafts,” Mackay said.

In the near future, Indigo Bay will open a crafts market for local artisans, “a sort of flea market where guests can see local people with their wares,” he added.

Residents also count among the resort staff (largely comprised of mainland Mozambicans) overseen by managers from South Africa and other more developed countries.

But locals have risen in the resort ranks. For example, managers of project development and, appropriately enough, community services are island-born.

In fact, Indigo Bay makes a point of helping Bazaruto islanders better their prospects. “We’ve started hospitality training programs, whether it is in housekeeping, food and beverage, or reception, and we’re getting local islanders coming here to work on a six-month basis,” Mackay said. Not everyone’s cut out for hospitality, but you’ve got to give people a chance. It helps expands their horizons beyond just fishing.”

It might have seemed a callous question but, playing devil’s advocate, I asked Mackay why Rani Resorts bothers to help out on the island.

“This isn’t our island at all,” he explained. “Indigo Bay’s just got a part of it, and we’ve got 3,500 inhabitants on the island that we’ve got to accommodate and work with at the end of the day.”

Rani Resorts does not own the Indigo Bay site, but, leases it long-term from the Mozambique government, which has designated the archipelago a marine national park.

“We do need to work with local people, and we’ve got international guests coming here who need to see what Indigo Bay’s doing as part of the community,” he added.

So, Mackay encourages guests who sign up for the resort’s 2.5-hour drive to the island’s towering sand dunes and crocodile-filled lakes to also stop by the school or clinic for a bit. Seeing how the community-services fund has improved life on Bazaruto Island has inspired some guests to make larger contributions.

One woman has just paid for 14 local students to study for a year at Inhambane High School, located on the mainland. “It wMozambique-BazarutoSchool-KKasn’t a huge donation — it was $1,200 — but it paid for 14 students to go and study for a year, which includes accommodation, education, books and so forth,” Mackay said. “That’s really not expensive at all.”

I agreed. Eighty-five dollars per student for a year of boarding school seems almost unbelievable.

Other guests with deeper pockets have chipped in even more, enabling the school to double the number of indoor classrooms to four. (Schoolchildren also take some classes in three shaded outdoor areas … not too bad a situation in good weather, given Bazaruto’s favorable climate.)

“We had two guests make a $10,000 donation and that money is going to the classrooms. It’s fantastic,” Mackay said.

Some Scrooges do refuse the voluntary $10 donation, or, more reasonably, question how and where the money is spent. In addition to the facilities, money goes to school supplies such as “crayons and books and other learning materials, which are not cheap to buy because you simply can’t get them here,” explained Mackay. “Everything has to be imported from South Africa or overseas, so it adds up. But that $10 per guest, which we match, does pile up and it does go to the community.”

I was charmed by Indigo Bay’s Mozambican staff — who were courteous, engaging, relatively fluent in English and always ready with a smile and greeting — but eager to meet other islanders off-property to see what the fund had wrought.

I piled into a Jeep one afternoon with four other guests, including a well-known Caribbean hotelier, and our local guide Antonio. We set off on the dirt paths that serve as the island’s road network.

As we passed clusters of round, thatched huts — most surrounded by tidy yards and small plots of wilting maize and sturdier cassava plants — groups of toddlers and younger children, who take classes in the morning, ran out to wave and shout greetings in Portuguese, English and the local indigenous African dialect.

We pulled up to the school and were greeted outside by the teacher, a refined twenty-something man from the mainland town of Maxixe. After a quick debriefing on students’ typical lesson plans, he led us inside one of the also tidy and orderly — if by U.S. standards, threadbare — classrooms.

About 30 sixth-graders leapt to their feet and, in unison, greeted us with “Good afternoon, gracious guests.”

Having exhausted their supply of English, they then sat down and reverted to smiles, giggles, snickering or simply ignoring us while we peppered their lecturer with questions. As I awkwardly snapped a few photos, I worried I was making the children feel like charity cases, or as if they were on display for my entertainment. I powered down my digital camera and stepped outside after waving goodbye.

I was glad to have met the students and seen the good that Indigo Bay and its guests have done on Bazaruto. Secretly, I was also just as glad to drive away, leaving the stuMozambique-BazarutoStudents-KKdents to their privacy and dignity.

On the drive back, I pondered the dilemma of the intrusive, sometimes paternalistic, nature of tourism to developing countries. A little metaphorical cloud gathered over my head.

But then a group of little boys, leaping up and down and screaming hellos, burst out of one of those round thatched shacks, and ran out to the dirt road as we passed.

One little fellow, more persistent than the rest, kept running after us as his friends, suddenly spent, fell back. I caught his eye as he ran and ran and ran, and he was smiling and yelling “Hey, hey, hey!”

He finally stopped and stood in the road, still waving, but now goodbye. I smiled and waved back … and my little storm cloud broke.

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