PACIFIC HARBOR, Fiji—There are many travel companies these days that present an environmentally responsible public image, marketing themselves as “eco-friendly” or claiming to offer “eco-tours,” but few live up to the standards these labels suggest. Enter Rivers Fiji, sister company of California-based outfitter O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), a leader in responsible travel since 1969. Rivers Fiji has been offering whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, and multi-activity adventures six days a week, 12 months a year out of Pacific Harbor, Fiji since 1998. But do the company’s adventurous activities qualify as “eco-tours?”
By supporting community development and environmental conservation, Rivers Fiji programs are not only “eco-friendly;” they define eco-tourism. With the help of nine mataqali (land-owning groups), two villages, a logging company, and the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), the company successfully negotiated with the government of Fiji and established the Upper Navua Conservation Area in 2000. This unique public-private partnership protects the pristine Upper Navua River Canyon, a 10.5-mile conservation corridor, from future logging or gravel extraction. In return, Rivers Fiji compensates the NLTB and land owners through lease payments, user fees, and employment opportunities, ultimately leading to full protection of the area.
On April 11, 2006, the Upper Navua Conservation Area became Fiji’s first officially designated Ramsar site (protected wetland of international importance), making it part of more than 1280 wetlands around the world which now include nearly two million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface area. The Ramsar Convention is “the first of the modern global intergovernmental treaties on conservation and wise use of natural resources” and recognizes the Upper Navua Conservation Area as an important host to flora and fauna critical to the health of the area as well as to the greater local and global human communities.
To further protect and manage the conservation area, Rivers Fiji developed a comprehensive natural resource and tourism management plan with the help of the NLTB and mataqali. All guides receive an in-depth international training program which includes a minimum of a three-month guide school as well as training in swift-water rescue, first-aid and C.P.R., river conservation related to operating tourism programs, and conservation briefings related to the company’s rivers and ocean operations. In addition, prior to visiting villages, Rivers Fiji guides educate its guests about the area’s ecosystem, cultural traditions, heritage sites, and local preservation issues, thus affording guests the rare opportunity to understand the daily life of indigenous Fijians in the rural highlands.
Rivers Fiji has also set up several mechanisms for local participation in its day-to-day and long-term operations. For example, the opinions of local communities are regularly solicited and incorporated in decision-making events related to operations. In fact, the mataqali are a part of the decision-making process relating to guide hiring and natural resource management field work. In addition, meetings are held regularly with village elders to discuss their ideas and concerns, as they relate to company operations, the results of which help the company make key operational decisions.
Rivers Fiji believes that empowering local communities in this manner makes its programs successful. “We have created full-time employment for the local people,” said George Wendt, co-owner of Rivers Fiji. “In fact, with the exception of our managing director and marketing/operations manager, all of our employees are from the communities where we operate. Thus they have a real stake in the long-term sustainability of the places we visit and in Rivers Fiji as a sustainable tourism operation.” Wendt continues, “In fact, infractions by logging companies and plans for road development through the conservation area have been thwarted due to mataqali alerting Rivers Fiji management and local authorities.”
Historically, Fiji’s tourism development has been focused on the coastal communities – with Fiji’s interior populations receiving little benefit. Rivers Fiji, however, provides economic alternatives to people whose previous development options were limited to logging and resource extraction.
The company believes it has broadened Fiji’s overall perspective regarding the economic value of conservation as it relates to its people and ecosystems. Its efforts certainly back up the environmentally responsible public image it has worked so hard to earn. In recognition of its continued efforts, at an award ceremony this past January, Rivers Fiji swept the 2006 AON Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards as the proud recipient of both the Adventure Tourism Award and the Environmental Tourism Award.