The (not so) guilty pleasure of holidays

Posted on April 4, 2011

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I’d like to think I’m not an ‘over-the-shoulder-reader’ when I travel on the tube. I find it really irksome when other people do it to me and I often want to turn and say, “Have you quite finished, can I turn the page now?!”

I always carry a book or pick up a free paper for my journey –  there’s plenty of them at most tube stations and depending on which line you use, some carriages are littered with dog-eared rags which have been re-read by at least three different people, according to some surveys. Someone pass me the sanitiser!

This afternoon I found myself not so much looking over the shoulder, but staring at the back page of a paper which was held up for all and sundry to view. There, in what was a half page ad, was the cutest photograph of a baby orangutan half smiling (in that anthropomorphic-way) as a blatant plug for an airline flying to South East Asia.

baby orangutan in Sarawak, Borneo

I’m all for a country embracing its local assets, but how local wildlife is protected and preserved through tourism is something of a hot potato, especially when it comes to endangered species.

Over the weekend my Irish friend, BodhránQueen (BQ) was asking me about the different types of organisations that charge you for the privilege of being a volunteer in order to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. Some of these ‘experiences’ can be very pricey ranging from £1500 upwards and there’s no guarantee you know where the money is going or how reputable the company is. You must do your own research and check! There’s no overall eco-tourism ombudsman, so if in doubt try and cross reference with a reputable conservation organisation, if you’re unsure.

However, one company I did suggest BQ look at is The Great Projects, which I have only recently discovered myself. Last week I was introduced via email to its managing director, Afzaal Mauthoor.

Last year the company – which has a base is Hertfordshire – was given a highly commended award in the category of best volunteering organisation for its Great Orangutan Project in the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards. The Great Projects has been going for more than six years and Mr Mauthoor has spent many years living and working in Malaysia before he decided to bring the concept to the UK. He told me: “We were so pleased to be recognised, we haven’t bagged the biggie yet, which is the overall winner in that category, so it’s something to aim for.

“When I started The Great Projects I wanted to build a company that would not follow the old dinosaur model of some NGO’s. I used to work as a consultant at a time when eco-tourism was just starting to take off in Malaysia. There were lots of gap year students and people on career-breaks looking to do something different. I saw there was an opportunity and so I started looking at alternative ways of helping conservation while creating a meaningful experience for people.”

Mr Mauthoor tells me the company tries to be more accountable to local people and the organisation is run like a business where 25 per cent of its total revenue goes back to local communities where the projects are run. Any profits made are then used to start other projects and run the various sites.

If done well eco-tourism can also be hugely beneficial to the indigenous population, who appreciate the influx of tourists spending their hard-earned cash.

He said: “In 2009, we received one hundred and twenty-one volunteers at Sarawak in Borneo for the orangutan experience. The money raised from those volunteers paying to stay, brought in more funds than ninety-five thousand tourists on orangutan holidays in the same area that year booked through travel agents.”

For every volunteer programme bought, 40 per cent goes into conservation and development projects. The company is hoping by the end of 2012 to have hit the million pound donation mark which has helped people and wildlife at different sites in Borneo.

local community in Borneo

As well as volunteer programmes there are also eco-tours available, and the variety of species is impressive – turtles in Malaysia; dolphins in Peru; Gorilla tours with Ian Redmond; Lions in South Africa. Mr Mauthoor added: “You’ll find that more often than not a conservation project is built around a given species with the aim of protecting it.

“The tourism programme is designed around the project to drive much-needed funds to it. The volunteer or traveller also get an opportunity to personally contribute to projects  through activities such as husbandry, infrastructure building, rehabilitation and release of animals, habitat restoration as well as community involvement.

“This tourism is in its most compassionate form and you can use your travel to express your responsibility to an endangered species or habitat. This makes The Great Projects a seriously good way to travel and make a difference abroad.”

So if like BQ you’re wondering what to do this summer and feel you’d like to contribute to conservation look into eco-tourism – you don’t have to grow dreads and turn into Swampy to help wildlife and local communities who need our support.

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Posted in: Branching out