Travel giant Kuoni, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and local environmental consultancy Seamarc have launched a comprehensive project to protect coral reefs and address the impact of climate change in the Maldives.
Speaking at the launch of the project this week at the Nalahiya hotel in Male’, Kuoni’s Head of Corporate Responsibility Matthias Leisinger observed that “tourism is like fire. You can cook with it, but it can also burn your house down.”
Kuoni has conducted a similar project in Egypt, targeting the Red Sea. Such projects were, Leisinger said, investment by the company in the long-term sustainability of destinations and a tool well within the company’s business model.
The 100 year-old leisure travel operator employs 10,000 people across 40 countries, and had as a result of its breadth broadened its scope from travel and tour provision to “destination management”.
“Investment in corporate social responsibility is a long-term business tool,” Leisinger said. Tackling practices such as sex tourism, for instance, was also a way of protecting the company’s brand, he explained.
Ensuring that hotels had no waste on beach, that islands had infrastructure such as sewerage plants and that staff were treated fairly increased the quality of the company’s end product, which affected its bottom line, he explained.
One aspect of the project involves establishing waste management facilities on 10 inhabited islands near Kuoni resorts. According to the project synopsis, “islanders will be taught to segregate waste at household level and bins will be provided to store the waste separately until removal from the island. A once-off large clean up may need to be organised before implementation of the system as most islands have accumulated waste over time.”
As well as improving the environment of the local island and allowing the resort to tick one of its ‘corporate social responsibility’ boxes, the facilities will “reduce the waste that washes up on the shores of the resorts themselves.”
A key focus of the project is protection and management of the resorts’ housereefs, which are currently protected by law from all fishing activities apart from bait fishing, “and as such, these areas act as marine protected areas (MPA) by default.”
However few resorts employed marine biologists to manage the housereef and limit destructive activity, and many times the boundries were ambigious “which results in unacceptable use of the reefs by outsiders leading to conflicts between the resort and local people.”
Under the project, four resorts will trial an ‘MPA management plan’ involving ecologicial surveys and the use of a warden to “drive away intruders”.
The project will also include an extensive series of training sessions and workshops for resort staff and local communities, and including on the reporting and monitoring of coral bleaching.
Senior Advisor at IUCN Dr Ameer Abdulla explained that bleaching represented the expulsion of symbiotic plants from coral due to stress factors such as pollution, sudden changes in temperature and ocean acidification, making the coral vulnerable to algae.
“Eventually the reef disintegrates, with the loss of shoreline protection and tourism benefits,” he explained.
“A bleaching event in 1998 saw close to 100 percent mortality in some areas [of the Maldives],” he said. “It was 87 percent in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but because the area has been well managed the rate of recovery was very high.”
Tackling climate change was a broader problem requiring international effort, but local measures to reduce impacts and increase the resistance threshold of the reefs could “give the coral a fighting chance”, he explained.
Dr Abdulla noted concerns raised by dive staff at one resort that local fishermen had begun fishing for grouper on the resort’s house reef, but were unsure of their mandate and did not want to spark local conflicts.
A representative from the Ministry of Tourism, present at the launch, observed that such incidents were likely to increase “as stocks diminish elsewhere.”
The representative also noted new challenges arising with the changing market profile of tourism in the country – whereas visitors from European countries such as France and Germany responded well to requests to respect the natural environment, “the market is changing, and Chinese guests are walking on the reefs, catching and eating crabs… During a recent visit to Shanghai we tried to get the message across, but it’s a very different culture.”
A representative from the Marine Research Centre (MRC) retaliated that it was in the interests of the Tourism Ministry to legally mandate resorts “to take responsibility for the natural environment for the duration of the lease.”
Much of the country’s lucrative resort industry “remains very closed,” he observed.