Saving Grace: Turtle Island, Fiji

Saving Grace: Turtle Island, Fiji

By Norman Douglas

Saving Grace: Turtle Island, Fiji 2Things have changed dramatically in tourist circles. There are now growing numbers of people who view with indifference, if not distaste, the tourism trends of the past few decades — high-rise resorts and sprawling complexes — and are willing to go just that little bit further, and perhaps spend that little bit more, if it means coming one step closer to an apparently uncorrupted “paradise.”

In Fiji, a small but significant number of resorts are catering to this wish. Importantly, they all display a concern for the natural environment.

The first, and the apparent inspiration for all the others, is Turtle Island Resort in the Yasawa group, on an island that in traditional times was called Nanuyalevu.

It is one of only a few privately owned-islands in Fiji, in this case by Richard Evanson, an American, who about 20 years ago, began to set a standard for exclusive tourism that has obviously been the envy of a number of later comers.

It is part of Evanson’s publicized legend that he is a romantic, a reformed alcoholic, a visionary, and a millionaire, with just a touch of appropriate eccentricity and a fondness for kava, the mildly narcotic Fijian beverage.

He is also, as the human and spatial arrangement of Turtle Island displays, a brilliant businessman with a well-nourished talent for organization. As well he might be, with one degree in engineering and another in business. Evanson came to Fiji in the early 1970s after Tahiti failed to live up to its paradisical reputation for him.

A rare opportunity to buy a piece of his new found Eden presented itself. Fiji has a very limited amount of freehold land. Evanson owns 500 acres of it, having bought the unpopulated island outright in 1972 for US$300,000. If the price seems extraordinarily reasonable, the timing was unbelievably bad. Hurricane Bebe hit the Yasawas with exceptional fury only a few days after Evanson and his Fijian assistant had taken up residence.

Winds gusting up to 180 mph swept away their tent and obliged them to seek temporary refuge among the roots of a large banyan tree. Other hurricanes since have caused considerable damage to the resort’s infrastructure, but Turtle Island invariably bounces back better than ever.

Beach at Turtle Island, Fiji.
Beach at Turtle Island, Fiji.

At first, Evanson intended Turtle Island for himself, a wholly private retreat from the rest of the world. “I bought it for excitement,” he says. For the first three years he lived “as a hermit,” entertaining a few friends occasionally. The idea of having guests on a paying basis grew from that. By January 1980, four Fijian-style bures (cottages) had been built. There are now 14, a comfortable distance apart from each other, and Evanson says there will be no more.

What does all this have to do with conserving and enhancing the natural surroundings? The limited guest numbers suggest part of the answer. “Progress on Turtle means preserving the natural environment for the pleasure of our guests, not building 500 rooms,” Evanson explains. He is aware that, for many people, simply being part of an apparently unspoiled environment is one of travel’s greatest rewards, as it was originally for him.

This doesn’t mean that one has to forego comfort: quite the reverse. Turtle’s reputation was built on luxury as well as naturalness; by no means mutually exclusive attainments. The resort’s bures don’t pretend to replicate exactly Fijian village standards of living. They have separate (and large) living and sleeping areas and refrigerators amply stocked with non-traditional necessities such as beer and international wines. Outside each is a hammock, if you and your bottle of champagne want to get that much closer to the environment.

The standards of comfort and the quality of the food at Turtle already have acquired near-legendary status. But, what distinguishes Turtle from several of its competitors is that the luxury manages to remain discreet and not at odds with its surroundings. This is a major concern for Evanson who conceives it as his “mission in life to save and beautify the island.” To this end, he has planted hundreds of thousands of trees. Authorities have listed 37 kinds of birds on the island, 20 of them non-migratory, 17 varieties of butterfly and at least 450 types of plants.

An extensive mangrove swamp was turned into a feature, with the addition of a raised boardwalk that leads the interested visitor through the mangroves without disturbance or discomfort. The touch of unusual luxury is not overlooked. Couples can elect to dine by lantern light among the mangroves.

On Turtle all degradable garbage is composted. Evanson happily points to the amount of fertile soil that has been created to help the island’s re-greening. Using his engineering background to good effect, he has assured an abundant water supply by building several rainwater dams, some of which are tiered to catch the overflow from others. There are no permanent streams on Turtle Island.

Justifiably proud of his achievements, Evanson has literature produced to explain the island’s features. There are no tennis courts or swimming pools. But there are 17 named beaches and a booklet describes the characteristics of each one. Another publication explains the natural significance of the mangrove areas and identifies the flora and some of the fauna there.

“If I have one wish, it’s that I could live to 200, so I could finish off all my projects,” says Evanson. He takes great pride in his Fijian staff — “the resort’s greatest asset,” he says. He has closely identified himself with Fiji and especially with his tikina, the neighborhood of seven villages to which he regularly contributes support. Recent evidence of that has been the funding, fitting out and preparation of a business plan for Oarsman’s Bay Lodge, a backpacker resort, operated by the villagers.

Turtle Island has practised self-sufficiency by building much of its own furniture from local timber and growing most of the vegetables and herbs required for the resort’s guests. To reduce noise levels, the only transport on the island are bicycles and electric carts. Says Evanson: “These activities represent aspects of tourism’s future direction.”

The resort’s regular awards at Fiji Tourism Conventions have been augmented by several of international significance recognising its outstanding contribution to sustainable tourism. Among these are the Green Globe Environmental Achievement for 2000, an award inspired by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Evanson says that it is the goal for Turtle Island to be recognised as “the leading ecotourism resort in the world.” He and Turtle Island are showing that a high degree of comfort and a concern for conservation can be compatible. For the future of tourism in the smaller, ecologically vulnerable Pacific Islands, this could be the way.

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