Divers often envision having the chance to discover pristine reefs in a remote, idyllic setting. This was certainly true for Swiss-born Lorenz Mäeder, who turned a childhood love of snorkeling the Mediterranean into a career as a dive instruction and resort director. For two decades, he pursued his passion for underwater adventure, exploring the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in search of the perfect place to create a world-class diving resort. His quest eventually brought him to southeastern Sulawesi, and a small island within the Wakatobi group known to local people as Onemobaa – the place of the long, white beach.
One particular section of this beach seemed perfect, and it fronted one of the finest coral reefs Mäeder had ever seen. The waters teemed with rich and diverse populations of fish and corals. He knew he had all the ingredients needed to create a spectacular dive resort. But from the beginning, he also strived for more than just commercial success.
Mäeder expected his resort to adhere to the highest standards of ecologically conscious development and operation. In addition, he hoped to create a new type of business model that would not just limit environmental impact, but would actually provide positive change for both the local economy and ecosystem.
The resort was constructed in a style that honored local architectural traditions. A variety of sustainable products and practices were incorporated, and local materials and labor were utilized whenever possible. A majority of the resort’s workforce was recruited from nearby villages, providing significant economic advantages to the surrounding communities. But for Mäeder, this was only the beginning of a far broader plan that would not just provide employment to the region, but also launch a social transformation that would ultimately lead to a newfound conservation ethos.
At the time of Wakatobi’s founding, the region’s reef had no protection from destructive fishing practices such as reef dynamiting, fish traps and over-harvesting. Mäeder knew that governmental designations often did little to actually preserve a resource if there was no budget for enforcement, and no support from those within the region. As an alternative, he created the Collaborative Community based Reef Conservation Program, which was designed to motivate the people living within the Wakatobi region to realize that besides fishing on the reefs it is possible to generate income from tourists who are just looking at fish and corals. The program channels a portion of the resort’s income to the local community in the form of lease payments in exchange for turning designated areas of reef into no-fishing sanctuaries.
Today, 17 villages near the resort derive income from the lease program, and have become active stewards of more than 20 km of reef.
The first pilot program was launched in 1998. It took years of continuous and consistent efforts to build trust and reach a point where all members of the surrounding villages respected and honored the agreement. In time, however, the economics of dive tourism replaced environmentally destructive fishing practices, providing the local population with a sustainable source of regular lease payments, and more importantly, ownership in a more valuable resource. The community began to defend their new found local marine resource against outside intruders and poachers, as well as threats that emerged from within their own communities. Based on this initial success, the sanctuary was extended, and today, 17 villages near the resort derive income from the lease program, and have become active stewards of more than 20 km of reef.
Today, Wakatobi Dive Resort is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier dive resorts, recognized not only for delivering the highest levels of customer service in a setting of ‘barefoot elegance’, but also for their core values of proactive conservation and community stewardship. Guests naturally abide by a code of conduct that minimizes impact on the underwater environment. Resort staff conduit reef monitoring and cleaning programs, and clean at least 1 km of beach each day. To minimize anchor damage, public moorings are installed and maintained both on dive sites and within local harbors.
Operational initiatives such as intensive recycling and wastewater treatment initiatives have earned Wakatobi awards within the ecotourism community, while local initiatives have won the trust and cooperation of local people. Wakatobi has sponsored waste management programs and other public works projects for 17 villages on neighboring islands, and provides electrical service to a village of 500 in exchange for their honoring a reef sanctuary located on traditional fishing grounds. Local schools are provided with educational materials and scholarships for orphans; small-scale credit programs are made available to local businesses, and up to 50 local widows are employed to produce natural roof tiles for the resort buildings.
Behind these initiatives and others not often publicized by Wakatobi is a question Mäeder has long used to gage the success of his efforts: “Is my operation improving the natural environment? Does the local community benefit directly and indirectly?” Some 16 years after the resort’s founding, the answer to those questions is “yes.” Mäeder’s vision has created a unique destination that not only provides a shining example of how ecotourism can be conducted in an earth-friendly manner, but has also created demonstrative improvements to the reefs and seabeds of the surrounding islands, and enhanced the lifestyles of the local human community.
To learn more about Wakatobi Dive Resort, its initiatives and services, please visit www.wakatobi.com