Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013

Unlike 2011 and 2012, this year’s Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) would be held outside of North America. The venue was Nairobi, Kenya – the country in which the concept of ecotourism was born over twenty years ago. I had never been to Africa before and was especially excited about discovering a totally new country and continent.

Just before I was about to fly over, I learnt that terrorists had entered a shopping centre in Nairobi and opened fire on innocent bystanders. It was the beginning of the Westgate mall tragedy (warning: there are some very graphic images under that link). It’s hard to explain the feeling I had on the plane knowing that the terrorist attack was still ongoing and that my hotel for the night was only 2km away. It actually still makes me feel a bit sick writing about it now. But it was not yet clear what was happening, and I was determined not to let the actions of a few evil people ruin what was set to be the trip of a lifetime.

I was really relieved to see a friendly face when I arrived at the hotel. I was sharing a room with Joe Staiano, an all round cool guy and founder of www.meaningfultrip.com. We’d met at the ESTC back in 2012 and immediately hit it off. It was nice to be able to exchange travelling stories and take our minds off what was happening just a few blocks away.

In spite of the ongoing tragedy, the strength and solidarity of the Kenyan people made it easier for us to cope with the situation. And seeing friendly faces – and sharing that feeling of solidarity with participants from over 40 countries during the conference made the ESTC 2013 a very special experience.  Here are some of the highlights of my week in Nairobi:

Authentic Ecolodge Planning and Design Seminar

The morning after I arrived in Nairobi, I was booked to take part in a day-long pre-conference seminar at the ESTC venue – the Safari Park Hotel. The seminar was run by Hitesh Mehta,  TIES (The International Ecotourism Society) Board Member and one of the world’s leading authorities on ecolodge planning and design. Interestingly enough, he also used to captain the Kenyan cricket team back in the day.

The first time I met Hitesh was way back in 2011 at the ESTC in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I’d attended the same seminar. This time around it was different though – there was a much broader range of participants, which led to some really interesting discussions. The seminar was composed of various presentations which focused on key aspects of planning and designing an “authentic ecolodge” (a term which Hitesh developed following 10 years of research in the ecotourism field): site selection criteria; physical and social feasibility and analysis; site planning; building design and construction.

In addition to the aforementioned presentations, participants were encouraged to share ideas and brainstorm during breakout sessions. The below photo was taken during a session on community engagement, taking Il Ngwesi Group Ranch in Kenya as an example. On the left is Patrick Leresi, the young and dynamic Masaai manager of Il Ngwesi.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya

The other group discussions during the breakout session were on architectural and technological aspects of ecolodges; utilities and infrastructure; and site planning.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya

The discussions continued into the coffee breaks – which gave us a good opportunity to talk further about our ideas, network and sample the local speciality:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya

After the end of a long and intense day of learning, I left for our hotel with a book full of notes and lots of new ideas for our own project in Greece, not to mention lots of new friends in the ecotourism world!

Kenya Night

During my second day in Nairobi I had time to visit some of the local attractions – the conference wouldn’t start until Wednesday morning. To avoid this post becoming incredibly long, click on the following links to read about my experiences at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Giraffe Centre.

That evening, participants were invited to a pre-conference warm up and welcome party at the Safari Park Hotel – Kenya Night!

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya

In what turned out to a spectacular celebration of local food, performances, eco-warrier awards (read about the winners in this great post by Ecotourism Demystified) and prizes, I had one of the luckiest experiences of my life thus far. Upon arrival, we were all offered the chance to buy raffle tickets to win a number of prizes offered by tour operators, hotels and various sponsors of the event. I bought a strip of 5 tickets, and then another 5 during the delicious buffet meal that was put on for us.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya, Kenya Night

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya, Food

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya, Food

During the meal the eco-warrior prizes were handed out. The highlight for me was seeing Derrick Nabaala of Basecamp (the company Vicky and I would be volunteering for) pick up the award for Ecotourism Guide of the Year!

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Kenya, Eco Warrior Award

After seeing acrobats and musicians and eating way too much food, everyone was keen to see if they would win one of the many amazing raffle prizes. Now here’s when it started to get weird. Out of a hall full of around 500 people, I won three of the top prizes – 5 nights all inclusive at 3 of the most luxurious lodges in Kenya. About $9000 worth of prizes for a $10 investment. Not bad hey? As I went up to collect the third prize for a stay for 2 at Sasaab Lodge, including internal return flights, everyone started shouting “corruption” at me. But alas, it was just incredible good luck. I couldn’t have wished for a better start to the conference!

The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference

As I’ve already mentioned, the actual conference didn’t start until Wednesday morning. We were greeted by the friendly TIES board members and given a brief overview of the next couple of days.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, ESTC, Nairobi, Kenya, TIES Board

In an emotional show of solidarity, Kelly Bricker, the Chair of the Board, asked everyone to come together for a minute’s silence in memory of all those affected (including participants who had lost friends)  by the ongoing tragedy at Westgate. Very few people had actually cancelled their trip to Kenya as a result of the terrorist attack and it was great to see people staying positive about the future of the Kenyan tourism industry, which would undoubtedly be affected as a result.

After the opening plenary, Costas Christ, Editer at Large at National Geographic Traveler and one of the world’s top sustainable tourism experts, gave a keynote presentation about the role Kenya played in shaping his career and shared his ideas and views regarding the future of ecotourism.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Costas Christ, Kenya, Nairobi

Other keynote speakers included Jochen Zeitz, founder of the Zeitz Foundation, who spoke about the foundation’s initiatives and answered questions from the audience:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Jochen Zeitz, Kenya, Nairobi

and picked up a nice memento for doing so:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Jochen Zeitz, Kenya, Nairobi

Dr Munir Virani, Africa Program Director of the Peregrine Fund, also gave an interesting presentation on raptors, why they are so important, and how ecotourism can help limit the current threats to their species. I especially enjoyed the amazing photographs he shared. Here’s one of the many great shots:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Munir Virani, Kenya, Nairobi

Security was understandably tight over the next few days. No one without a badge was allowed to enter the conference hall, and everyone had to pass through metal detectors upon entry. The security staff were friendly and did a great job at making us feel safe

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Security, Kenya, Nairobi

and the conference volunteers and organisers deserve a massive thumbs up for adapting so quickly and always staying so positive:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Volunteers, Kenya, Nairobi

The days were organised into a series of plenary sessions,

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Kenya, Nairobi

as well as networking and information gathering events:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2013, Networking, Kenya, Nairobi

The below photo is of Kristen Hoyle, who was running the Pack for a Purpose stand (a great organisation that is really making a difference to so many peoples’ lives), for which Vicky and I had brought about 10kg worth of equipment. To the right is our “internship angel” at Basecamp Explorer, Grace Nderitu, who we would be working with over the next month.

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After all the tiring networking I decided to take time out to test the latest from EcoLoo, which produces odourless, water and energy free toilets that turn human waste into fertiliser.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, EcoLoo

There were also a number of individual presentation sessions which organised into 4 sections: Conservation and communities; Plans, policies and partnerships for destinations; Tools, solutions and strategies for businesses; and Tourism and the millenium development goals.

The majority of the presentations were held in the hotel gardens in marquee style tents. Here is Damian Cook, CEO and Founder of e-tourism frontiers,

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and Javier Lopez, co-founder of the amazing Ecocamp Patagonia in Chile, who presented a case study thereon,

Ecocamp Patagonia, Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Nairobi, Kenya

and my roommate Joe, together with Kelly Bricker, the Chair of The International Ecotourism Society, and Manal Kelig, the Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa for Adventure Travel and Trade Association, who spoke on Tourism’s Role in Supporting Community Well-Being: Feeding Families, Educating Children and Improving Healthcare.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Nairobi, Kenya

The Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the ecotourism industry, was awarded to Megan Epler-Wood (read about her amazing achievements here), who founded TIES back in 1990.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Kenya, Nairobi

David Western, the first Chairman of TIES, won the award in 2012. He was unable to pick up the award in Monterey, California and so took this opportunity to accept the award in person.

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I have always enjoyed my time at the ESTC. You get to meet great people, learn, exchange ideas and – perhaps the most important – to also relax and enjoy yourself. On the second evening the hosts for next year’s conference – Brazil – put on a spectacular event full of delicious food, music and dancing. Here are a few shots to give you an idea:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Brazil Night, Nairobi, Kenya

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Brazil Night, Nairobi, Kenya

On the final night of the conference we had a ‘celebration of cultures’ event, where everyone was asked to wear traditional costume from their home country. Unfortunately, I’d completely forgotten to bring anything British with me. I had to make a quick decision, and reached for the closest thing to hand that I thought might give people a clue about my ancestral roots. Here is the result:

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Kenya, Nairobi, Teabags

Pretty awful attempt I know, but most people realised that I was English (maybe my pallid skin gave it away too). The lady in this photo is Kumud Sengupta, the Editor of Spotlight on Sustainable Tourism, for which I’d written an article about my journey from lawyer to ecotourism entrepreneur earlier in the year.

Some people put my effort to shame and showed some amazing examples of national dress. Here are Nigeria and Norway on show:

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Before bringing the conference to a close, the TIES Board brought all of the volunteers together for a rapturous round of applause. They had done a great job – both in organising the best ESTC yet (in my view) and also in contributing so much in the breakout sessions.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Nairobi, Kenya

And after all the thanks were done, there was just enough time for another prize draw. And again I won another prize, this time to the ITB Conference in Berlin. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.

Joe and I left the conference and went back to our hotel feeling quite sad that evening. We had spent a really intense couple of days with everyone at the conference and leaving all of that energy and passion behind was tough. It’s a good thing there’ll be many more such conferences. Bring on the ESTC 2014 in Brazil!

Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, Celebration of Culture

 

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