By Errol Allbon

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, May 9) – I have been lucky enough to spend time exploring as much of Solomon Islands as possible over the last four months.

I have visited many island groups; I have mixed with indigenous peoples. I have studied Solomons history and customs.

I have talked to people and read all I can find on what caused the tensions. I attended most of the Tourism Conference in April.

It is now time for me to leave and I do so with some very mixed feelings. I want to share them.

They called this place "The Happy Isles", although I don’t know who "they" were.

But, they were right! During the period of the tensions I guess the country lost the right to the name and nobody wanted to come to Solomons any more.

The world certainly didn’t look at the place as being happy. It is however my biggest impression of Solomons –it is a happy place to be.

Despite what has happened, despite being poor, despite a lack of jobs, despite a lack of roading and transport, people here continually give a friendly, happy feeling.

Watch the children at play – they are happy. Watch the adults interact with their children, watch people at work (despite poor pay rates), walk with people in the streets, or in their jungle gardens, go to the market – people are happy, laughing and very friendly to the stranger among them.

Why then, did the place become so unhappy to want to try and destroy itself?

Most tourists don’t ever really see a place. They go to a destination they have seen in a brochure or looked up on a web site.

They get pampered in comfortable accommodation and then fly out again. They have very little interaction with local people at all.

They go home probably none the wiser for their visit, other than the scenery they may have seen.

I don’t ever want to be that kind of a tourist. I want to mix, try and understand and live and breathe a place, as far as the local people will allow you.

Solomons is a wonderful country to visit for this reason. The people are happy to accept you, talk to you, show you and let you experience their culture and customs.

This is a very rich experience indeed. Throughout other parts of the Pacific it is in the "backpacker" industry where most of the new wave of growth is now occurring – not in the up market expensive hotel industry.

And in Solomons this is the segment of the market to aim for. Solomons already has all the main ingredients – a happy welcoming people, an interesting culture and customs and the beautiful environment you are all lucky enough to call home.

It will also cost very little to develop and all villages are capable of being able to tap into a little extra cash coming from tourists. It will not deplete your resources in any way.

In fact it will give new strength to the need to conserve those aspects of what makes Solomons unique – the culture, customs, environment and wildlife – as it is those very features that visitors will want to see.

Let me give you some examples:

Savo is a very beautiful rugged, jungle covered island. It is an active volcano, with boiling rivers, and a steaming sulphurous crater.

It is home to the unique Megapode bird that lays its eggs deep in the warm black volcanic sands. It is also home to many happy Solomon people, living their lives quietly in much the same way as they have done for thousands of years.

Now bring three or four visitors a week to each village, and you would have a modest income without the need to spend anything. The Megapode bird would become a major attraction and greater attention would be paid to its conservation.

It is a "win win" situation – for the people and the environment.

Auki, in Malaita, may not seem much of a tourist destination to most. How wrong you would be! LangaLanga Lagoon is a unique blend of man and nature.

Picturesque houses on stilts or on artificial built up reefs, a long and very beautiful lagoon and the amazing local ship building industry that knocks the visitor over as to how clever and industrious these people are.

Beautiful waterfalls and mountains to explore. Mix with this the same blend of happy people, willing to show their culture and customs to any visitor interested enough to ask. Another "win win" situation.

VonaVona Lagoon in the Western Province is a snorkeller’s or divers dream. The second-highest fish counts in the world have been recorded here. How good is that?

The lagoon is staggeringly beautiful, with Kolombangara Mountain looming in the background. Uninhabited coral atolls. Stone shrines littered with skulls.

An invitation to join the entire village in customary fishing using vines and intoxicating powdered leaves thrown into the water. Then you can buy, very cheaply, the best woodcarvings inlaid with mother of pearl you will ever find anywhere in the world.

Add to this the ability for the visitor to choose accommodation from either a village or a modest lodge facility. Everywhere you go you can be assured of the same, happy, relaxed reception we found throughout Solomons.

Gela Islands. Picture postcard white coral sand beaches and coconut palms with custom villages just as they were when the first white men came.

A brideprice ceremony to witness, a feast, 30 or more teenagers enthusiastically playing the most incredible pan pipe music you will ever hear, small children play happily while old great grandparents sit and watch, climb the high barren grass clad hills, young boys fly effortlessly up 30 metre high palm trees to proudly bring us down coconuts, join the family in the kitchen to cook the most delicious yam and ngali nut pudding over a stone fire, attend church and hear the most beautiful harmony sung by 100 happy voices.

This is everyday life for you, but what an experience for us!

This is merely a very small example of the types of opportunities to be experienced in Solomons – but believe me, what you have to offer is good!

It is what a growing number of tourists want to see, live and breathe. You do not forget this type of experience or these people. You have memories for a lifetime.

And this is without even considering the more obvious tourist attractions at places like the World Heritage listed Rennell, or the possibility of Marovo being similarly listed, active volcanoes, the worlds largest uninhabited island at Tetepare, turtle conservation at Arnavon, UFO spotting on Makira, the worlds best diving opportunities are here – and so on.

Solomons has such a rich diversity! Plus, its people, and their happy, open natures, are its biggest asset.

Now all of this may lead you to believe you have such a wonderful asset, just bring on the tourists and lets all get rich. Too simple. Unfortunately we now have to get real.

The attractions are there, but the demand and the infrastructure are not – or not yet. I now need to point out some of the problems encountered. Please do not be offended by some of these criticisms, they are simply things that need to be said.

At the Tourism Conference, we heard from the Prime Minister, Sir Alan Kemakeza. He told us a lack of peace was the enemy of tourism. I agree with him.

People from overseas must first see that Solomons is indeed the Happy Isles. The PM also said there was a need for economic recovery and that good systems of governance needed to be put in place.

Tourism would follow and he called for a plan. Yes, a plan as to how to market tourism must first be undertaken. There is little point in putting up guest leaf houses and simply waiting for tourists to arrive – they wont.

However, the Government’s level of commitment to tourism was clearly illustrated by the Department of Tourisms annual budget.

After salaries had been paid, for the three staff, there was an annual surplus of only SB$60,000 (US$8,000) to run the department and pay for phones, electricity, printing and the like, and then miraculously have enough left over for research, marketing and promoting tourism!

It doesn’t look like the Government is going to be doing much for tourism for the foreseeable future. After all it is the Department of Tourism that would be charged with developing the policy framework to take Solomons forward in developing any tourism strategy.

Solid funds need to be found from somewhere to really get to grips with how to deal with the problems that prevent Solomons tourism from getting past the starting blocks. But that initiation needs to come from within Solomons.

If a clear strategy could be developed, in house – Solomons tourism development by and for the people of Solomons – then donor agencies could be approached for assistance.

From my experiences here, some of the key issues that need to be addressed would include the following:

The Visitors Bureau in Honiara is the only one in the world that I have encountered without any information. They do not have one single brochure on display or available. Staff there do their utmost to help you but are at some considerable disadvantage not to have the information needed.

They clearly need some funding assistance. While I’m at it, they also need some good, regularly cleaned public toilets, like you find in other cities. There simply aren’t any public toilets in Honiara that anyone would ever want to use.

Shipping services are an essential life blood for all Provinces. Ships in most cases are old, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dirty. Ever been to the toilets on MV Tomoko? Well don’t, just learn to hold on. Tourists will not tolerate these conditions, and I don’t know why you do.

Ever tried to find out the timetable for shipping services? The Information Centre rarely knows and most shipping lines don’t have a phone line, so it is virtually impossible to get any information.

I learned to look for ships in port, go onboard and ask. That works, but tourists don’t have the time for this. The actual journey by ship we found to be part of the overall experience, and we enjoyed it. The scenery is beautiful and everyone on board has that happy Solomons attitude.

Small boats are often the only option for getting shorter distances in Solomons. Sometimes we felt that traveling in this way was akin to Russian Roulette. No one has any safety equipment of any sort, save perhaps a paddle.

It certainly feels very unsafe to be out in the middle of Iron Bottom Sound when a storm front hits, you are out of sight of land, the boat leaks and no life jackets, no compass, no flares, nothing, other than prayer.

There’s no immediate answer, but most tourists wont take such risks. Perhaps operators could be registered, and to get tourist accreditation, boats must have safety equipment. As an incentive operators could be given at registration, an emergency locator beacon.

Accommodation varies but generally you get what you pay for which is OK. Sometimes accommodation at "resorts" is overpriced for what you get. We like to stay in leaf houses in the villages and generally these have been great and clean and tidy.

Toilet arrangements are something else. I don’t want to squat on a white sand beach next to others and everything left for the sea to carry away. Basic pour/flush toilets or the cheap environmentally friendly composting pit toilets would be necessary for most tourists, and a simple shower with some walls at least.

Food does not need to necessarily meet European tastes. Just because you may eat pana cooked in coconut cream often, don’t think that we might not like it.

I really enjoyed basic traditional local foods prepared in traditional ways, but often we were given rice served with tinned tuna, as it was thought that was better for us. Often quantities given to us were deliberately way too big, as is customary for a visitor.

It is not necessary to do so. As long as it is fresh, wholesome, varied, and prepared and presented hygienically, that is all that is required. Those that want different than this can go to one of the big hotels.

Rubbish is a big issue in Solomons. In the old days it wasn’t a problem to throw banana skins, vegetable peelings and coconut husks over your shoulder. It was all biodegradable.

Today it seems that modern forms of rubbish are treated in the same way. Unfortunately the result is appalling. No matter how beautiful the environment, the same attitude prevails.

The Mataniko River through Honiara should be beautiful, but instead it is a disgrace. I could not believe seeing rubbish of all sorts thrown over the sides of ships.

Wherever you go there are never enough rubbish bins. In fact there usually aren’t any at all. I pray that the children can be taught to take a pride in their environment and not trash it.

Money is the main objective of tourism. Most tourists are in my view reasonably generous. I know that wherever we went we could appreciate the shortage of money in your communities and we did our best to redistribute as much as we felt we could afford.

Not all tourists however are rich, particularly among backpackers, even though we may come from "rich" countries.

No matter what we gave however, we were left to feel that we should have given more and were immediately confronted by lots more requests.

We were continually pressured into giving and for sensitive caring people it became emotionally stressful for us. Some have described it as the "entitlement mentality" – we are "rich", we have to give, and needy people have a right to expect.

I only know there are places we will not be going back to. The point of tourism is to create a demand for people to want to visit a place and the payoff is the money they spend for services provided.

It is not in the extent of handouts you may be able to extract. I heard the comment by an educated local at the Tourism Conference, "to extract money with a smile". I think it is a poor attitude.

So a real opportunity exists, in my view, to get serious about recognising Solomons tourism strengths, and acknowledging and working on your weaknesses.

Where to from here?

A soundly researched and based tourism development strategy should be embarked upon immediately. It is the starting point for an orderly and targeted development of the industry.

The Department of Tourism should be the leaders in this initiative, but they are so underfunded as to make the task all but impossible.

The existing private sector also has an important part to play and at the conclusion of the Tourism Conference a new Tourism Industry Association was set up.

I think that between the Department and the new Association a proposal should be prepared for submission to Government for assistance to get things really moving.

I suspect there are a number of countries and agencies willing to help such an organised effort. After all it will eventually lead to Solomons reaching a point where they can totally stand on their own feet, with a style of tourism that suits what Solomons wants.

Even with such an initiative underway, the biggest single impediment to tourism, in my view, still remains and that is a political one.

As noted earlier, the PM referred to the lack of peace as being the enemy of tourism. Simply, it is time for Solomons to put tensions of the past behind them and move forward.

It is time to claim again the name "The Happy Isles". If you were at a soccer match – lets say Solomon Islands v New Zealand – do you think for a minute that the crowd would think of themselves as Guales, Malaitans, Makirans, or some other ethnic group?

No, they would suddenly and fervently be Solomon Islanders – they would all be brothers.

That is the attitude Solomons needs to develop. When you look at the world around you, you would quickly realise that the different ethnic groups here have so much more in common, than they will ever have differences.

The differences that do exist are part of the rich tapestry that is your custom and culture.

Be proud of it and go forward. I for one wish you every success, and know that you can truly become the Happy Isles.

Errol Allbon is an intrepid tourist from New Zealand.

May 10, 2005

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