The Village: 36 Years Of Eco-Tourism In Pohnpei

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Special Report

By Julian Ryall, Japan Correspondent

HAGÅTÑA, GUAM (Marianas Business Journal, July 16, 2012) – In the 36 years since Robert "Bob" and Patricia "Patti" Arthur opened The Village Hotel, things have changed on Pohnpei. What used to be a rough track to a few communities on the coast has been transformed into a paved road that goes around the island, Kolonia has a number of large and impressive public buildings and, most recently, the airport has undergone a comprehensive upgrade to make it one of the best in the Pacific.

At The Village, however, things are pretty much the same as they were back in 1976.

Built on a steep-sided spit of land that points out into the lagoon about a 30-minute drive east of Kolonia, the focal point of life at The Village is the expansive Long House bar and restaurant, reputedly the largest thatched structure in the whole of Micronesia, that is open to one side and offers a spectacular view out across the reef, the smaller islands that dot the lagoon and, on the distant skyline, the unmistakable profile of Sokehs Rock.

To complete the Pacific paradise image, a walkway leads out to a thatched gazebo where the sea breeze blows gently through. Scattered along pathways between the breadfruit and banana trees are 20 thatched cottages, all with views of the ocean.

"We are originally from southern California, but we lived on an island off Honduras for one year in 1968 and, on our way back to the US, a millionaire developer got talking to Bob," said Patti Arthur. "He wanted him to go to the Marshall Islands and run a marine concession at a hotel that he was planning to build there.

"He didn't take the job - and the hotel project never came to anything - but Bob was very interested in the idea of development in the islands," she said.

In late 1968 and the early months of 1969, Bob Arthur visited all the major islands of Micronesia before returning to California to tell his wife and four children that he was going to put his skills as an industrial designer to good use on Pohnpei, where he was going to build a thatched hotel.

"Back then, Pohnpei was very primitive," Patti Arthur said. "There were no roads, no electricity, no running water, no tourism and building a hotel was a dicey thing to do, but he saw the island and just fell in love with it."

The site they eventually chose was not being used by local people because no crops would grow in the clay soil and the ridge was too steep to plant. But it did have the obvious advantage of excellent views, Bob Arthur pointed out.

"I know how to build as I'd built our thatched home in Honduras," said Bob Arthur. "Many local people had forgotten how to do thatching, but they helped on this project and now the women around here all know how to do it.

The building uses mangrove poles and the roof is "high-maintenance," he said, with the thatch being replaced piecemeal when required. The mahogany floor of the restaurant was brought in from the Philippines and, after that, Bob Arthur said, "It just kind of grew."

In 1991, the U.S. government recognized the Arthurs' work at The Village and awarded them the first eco-tourism award for constructing a hotel "in tune with nature, with a low impact on the environment and the culture."

And that fits neatly with their philosophy for the hotel and their home.

"A tourist knows what he will see when he gets there and is usually disappointed when he does see it," said Bob Arthur. "A traveler is someone who is looking for a new experience and enjoys everything that he comes across."

Those experiences can be laid on by The Village and include boat tours to the mysterious ruins of Nan Madol, scuba diving at eight locations around the island that are famous for manta rays, shark and barracuda, kayaking trips, hiking in the lush interior, fishing trips and bird watching tours.

The peak time for business was in the latter years of Japan's "bubble economy" in the early 1990s, when Japanese visitors made the journey to Pohnpei through Guam. And although business is steady, the Arthurs said, it could always be better.

"Business has not really picked up," said Patti Arthur, who oversees a staff of around 50, making The Village the biggest employer in the neighborhood - and renowned for paying well. "We get some people from the mainland U.S., some Europeans, but it is very difficult to predict demand and it goes up and down all the time. It is never the same each year.

"Because we are so far out into the Pacific, people used to make reservations well in advance, but now we are lucky if we get two weeks' notice."

Bob Arthur said he hopes the new airport will encourage airlines to introduce direct flights from more distant destinations, such as Japan, and pointed out that direct links means that travelers will be spared the inconvenience of having to get a U.S. visa for a stopover in Guam.

"This is an iffy time because of the economy, so we are kind of watching to see what will happen," said Patti Arthur. "We could build more cottages if we wanted to, but now is just not the right time."

There have been "bumps in the road" over the past 36 years, they agree, but they have all been overcome to date. And they are confident that any future bumps will similarly be overcome.

Jamie Arthur, their 47-year-old son, is taking over more of the day-to-day running of The Village, but it appears that Patti and Bob Arthur are far from ready to hang up the tools of their trade just yet.

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Thank you for this report. How very unfortunate that the next "bump in the road" wasn't overcome.

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