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June 2006 - Issue No. #61 (p. 16 - 18)
At Azabu University, students in the Depart- ment of Environmental Policy have participated in eco-tours for several years now, with successful tours to Tasmania (Australia), Komodo/Sumatra/Sulawesi (Indonesia) and to Palawan (Philippines). This article describes some of the steps involved in setting up a tour.
The first stage will involve deciding how to organize the tour, choosing a destination and deciding the tour theme and content. Our experience at Azabu University has shown that organizing a tour completely independently is difficult but by no means impossible, especially if you have local contacts in the area you are planning to visit.
Local NGOs involved in environmental problems are often very willing to help set up a tour. A Japanese teacher of English at Azabu University, Mr. Akira Harada, routinely organises tours to Tasmania and Sumatra in this way. However, particularly for a first-time tour, it might be best to engage with an organisation or person who has experience and contacts in this field. Some organisations which can arrange environmentally-focused study tours are listed at the end of the article.1 Such organisations typically offer programs with fixed itinerary and departure dates but may also be able to arrange custom-made tours.
Our tours to Sulawesi and Palawan have been organized by Mr. Stefan Ottomanski2, a freelance environmental program coordinator with extensive experience in Asia and Japan. Stefan first came to our attention as a result of an article in the Japan Times3 and, following initial contact, we were able to agree on the format of a tour to Indonesia with Stefan as tour leader/co-coordinator. The advantages here are that, on our behalf, he helped design the program, employ local staff and organize local students to join as participants.
Choosing a destination will involve various considerations, with safety as a top priority. Students and their parents may be alarmed by recent news reports of political unrest or even violence in the destination countries. While paying attention to travel advisories from the appropriate sources, such reactions should be put in context. I have explained to students that a program spent in rural Indonesia will probably be the safest two weeks of their life!
As mentioned at the start, an eco-tour really does offer a chance for students to visit a country that they would probably never visit and meet people with lifestyles and culture vastly different to their own. Some teachers have mentioned that students often travel to Europe or America without having explored the riches of their own backyard. Asia has numerous locations that make the perfect destination for an eco-tour and take less time and money to get to.
The term eco-tour is currently used to describe a wide range of tours involving low-impact travel to natural places.4 Eco-tours undertaken by Azabu University students have generally involved studying an eco-system under threat, discovering the nature and extent of the threats, then learning about, observing and evaluating what measures are being employed to counter these threats or participating in activities designed to rehabilitate a damaged eco-system. Given the depressingly large number of eco-systems under threat, this definition can encompass a large number of themes for a tour. An example at Azabu University is our eco-tour to Sulawesi.
Our coordinator, Stefan, identified Bunaken Island, located within a marine national park, as a good place for a marine-based program, studying the ecology of coral reefs, the threats they face and the steps being taken to rehabilitate damaged reefs.5 The reasons for the choice were: (a) the large number of reefs in the area that could be explored by snorkelling, ranging from severely damaged reefs to pristine reefs; (b) a friendly local village ready to accept students for home stays; (c) interested local students who would be able to join the program; (d) local NGO staff prepared to join the program as staff.
Assuming that you have decided how to set up the tour (by yourself or in cooperation with an external organization or individual), and chosen a destination and tour theme, the next stage is to gather a group of students. This can be quite stressful and may provoke a fear that failure to gather a group will reflect on one’s popularity amongst students.
Although this of course is not the case, it might be an idea to assume that you won’t actually get a group of sufficient numbers the first time and should plan to try several times before a tour actually recruits enough students to go ahead. Colourful posters put up around your institution will certainly generate interest. If possible, put them up in classrooms where students have time to look and talk about them during breaks between lessons. Announce your idea to your classes and to groups of students you are involved with (such as clubs or circles). Telling everybody that, even if you do not get enough students this time, you will be trying again next semester or next year, can make the whole process seem less stressful. Sometimes there may be a “snowball effect” where one or two people decide to join and then slowly all of their friends start to sign up. If the tour is planned as part of an elective course of study (for example, a seminar group) then the students will have to be told this very clearly, well in advance via the appropriate channels.
Cost will be a major deciding factor for students considering whether to join the tour or not. In cases where the teacher has decided to organize the tour independently, involving students in setting it up can be a very rewarding experience. For example, everyone can be asked to find out about flights and fares to the destination to help narrow down the best deal for the trip. The main cost items will be:
If local students are joining the program, then it will probably be necessary for their costs to be subsidised or even paid completely by the group from Japan. In the case where a tour is organized on behalf of the university by an external organization or individual, a flat all-inclusive fee will probably be agreed.
As an example, the two-week Azabu University marine program to Sulawesi was priced at 200,000 yen in 2005. This price included airfares, all local accommodation and food, local transport and also covered the costs of local and non-local staff and local students joining the program. Passports and visas were not included and students were required to buy snorkelling gear before departure (about 5000 yen for a basic mask, snorkel and fin set). While this is obviously a lot of money for students, provided the tour is advertised well in advance and students think about how they intend to finance their participation, it should be within the range of many if not most students and compares well with other types of study abroad programs.6 It is definitely worth emphasising to students in both posters and meetings about what a unique opportunity this represents and what a valuable experience it will be for them.
For college students in Japan, a trip scheduled for late August or early September has generally seemed to work well. Exams are out of the way, students have a chance to save up money from a part-time job during July and August and airfares are starting to come down after the August peak. For a tour to South East Asia, the local weather conditions will also play a factor. For Indonesia, September will be at the end of the dry season and before the start of the rainy season, so the weather can be expected to be generally good with a small number of rainy days.
Once a group has been gathered, the next step will be to schedule a number of regular meetings before the tour. These are invaluable in making sure that everyone who needs one is getting a passport issued and appropriate visas, all students are on target for financing the trip, discussing what needs to be brought and of course, if possible, pre-studying about the tour theme and contents. A detailed itinerary should be supplied to the students with the understanding that they show this to their parents. Many teachers might want to issue a letter of consent (doui-sho) that students are required to have signed and stamped by their parents or guardian. A list of the participants and the tour details should also be provided to the college administration.
Actual payments for the tour will obviously depend on whether it is being organized independently or in cooperation with an organization or individual. If the airfares are being purchased from a travel agent then each participant can be sent an invoice by the travel agent and pay by bank transfer from an ATM. For Azabu trips to Tasmania, guide costs were paid on arrival and participants paid a lump sum into a ‘kitty’ (looked after by two of the students) to cover accommodation, food and other costs.
On return to Japan, the students themselves made a spreadsheet detailing all expenditure and ensuring everything had been dealt with fairly. In the case where a flat fee is being paid to an organization or individual responsible for arranging the tour, a program of paying by instalments can be agreed and these can typically be made by bank transfer.
This has been just a brief outline of the main steps involved in setting up an eco-tour. A follow-up article (Part II) will describe in detail an example of a tour undertaken by Azabu University students last year.
2. Stefan Ottomanski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
3. The Japan Times (registration required):http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fe20020110sh.html
4. Bien, A. (2003). A Simple User’s Guide to Certification for Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).
6. Blanche, P. (2002). What should be known in Japan about short-term English study abroad. The Language Teacher, (12).
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