“Volun-tourism” opens eyes for American university students

t Marys College students helping local communities plant mangroves in Vava'u. Photo: Leanne Elliott.

A group of 15 university students and two professors from St Marys College of California, USA left Tonga this week after a successful “volun-tourism” programme.

The group arrived Thursday 13th January for an intensive two-week agenda, and immersed themselves in the grassroots communities in Vava’u and Tongatapu, conducting a range of cultural and environmental activities and studies.

Their research aimed at bringing shared benefits to communities in the areas of sustainability, climate change, and environment.

“Tonga is the perfect place to experience the harmony of man and nature. The warmth and friendliness of the Tongan people in combination with the idyllic South Seas brought the concepts of sustainability and green practices alive for our university students,” said programme director Dr Linda Herkenhoff.

The St Mary’s College students teamed up with VEPA (Vava’u Environmental Protection Association), an environmental NGO, to volunteer with the Koleva Village mangrove regeneration project.

An enormous turnout from the community helped exceed initial expected outcomes.

“I’m glad to have been a part of something villagers will remember for years to come. I will never forget those we assisted while planting mangroves, and will from this point on be more aware of my carbon footprint… The people are wonderful,” said American student Bryanne Truttman.

The group also volunteered with surveying and collecting data on the coral reef in Vaka’eitu, Vava’u. Information they gathered aided the data collection initiative by Dive Vava’u for the global Coral Watch programme.

Dive Vava’u owner Karen Varndell said:  “Being able to collect so many surveys in one day with the students gives us vital data on the reef. The information collected gives us insight into the health of the reefs of Vava’u as part of an ongoing monitoring programme”.

The Americans also met with with focal ministries, private sector representatives and operators to gain valuable insights into Tongan culture, history and politics, eco-tourism, aquaculture, energy (Tonga Energy Road Map) and environment.

Coordinators are looking to build the volunteer-tourism programme for both the university’s MBA course and 2012 term courses.

Californians and Vava'u-ans for sustainable living practices. Photo: Leanne Elliott