"Voluntourism, if managed correctly, can be a very good way to fund genuine projects. If the project cause is the core, with voluntourism seen as a way to involve people and fund the project, then voluntourism works"
Daniel Quilter is the founder of Ecoteer Malaysia Sdn Bhd and Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures. He holds a BSc (Hons.) Environmental Science (Marine ecology emphasis) and an MRes Coastal and Ocean Policy both from the University of Plymouth, UK. Mr Quilter started Ecoteer in 2005 after his round the world trip led him to Bornean Malaysia. Whilst in Borneo, he worked at Albert Teo's Sukau Rainforest Lodge conducting EIA reports, teaching English to the staff and organising events including the 1st Borneo Ecotourism Conference in 2005. He then worked as a marine researcher for Sabah Parks at Semporna for 14 months conducting Reef and turtle research on Sipadan Island. In 2008 Daniel Quilter opened his first project in Malaysia's Perhentian Islands in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Bubbles Dive Resort and five more voluntourism projects have followed since in Malaysia and Indonesia making Ecoteer one of the world's leading voluntourism operators. In 2013, he launched Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures, an in-country tour operator, which also operates its own conservation and community projects. Daniel Quilter is also a certified Marine Mammal Medic and a PADI Open Water Diver with over 200 dives including Reef check surveys, cave, deep and night dives.
ECOCLUB.com: Based on your extensive experience with setting up sustainable, volunteer and community tourism projects which of the following elements is most often missing? general knowledge, specialist skills, coordination, trust, funds, incentives, altruism? What is the sine qua non for the success of any such tourism project?
Daniel Quilter: Nice question. With most projects the people starting them really have the passion for the cause. I think most projects have a core cause to them, for example our community project at Ipoh in Malaysia is just starting but the core cause behind it is actually to protect the rainforest by trying to get it gazette as a State Park. So I think with passion, trust from the local community is normally something that eventually comes; if your heart is in the right place, the trust follows. I hate to say it, but I think it is often sustainable funds or demand for the project, which are coupled together really. I have seen many projects start well as they get the initial seed funding but then peter out as funds dry up and normally as projects develop they become more money hungry. The startup costs are the easy part. So I think it is so important for people to think seriously, not just about the initial funding, but also about the funds in ten years’ time. How will the operational costs be covered? You will need sound business and marketing skills. The tourism industry is forever changing and what worked one year may not be successful the year after. Therefore it is important to develop various revenue streams. For example, our Perhentian Community & Conservation project has been funded by various means over the past ten years. In the first four years it was through voluntourism only, years 5-7 saw a mix of voluntourism and school groups, while in the last three years there was a mix of corporate sponsorship, voluntourism and school groups. In the future I see funding the project via developing high ropes and zip line attractions which are eco and educate the visitors. So when thinking of funding, thinking on your toes and keeping your finger on the pulse of the industry is the key to long term sustainability. If you stick to one way, it is likely you won’t be sustainable long term.
ECOCLUB.com: Is there a quick way to distinguish a genuine voluntourism project from a fake one?
Daniel Quilter: I do not think there is a quick way, I would just do my research. For sure if it’s an established project, they will have a Facebook profile. So look at that, ask the person answering the emails questions about the project, ask past volunteers questions, or ask to speak to someone on the phone. However, after running projects for a long time, I do appreciate that sometimes things go wrong. Normally we (the people running voluntourism projects) are not from the tourism industry and more focused towards our altruistic aims. So our accounting may not be so good so projects can easily fall into financial issues and also we could become too popular and have too many volunteers. Both of these issues can easily happen to any very good project so bear this in mind: we are only human after all!
ECOCLUB.com: You have so far established five full-time voluntourism projects, two in Malaysia's Perhentian Islands, one in Merapoh, one in Ipoh and one in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Which one is your favourite and why?
Daniel Quilter: That is a horrible question to ask (smile). Actually my answer changes all the time. I love to develop things, to get a leader in and watch them flourish. For instance, last year in 2015 my favourite project was in Merapoh of which it was the first year for us to operate a full-time project. I loved the raw edge of the project where we are working with a semi-nomadic tribe called the Batek and actively seeking out snares and traps set by poachers. It is raw and very fresh and untouched, doing very meaningful things. But also we have a huge responsibility since we were the first people alongside MYCAT (Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers) and a few local operators to work with the Batek people. Our role is to develop sustainable conservation and community tourism. It is a knife edge, because it can so easily turn into a zoo type of scenery, where people come and gawp at the tribe’s people. What we are doing is limiting group size to the number of Batek. For example, ten tourists per group of Batek and tourists will not see the Batek village (our voluntourists will, but they are going to the village to teach). The tourists will camp alongside the Batek in the forest and go foraging with them. We are pushing the element that ‘we learn from the Batek’, not us to teach them. Unless they ask for it of course.
Then we have our project in Indonesia where we work with a local rescue centre and help rescue animals from the illegal wildlife trade. Amazing, amazing, amazing work they are doing! My heart is at the sea and sea turtles though. I am very excited by our Perhentian turtle and community projects for two big reasons. We have developed a sea turtle photo identification project in the Perhentian islands. In 2015 we have identified 75 individual turtles and found out that the male population is only 12% of the total population. This is astounding but it also shows how amazing this photo ID system is. The government has asked us to expand this project nationwide in 2017. The second reason why I love the island projects is because we are working with Reef Check Malaysia to develop the Perhentian Islands Conservation Group. This group will be led by a few local villagers who potentially could be contracted to do conservation work. A similar model has successfully been established by Reef Check Malaysia at another Malaysian Island. Then we have Ipoh. It’s a stop-start project but today actually we have taken on a fulltime manager who is very good. She will establish the base for it to be for free to Malaysian researchers, to facilitate and expand rainforest research. However, in the last two weeks, two Malayan tigers have been caught by poachers in this area. Therefore, we will step up our poacher patrols in the area substantially by training the local guides. As you can probably tell I love all the projects for different reasons, and as I said at the start: I love to develop things. I will always develop each of the projects which means supporting our team leaders and allowing them to lead and explore which then increases their impact for the cause and that is what I love.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you have specific administrative procedures and clear-defined tasks for team members so as to monitor and evaluate the ongoing contribution of your projects to the local community, but also to voluntourists, or is following up on your projects mostly an art rather than a science.
Daniel Quilter: Tough questions. This year we will be starting to monitor our education elements more by testing the students informally before and after the sessions. This helps us to stay on track and ensure the kids are learning. However, in general we do ask students from University Technology Malaysia to visit and evaluate our projects every two years, which we have been doing for the Perhentians and Ipoh. We will be hosting more students in 2016 for all four Malaysian sites. This is great as it brings in new ideas and reinforces what we do. However, if we personally did these interviews I think the answers would be skewed. So asking external bodies to do this works well I think, plus it means less work for us!
ECOCLUB.com: You operate three different but connected organisations, Ecoteer Community Interest Company, Ecoteer Responsible Travel, and Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures Sdn Bhd. Would you advise others to do so too as a way to limit liability from accidents? Are adventure tourism and voluntourism perceived as high-risk activities by insurers and is it easy to get adequately insured as provider or traveller?
Daniel Quilter: Actually we now only run two companies as Ecoteer Responsible Travel will be absorbed into Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures. Fuze Ecoteer and Ecoteer.com are very different though. Ecoteer.com is more like couch surfing or even like Ecoclub itself. Our members get discounts for going on volunteering, internships, ecoholidays and can even find jobs. Ecoteer.com has no liability as the member deals directly with the in-country operator and pay for all their tours and programmes directly. Whereas Fuze Ecoteer is a traditional in-country tour operator, which also operates its own conservation and community projects. FE has group accident and public liability insurance.
ECOCLUB.com: You have received funding from a number of donors. What is the key to winning such funding and how necessary is external funding these days as opposed to a fully self-funded / grassroots-funded, crowd-funded project?
Daniel Quilter: The honest answer I am sad to say that knowing people helps a lot. The majority of our corporate and grant funding has been due to personal connections. The reason why it helps is because of trust. To get funding you need the donor to ‘trust’ you with their money – will you do what you say? You gain trust by either knowing related people personally and by having good financial and industrial accountability. It is boring but true that PR is so important. I think you really need to self-fund things first, do it small but well. Then people will get to know you and your work, you will meet the local government and ask people who have been to your project if they can help. Our first major funding came from an ex-volunteer’s mother. She was so impressed with what her son had done with us, that she wanted to help and help she did. But you "do not have the money" I hear you say? Well, do not worry, there are many ways. For example, our first project was actually a partnership with a resort. They provided free food and accommodation and I developed and managed my own volunteer project. They benefited because the volunteers stayed at their resort and ate at their restaurant. Win-win situation. There are many ways to skinning a cat! But, always think about the future: the start is the easiest to fund.
ECOCLUB.com: In an increasingly competitive environment, everyone talks (and is advised to talk) about their successes, only the really great dare talk about their failures and the lessons they learned so that we can all save time. Is it realistic to expect that failed projects will be someday documented in detail and who can undertake this?
Daniel Quilter: Interesting. The Wiseman learns from other people’s mistakes! ...I do not think so. It is sad, but people have an ego and people are afraid they will lose ‘trust’ if they tell people they have failed. That trust word again! Also I think most people only run one or two projects, so if they fail they don’t survive in the industry. The ones who have failed quite often have a few simultaneously and then the worse of the bunch is left behind and considered a failure. For example, for us I tried to establish a project just 30 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur at a local orphanage. I considered it a failure, because the market wasn’t there. Or so I thought. There isn’t an international voluntourism market, at present at that price, most likely true, but local international schools would have loved to have worked with the orphanage. Then the project would be self sustainable financially and then if it’s got a good project manager it will be successful. If we started that project now and focused our funding via hosting international school groups I think it would be very successful. So back to the question. In review I think that people tend not to share by experiences because of the ego. But for me failed projects are normally due to timing, aiming at the wrong target audiences and will power.
ECOCLUB.com: You are probably aware of the sweeping criticism that voluntourism steals local jobs (and violates or bends the labour legislation) especially in countries with high unemployment. Is there scientific evidence proving the contrary - that on balance it generates jobs or that it is neutral - so that all those in favour of voluntourism can provide a convincing rebuttal?
Daniel Quilter: Yeah, this goes around a lot. Well, bad publicity for voluntourism in general, rather than just stealing jobs from the local people. Many voluntourism projects are created out of a need rather than to suit someone’s pocket. Most projects are more like NGO’s which are funded by voluntourism. In this case, jobs are often generated, as there wasn’t any organisation before, that addressed that particular issue. A fantastic example is the Elephant Freedom Project in Sri Lanka. They have helped to rejuvenate a failing family who used tourism to provide an income to fund their elephants. The project has, from the start, employed the family members and the mahouts associated with the Elephants and campaigned against the Elephant Ride phenomenon. People just come to visit to watch the elephants and bathe them, never to ride on them or watch them paint drawings. Yes, there are some teacher focused jobs which you can say reduce local employment. I have personally seen it at one of our projects before. The teacher at one of our schools we helped in Borneo would take off days when there were volunteers present to ‘take’ over his lessons. However, this was not due to us wanting to take over his job but for the volunteers to be his assistants. He did not like working with the volunteers but he never told us and just took days off. We realized this after a few weeks and then stopped sending volunteers to his classes but to other teachers who appreciated the help. It is all about management of a project. If the project has good management and people who care, then generally the projects will compliment local employment. In fact, our projects in Malaysia generated over GBP 25,000 for the local economies in 2015 via local services like meals, transfers and tours.
ECOCLUB.com: Before getting professionally involved in Voluntourism, you yourself successfully combined your studies with field work and managerial work as an Intern. How important are such internships and volunteerships for one's career in sustainable tourism / ecotourism and what common pitfalls should a student avoid when choosing Internship providers and facilitators?
Daniel Quilter: To be honest I would not be where I am today without it. My internship took me to Malaysia and Borneo in the first place and allowed me to work with, world-renowned ecotourism practitioner Albert Teo. I had such a great experience learning under him and meeting so many influential people, that I started Ecoteer.com. Straight after which I started to help other students find internships just like what I did. Internships are vital for any young budding ecotourism practitioner or even conservationist or humanitarian aid worker, as it gives you the all important foot in the door. It is a sad truth, but most of the jobs in this sector go to people the organization already knows. I myself have employed a total of five of our ex-interns. It is because you know them, their flaws as well as their positives. So internships are the best way to start your career, more so than a degree or masters. Pitfalls? I think the same as choosing any voluntourism project. Do your research, it is easy to see online who are genuine and who are scams. However, make sure you stay with the same organization for six months to one year. There is no point for you or the organization for any shorter duration as by the time you are trained and well versed in your project, it will be nearly time to move on. And whilst you are on your internship, really get to know the organization and the higher management. If they do not have positions, you can be sure they will be connected to similar organizations in the area that might.
ECOCLUB.com: A lot has been reported and repeated recently about the so-called "Orphanage Tourism", most of it concerning South East Asian destinations. Is there a danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water? And Is it perhaps an easy target for lazy and sensationalist NGOs who would rather not tackle equally complicated but universal issues, such as, the massive levels of undocumented and undeclared employment in the travel industry?
Daniel Quilter: Yes, I do think a lot of people jump on the band wagon with these things. They shout a lot but when it comes to actions and actually solving the issues behind the problems, they move away. Voluntourism, if managed correctly can be a very good way to fund genuine projects. If the project cause is the core with voluntourism seen as a way to involve people and fund the project, then voluntourism works. So too do school expeditions or ecotourists visiting the project. Voluntourism is just a type of travel. As in all types of travel you have ethical projects and unethical ones and more likely than not 90% of the projects are genuine and care. Unfortunately, it’s the 10% that are not run from the heart that get the headlines. One of my friends got dragged through the press in 2013 and what he did was stood up to what was right. Him and his organization discovered a problem with a staff member at an orphanage and asked the board of the orphanage for that person to be removed. He has since employed new staff and the children are attaining much higher grades than before. However, international media got hold of the story and spun it out of all context. They actually accused him of the bad behaviour with the children. So as in all parts of life, media can make and break people. They can very easily send out the wrong message with dire consequences that they do not think of. Another example is that of Elephant ride tourism. I do not agree with it personally, but we cannot stop it overnight. What will happen to the 1000’s of elephants and mahouts who may lose their jobs if elephant ride tourism stopped instantly? It is expensive to keep elephants, so they would need to gain money through other means, i.e. working in logging sites or begging on the streets. The media has a really serious role to play and journalists and activist campaigners should really think about the consequences of their words and actions.
ECOCLUB.com: Having researched both Mariculture (Sea Farming) and Tourism, two sectors often in direct competition as they are perceived as mutualy exclusive, which country, if any, has got the balance right in your view and why?
Daniel Quilter: In terms of mariculture and tourism, not many countries combined the two, apart from mariculture providing seafood for seafood restaurants. At my project site where I introduced mariculture tours to the tourists at Mabul, Bornean Malaysia, it worked well. It was more of a way to connect the tourists with the local people and it was that interaction that the tourists loved. I don’t know of any other countries who do a similar thing.
ECOCLUB.com: At a time of increased polarisation, Malaysia, where you have chosen to live and work, seems to be successfully combining European with Asian values, balancing growth with environmental conservation, avoiding intercommunal tensions and extremism and all these mathematically lead to a quality tourism sector. Yet, as everywhere, there must be things to be done. When you advise or If you were to advise the relevant ministries what priorities and course of action would you propose?
Daniel Quilter: Malaysia is a very diverse country and it has relative peace. There are some issues, but really not much. The Malaysian tourism industry is really focused towards attracting family based nature tourism, with its focal region being Sabah due its wildlife (orangutans, turtles etc) and accessibility. However, I really think that Malaysia’s popularity is falling, mainly because its tourism packages are now stale: they are the same as they were ten years ago. Basically they had a great product and then rode on the wave of success for five years and sat still. They didn’t move with the times and now Indo-China, the Philippines and Indonesia are all more popular than Malaysia. To put it in perspective, Malaysia receives 25 million tourists a year, Siem Reap in Cambodia alone receives more than 30 million tourists a year, so that puts things into perspective. Essentially Malaysia’s tourism products are dated. So what we really need to do, is to develop new tours. They don’t have to be completely new, but spiced up. What Peninsular Malaysia (Malaysia is split in two – Peninsular Malaysia and Bornean Malaysia) has in its favour, are lots of really fantastic small NGOs. For example, one of the standard tours from Kuala Lumpur is to visit the mangrove swamps of Kuala Selangor to see fire flies. The tour I have developed there is to visit an organic farm and make your own organic pizza for lunch; then head to the mangrove swamp where you will be guided by a local youth group and also be taught by researchers from the University of Surrey about the human: wildlife conflicts there between monkey’s and humans; then we go for sunset dinner and end with a fire fly cruise. Here no new infrastructure is needed, just a bit of care for the product you are producing. Once the tour packages are spruced up then Tourism Malaysia can then push this new campaign for Malaysia – Conservation Holidays.
ECOCLUB.com: You have already achieved a lot at a very young age. What are your future plans and aspirations? Are you happy continuing on the field, propagating quality voluntourism projects, or would you rather also use this invaluable experience at the administrative / policy making level?
Daniel Quilter: First of all, thank you for those kind words. Ecoclub.com really helped me to get my career up and running. But if you know me, you will know that I am an ideas man. I set up projects, hire staff to run them and then I move on to the next. I don’t want to be known only as the turtle man or the voluntourism man. To be honest, my goal is for Fuze Ecoteer to become globally recognized as a leader in responsible tourism. We are developing responsible tourism tours, school expeditions and voluntourism. For me though the core of FE is our projects and the projects are what makes us special. The tourism, high ropes courses, voluntourism, field expeditions etc. are all ways to infuse people in our causes and to fund them. We are all conservationist and humanitarian focused people who are using tourism to fund our work. I think that is what makes us responsible, that our core purpose is the projects and that we won’t change things to suit tourists. That is why I say we run true responsible tourism and that is what we want Fuze Ecoteer to be known for around the world. So I think at present I would love to stick to what I know, to take FE to the global responsible tourism scene and to network more in this arena as well.