How we won. At the World Travel Market in Cape Town (WTM 2017) Ilha Blue received GOLD in the African Responsible Tourism Awards in the category Best for Engaging People and Culture. This category “seeks to shine a light on the best examples of tourism experiences which involve and celebrate local people, traditions and ways of life”.

Obviously we are very excited about this award, its great to get this recognition and we think it would be a good idea to share what we can about how we won. Below is Ilha Blue’s response to questions posed by the judges as part of the selection process, we hope you find it interesting. If you have any further question or want to know more just send us an email.

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Q. What is your organisation’s most significant achievement in engaging people and culture through tourism?

A. Our most significant achievement has been to challenge the status quo and shift the tourism focus away from the privileging of a Portuguese view of history and the promotion of idealised colonial values (domains where well educated outsiders have distinct advantages over locals) and more towards an appreciation of local historical perspectives, culture and lifestyle. In doing this we have challenged unfair practices and repositioned local people and their culture, to be at the centre of Ilha’s tourism offerings.

While there are many reasons for tourists to visit the island and a nascent industry already existed before IlhaBlue arrived, it was clear that the direction tourism was heading would largely exclude rather than encourage local participation.

This situation was further complicated by an industry-wide bias that discriminated against local guides in favour of outsiders who, superficially at least, appeared more professional. Under this unspoken arrangement locals got less work and earned significantly lower rates than their non-islander counterparts.

Through capacity-building and empowering activities, and collaborations with like minded people, we have successfully challenged this discriminatory and exploitative practice and replaced it with a more equitable alternative that fully values and promotes local people and their unique culture.

Now, more than ever before, the value proposition on offer to visitors is the promise of a fair and enriching confluence of tourists and local people for a positive celebration of indigenous culture. We believe that for a small business like Ilha Blue this is a significant achievement.


Q. What is your organisation’s vision in terms of cultural engagement in the next two years? How will you measure it?

A. Over the next two years we intend to set up a suitable social space for young women within our shop. This will be a space that the young women can define themselves; it will have a work focus like a café or craft workshop and will be closely linked to Ilha Blue’s operations so that new synergies can form.

This is important because currently tourism on Ilha is dominated by men, and despite our best efforts we haven’t managed to get young women into meaningful roles. The reasons are clear; young men are free to move around the streets, talk to strangers and make tour arrangements and souvenir sales. Along the way they pick up English language skills and a few tricks to charm the visitors.

Women do occupy all kinds of positions in Ilha society; there is no social, cultural or other reason why women can’t work with tourists. The issue, we have found, is the absence of an identified pathway that young women can follow, acquiring English language, customer service skills and industry knowledge along the way. Our vision for the next two years is create the pathway and bring an equivalent number of women (6 to 10) into fulltime employment in the tour operations sector.

Meeting the Sinfonia

Q. Why is engagement with local people and culture important for your organisation / destination where you operate?

A. Ilha de Mozambique is a tiny, impoverished island bestowed with world-class tourism assets. For us engagement with local people and culture is the way to unlock the tourism potential so that the population have a chance to transition out of poverty. It is for us both a moral and strategic decision.

Ilha is the former capital of Mozambique, an island city with an estimated 15,000 people. It has a rich and vibrant lifestyle that is influenced by Swahili, Indian, Portuguese and Indigenous African cultures. The whole island has been given UNESCO World Heritage status which is a drawcard for visitors; and the marine environment, nearby archipelagos and deserted beaches are the stuff of dreams. In the winter months humpback whales rest here before journeying south.

With few economic opportunities, the island’s people have correctly identified tourism as an important driver of development. Unfortunately however, the legacy of the colonial past has left a split society built on inequality and discrimination; meaning that even if the tourism aspirations are realised there is no guarantee that local people will share in the benefits. To understand this, one must appreciate that, by and large, outsiders own the businesses, the renovated buildings and other physical assets, while locals control the council, own small businesses and many of the ruins, and very importantly, the culture. This is why we advocate for culture as a key reason why tourists should visit, because this will give locals a better chance to benefit. Ilha Blue can champion this through respectful engagement with local people around their culture.


Q. Please give us a brief description of how your organisation engages with people and culture through tourism. 

A. Ilha Blue capably brings together people from all walks of life to participate in life-changing cross-cultural experiences here on Ilha. Everything we do is designed to link tourists with locals – to facilitate rich, memorable and authentic transformations.

To achieve this we do an enormous amount of behind the scenes preparation. For example we run workshops that encourage people to examine their culture so they can gain an appreciation of how tourists might see it. Tourism the way we do it has a role in reinvigorating culture, such as the scheduling dances performed in traditional (often domestic) settings rather than in hotels. We run workshops for guides to design their own tours, specifically privileging local culture; illustrating the significance and importance of maintaining and promoting culture, not just for tourist consumption but for all the intrinsic reasons which older community members understand.

All tours are locally guided, it is never any other way. Our guides understand that their greatest asset is themselves and they are supported to share personal experiences and anecdotes with tourists. We facilitate home visits whereby groups meet families and understand the intricacies of daily life.

Mozambique Tourism Workers Exchange is a new initiative of ours. Our aim is to bring together local tourism workers so that they can learn and be enthused by each others passion and experiences. The first exchange is scheduled for March 2017 and involves a visit of 7 Ilha Blue staff to Nkwichi Lodge (2016 Gold Winner, ARTA).

Ilha Blue never loses sight of the social context in which we function. After 5 years of operation we have become an integral part of the community. In addition to workshops and seminars for local government officials and tourism stakeholders, we also give parties, prepare large lunches for special occasions like ‘Day of the Mariner’, screen films and occasionally football games, and contribute financial and other resources to community events.

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Q. Give us a brief overview of your organisation – its main activities, where it operates, the ownership model and how it is funded.

A. Ilha Blue Lda was founded by owners Peter Allsop and Gail Woods. Both have previous tourism operation and planning experience, have worked for 15 years in a development context and have formal adult teaching qualifications.

The business operates on and around Ilha De Mozambique, the country’s former capital. An island city 3klm long and 500metres wide at its narrowest point. Political turmoil has left Ilha with serious overcrowding exacerbated by poor infrastructure. Most of the islands estimated 15,000 people still draw water in a bucket and use squalid latrines or ‘visit’ the beach. Many homes are poorly maintained and subject to flooding. Hunger and disease are common. On the positive side, community is strong and life is influenced by a rich mixture of Swahili, Indian, Portuguese and Indigenous African cultures. Ilha has UNESCO World Heritage status and the marine environment, nearby archipelagos and deserted beaches are the stuff of dreams.

Pete and Gail came to Mozambique in 2010 and again in 2011 looking for the right place to create a responsible tourism project. Ilha stood out over all the other locations we explored because of its obvious tourism potential, existing tourism aspirations and a large underemployed population. We connected with a cohort of interested people and contributed our skills, knowledge and financial resources to develop a sustainable tourism business with local people as the main beneficiaries. Underpinning our actions is a strong social justice agenda.

The cohort we connected with identified as ‘Missangueiros’, a name derived from the trade beads sold to tourists. They were around 15 young men, all underemployed and consequently living in poverty.

In the first year we focused on building relationships and introducing new ways of seeing things. Some of our best remembered activities were role plays and exercises designed to shake things up a little. We bought bicycles and ran free trial tours of the island, experimented with kayak tours, watched films, prepared meals and did lots more fun things. There wasn’t much employment in the first year; the main benefits for participants were meals and a friendly social space to hang out in and learn new stuff.

The company now has 8 full-time permanent employees and many casuals . Most are from the original cohort, all come from Ilha. Each has improved their skills and their ability to take on greater responsibility, some gaining supervisory roles and one now doing a fantastic job as Manager.

Drawing on our experience as educators we have focused on capacity building. Workshops and other learning activities go beyond the original cohort. We have provided well attended Introductory Tourism courses, an English for Tourism course as well as Tour Guide courses for existing guides and numerous workshops for industry members. In addition we have supported our staff to attend external training including English language and Portuguese literacy/numeracy classes and conversational Japanese.

Our products now include sailing on traditional Swahili Dhows, whale watching, snorkelling, sunset cruises and island hopping. There is also camping on Ilha Das Cobras. Walking tours of mainland Swahili Village and the Macuti Town Bairros with home visits. Bicycle tours are still very popular. Everything we do showcases local cultural and social perspectives. All of our activities are entirely operated by locals

In 2015 Ilha Blue was contracted as shorex agent for the calls by cruise ship ‘Sinfonia’ (2600 passengers). We have since hosted 4 of their ships plus a further 2 expedition cruise ships from Noble Caledonia. We have also added corporate team building programs to our repetoire.

In 2017 we aim to transfer the business to local ownership. While this is a big step it is not unrealistic, we have been preparing for this, and have made provision for ongoing support. We hope it will become a model for others to adopt.


Q. What has been the biggest challenges to engaging local people and culture in your destination, and how has your organisation worked to overcome them? Please be as transparent as possible.

The successful implementation of a capacity-driven tourism model, in a way that will benefit Ilha’s people and local economy, is dependent on collaboration between the various stakeholders: businesses, government, organisations and individuals. Collaboration requires trust, and it is trust that is most lacking on the island. Fostering trust across the board has been undoubtedly our biggest challenge.

To understand this lack of trust from an indigenous perspective, it’s necessary to understand the underlying issues: the disempowering effect of an oppressive colonial past, the long-term emotional impact of war, poor education and healthcare systems, debilitating poverty, and a corrupt bureaucracy that discriminates against the most disadvantaged. These issues are deep-rooted and intergenerational. Coupled with this – and arguably symptomatic of it – is the issue of foreign ownership of hotels and restaurants on the island. While there are notable exceptions, too many of these business owners demonstrate a mix of greed, entitlement and racism. This works to keep local people down and perpetuates the environment of distrust.

The experience of cruise ship visits to Ilha illustrates this issue. Freelance guides (the Missangueiros) were tired of being exploited by ship shore agents, however, due to lack of resources and inability to work as a cohesive group, any attempt to take on the role of shore agents themselves failed. Faced with the prospect of losing out to somebody else, the Missangueiros were deliberately obstructive, even aggressive, towards any new contender. It wasn’t until 2015, after three years of slowly building trust through our continued presence and demonstrated commitment to the island, that Ilha Blue were able to gain their tacit approval and implement a cruise ship plan. Now, 6 ships later, the Missangueiros agree that they have benefited greatly from their partnership with Ilha Blue and are enthusiastic about future work.

Similarly, many of the local restaurants, bars and other tourism amenities that were encouraged to offer packages for sale onboard the ships declined at first, largely because they had no faith in the process. On subsequent visits, the level of interest from these parties has increased and we are now enjoying greater involvement and collaboration than ever before. Whilst this challenge is ongoing, we believe that our awareness of the issue and patience in addressing it is allowing us to break new ground.

Ocean Safari: Whale Watching

Q. In what way do local communities benefit from your organisation’s work?

A. Our commitment to employing local people under fair terms and conditions is well known. We pay above minimum wage, make monthly social security contributions and further augment with generous productivity bonuses up to 8 times a year.

Staff enjoy extra holidays (more than 3 times the entitlement) and flexiblilty is built in for community responsibilities and family commitments. Good pay and job security gives individuals the confidence to plan for a future, to eat well, buy assets and meet their famiy’s health and educational needs. Ilha blue has 8 permenant employees and many casuals; the positive ripple effect across local community networks is very noticeable.

Commitment to local community extends to other services as well: we buy fish from local fishermen, groceries from hinterland farmers and employ the services of a host of local artisans. Example: annual boat repairs require boat builders, caulkers and sail makers, who, in addition to their traditional skills, use locally manufactured nails, coir rope, cotton and timber to complete the job. There is a great deal of respect for these ‘masters’ and the finished job results in strong community pride.

As elsewhere, local people enjoy sharing their culture with tourists, but all too often they are compelled to provide some hollow presentation that lacks any cultural significance and can leave the audience feeling awkward. This is not what we promote, instead we encourage our guides to take tourists to places where they are likely to encounter cultural activities for real, and then to share information as passionately as only they can. Take for example a women’s Tofo dance group encountered while on a bicycle tour (this often happens). Here the dancers arecommemorating a significant community event, the performers are energised and the audience enthusiastic.

Above all Ilha Blue is a social organisation and everything we do is done in a socially inclusive way.


Q. In what way does your organisation’s responsible tourism initiatives impact on the environment in your destination?

A. At Ilha Blue we don’t plant trees, clean beaches or stand guard over nesting turtles. We believe our greatest impact can be achieved by educating local people about the fragility of the environment and strategies for sustainable management. Key to effective management is the creation of alternative livelihoods.

In the area around Ilha the loss of marine ecosystems (decline of coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds) is already having an impact, although local people may not be aware of the reasons. Loss of traditional livelihoods and food insecurity are certain to follow.

New management practices are needed and it’s a matter of social justice that alternative livelihoods are identified for those people negatively impacted by their introduction.

At Ilha Blue we understand that we can play a key a role in providing alternative livelihood choices through tourism. Already we have increased the economic opportunities available to dhow boat operators and fishermen by facilitating their increased involvement in tourism. (The more time spent working with tourists, the less reliance there is on unsustainable harvesting activities).

An example of this is our creation of a ‘flotilla excursion’ for cruise ships – 10 dhows with around 30 crew take cruise ship passengers from the ship to the mainland. The tourists get a deep and thrilling cultural immersion; learn about sailing techniques and boat building practices. The crew makes money of course, and in addition they enjoy positive cross-cultural interaction, gain exposure to new ideas and become role models for others.

It is no accident that our reliance on local boats and crew is increasing through our dhow safaris, whale watching and other activities. By successfully influencing tourism demand to follow this path rather than one of high-powered boats for example, a local and efficient, carbon neutral transport network can thrive, and the environment benefits.


Q. In what way does your organisation engage tourists in the culture of the local community before, during and after the tourism experience?

A. For many tourists, their first contact with Ilha Blue is through our online presence, Facebook, our Website and Trip Advisor. Cogniscant of this we focus on positive, cultural representations, those that will enthuse people not only to do our activities but to further immerse themselves in the local social and cultural scene while on Ilha.

Once toursits arrive on Ilha they are welcome to visit us in our large open shop which we share with a popular local hairdressing business and tailor. The shop (or loja) is a hub for locals, men, women and children; internet is free; there are locally made products for sale and street food sellers stop by. It’s a place to learn to play local games like Mpale, to talk to staff, there’s even a table tennis set up to give another easy opportunity for locals and tourists to mix.

After tours many of the tourists continue to socialise with Ilha Blue staff. The guiding continues but in an informal manner, often a trip to a local venue to watch a televised football game or dinner in one of the many hidden local eating spots.

Its impressive how many of our staff maintain relations with tourists long after they have left, again this is done using platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp. The free internet and social media support we provide makes this possible.


Q. Is there anything else about your organisation and its work you would like us to know?

A. We have won Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for 3 consecutive years.

We believe that Ilha Blue is an excellent canditate for this ARTA award. Only a small organisation but when it comes to social inclusion and promoting fairer ways of doing tourism business we punch well above our weight.

Winning will give us leverage to further galvanise the business community on Ilha to really take on board the challenge of the whole island becoming a responsible tourism destination. A destination that is truly engaged in sustainable practices culturally, environmentally, economically and socially.

An award will also help us attain the recognition that we believe we miss out on because we are small and intentionally grass-roots. This award will be a boost for everyone who has contributed to our success over the past 5 years.