When the judges first asked us about our biggest achievement in engaging people and culture through tourism we pointed to our success in disrupting Ilha’s unfair tourism practices that were making it very difficult for local people to get jobs. At that time in 2011, tourism was controlled by a handful of outsiders who privileged the Portuguese view of history and the promotion of idealised colonial values over an appreciation of local historical perspectives, culture or lifestyle. In practice what this meant was that anyone who’d memorized a few relevant pages of the Lonely Planet was considered more qualified to be leading a group of curious Japanese tourists around the island than a local of 25 years standing.

Talk about a Red Rag to a Bull! We knew this wasn’t right and we knew we had the experience to do something about it so we returned to Ilha in 2012 and hooked up with the Missangueiros.

The name Missangueiro is derived from the Missanga glass beads that are still traded on the island, and the Missangueiros are the Ilha version of Zanzibar or Phuket’s beach boys; young, underemployed men who fill their time scanning the busy streets and narrow lanes for opportunities, such as the arrival of two fresh faces like ours.

Sparking up relationships with the Missangueiros was easy. The promise of something different to do was enough to get them interested, and we quickly established a program that involved a range of experiential learning activities like site visits, role plays, problem solving games, even a bit of cooking and the occasional doco or Hollywood film.

In other words, we were capacity building to equip these guys with the skills and confidence to take up future opportunities where their local knowledge and experiences would be highly valued.

Then for our next trick – we magic’d up these ‘future opportunities’.

Even though we’ve been involved in tourism for years and have plenty of industry know-how, getting a business up and running here on Ilha involved a steep learning curve for us. To be able to deliver on our promise of interesting and fun cultural immersions we first had to get a proper appreciation of what this destination was all about. This involved lots of exploration of Ilha’s Stone Town and the Bairros, the surrounding sea and nearby archipelago, all in the company of friends, fishermen and guides – excellent fun and brilliant adventure. We followed this with a period of trial and error; developing activities to be ‘road tested’ on willing travellers and tweaked until we got it just right.

In this way we were able to create a range of responsible tourism products that immersed visitors in the local lifestyle, and encouraged them to get actively involved as a way to learn about and to better understand local perspectives. Through this process we did something that we are very proud of, we changed the expectations of visitors coming to Ilha. So now, just about all visitors expect to be shown around by a local, they are much more keen to gain a local perspective and know that locals are the best people for the job. This might sound obvious now but it wasn’t how it happened five years ago.