NYU Alumni Connect

NYU Alumni Travel: West Africa and Borneo

As economies in Africa and Asia grow, natural sites become targets for development. Tourism, done right, can be a way of balancing preservation while attracting economic benefits.

By Ian Duncan (GSAS '12)

A baby orangutang in Borneo.

Taking a vacation is a surefire way to relax and give your mind a rest, but trips that follow the principles of sustainable tourism give you extra peace of mind knowing that you’re having a lasting positive impact on the destinations you visit. For those unfamiliar with the term, sustainable tourism simply refers to tourism activity that brings tangible benefits to a region and its inhabitants while minimizing environmental and social impacts. Next year alumni will have the opportunity to take part in two vacations designed with sustainability in mind: one to Borneo and the other to the West African coast.

Martine Bakker (SCPS ‘03), a consultant and analyst for the World Bank and Mintel who is teaching a course in tourism development at SCPS this semester, explained to Connect how smart approaches to tourism can boost developing economies.“It is all about trying to balance the positive impacts of tourism development while trying to minimize the negative impacts,” Bakker explains. “Sustainable tourism strives to minimize its impact on the environment, respect local people and cultures, and offer economic benefits to the local communities by providing a positive experience for visitors and meanwhile protecting destinations for future generations.”

The House of Slaves on Goree Island off Dakar, Senegal.

An NYU Alumni Travel Program trip to the Bijagos archipelago in West Africa over the new year is an excellent example of this philosophy in action. The archipelago, located off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, is one of the world’s most unusual and well-preserved regions. The religion of the matriarchal Bijagos people revolves around certain holy sites, which have been carefully tended and protected for centuries. The Bijagos’ stewardship of these sites contributed to the designation of the 88 islands that make up the archipelago as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

But the UN is concerned that the region is under threat. Some multinational corporations have proposed building facilities that would break up ships, potentially polluting the area, and commercial fishing also threatens the Bijagos culture. The money tourism brings in could persuade governments of developing countries to reject unsustainable or environmentally damaging projects, while still bringing investment and visitors to the country.

So that’s all the more incentive to join fellow alumni on the trip to the Bilagos islands. Guided by naturalist Marius Burger and expedition leader Peter Graham, alumni will spend time in the Bijagos islands keeping an eye open for rare saltwater hippos and learning about the culture and history of the Bijagos people. For 12 days, alumni will travel aboard the yacht Callisto down the West African coast from Dakar to Freetown visiting African culture museums and nature reserves in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

In Dakar, a visit to Goree Island, which was once a slave-trading colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, will be a reminder of the dark side of the region’s history. In Freetown, alumni will have a chance to explore the history of the later colonial period in St. George’s Cathedral, which was completed in 1828.

Those with eyes cast further east might wish to join the NYU Alumni Travel Program’s trip to Malaysian Borneo in February. Alumni will delve into the ancient rain forests and nature reserves that cover the island, where in the last 15 years, 361 new species of animals and plants have been recorded.

Alumni will arrive in Kota Kinabalu at the northern tip of Borneo and meet naturalist and guide, Garry Ellis, before heading to the Kinabalu national park. There a mountain of the same name towers above the rainforest. The forest itself is home to 1,200 different types of orchids, which alumni will be able to see up close. An undoubted highlight of the trip will be a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The only great apes to live outside of Africa, orangutans are an endangered species and the center works to get orphaned or captive animals back into the wild. Alumni will have a chance to see its work firsthand, attending feeding time, which is also a chance for the young orangutans to socialize.

The second week of the tour will head further inland to the rain forests, which alumni will have a chance to explore on foot and by boat. On the 11th day of the trip, alumni will wind down the evening entertained by traditional Bornean dancers, before setting out at first light to explore the jungle’s interior by longboat. In the afternoon, alumni will cruise by yacht to Rajang, a center for the Melanau people, and have the chance to try the local spicy food and seek out locally made handicrafts.

The visits to Borneo and West Africa will both offer opportunities to meet with local residents and explore their culture, one of the benefits of tourism when it comes to economic development. “Tourism can help build meaningful connections between tourists and the places they visit by increasing mutual understanding and respect for different cultures,” Bakker says. “Tourists are ambassadors both for their own country as well as for the countries they have visited.”

Undiscovered Africa, operated by NYU alumni travel partner Travel Dynamics International, takes place December 23, 2011–January 4, 2012 and January 2 – 14, 2012. The base tour cost, exclusive of airfare, is $8,995 per person.

Hidden Gems of Borneo, operated by NYU alumni travel partner Classic Escapes, takes place February 15 – 29, 2012. The base tour cost, exclusive of airfare, is $5,295 per person.


For additional information about other NYU alumni travel opportunities, visit the NYU Alumni Travel site.