09 January 2012

Turtles Versus Tourists!

With family coming to visit Oman for the festive season I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet them in Muscat and make a trip to the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve.  I'd heard a lot about Ras Al Jinz and their website looks very professional and says all the right things about "promoting social responsibility and sound environmental practices" and raising awareness.  Unfortunately, our experience was about as far from eco-tourism as you could get and more like a tourist cattle market.  We stayed at nearby Ras Al Hadd and made the journey to Ras Al Jinz in plenty of time for our pre-booked 9pm turtle viewing tour.  On arrival we were confronted by a foyer swarming with other tourists - there were literally hundreds of them.  We tried to book in for our tour but were simply told to wait.  We were struggling to understand how the tour was going to work. No-one seemed to be accounting for who did or didn't show up and there were just SO many people.  Anyway, we were still early, so we waited... and waited... and waited.  There was no information and no sign of movement (except the mass of bored people stretching their legs or finding a corner to sit).  Getting increasingly fed up we approached the reception desk again.  They re-iterated that they were waiting for information from the beach and that we should wait.  By 10pm, and with a young child in tow, we again tried to get some information.  By utilising our limited Arabic, the reception staff became a little more open and told us that the previous nights there had only been one turtle and that it had spent around 20 minutes on the beach.  It became increasingly obvious that there was no way all these hundreds of people would be taken down to the beach, let alone see a turtle. We eventually gave up and went back to our accommodation feeling very dissatisfied.  We saw many other people leave over the course of the evening too.

We knew it was low season for the turtles and we always acknowledged that we would have to be lucky to see any.  As with anything in nature, there are no guarantees.  Our complaint doesn't lie with not seeing turtles - our complaint lies with the shambolic handling of visitors. Even more so, our concern lies with the potential impact of this tourism on the turtles.  We always knew that late December would be a busy time to visit, but surely the centre must place some limits on how many tours they sell? The number of people waiting was overwhelming and completely at odds with the idea of unobtrusive, small-group eco-tourism.  More so, the centre missed every opportunity to raise awareness about the work they do, the plight of the turtles etc.  People left the centre having learnt nothing.  Usually on these type of trips you would expect guides to impart their knowledge, to share their passion for the subject at hand and to leave you feeling motivated to want to be a part of the conservation effort.  It may well be that Ras Al Jinz does a lot of good work, but sadly we were shown no evidence of it.  There are plans to open a visitor centre which will house some kind of exhibits, but at the time of visiting this was not yet completed.  Ras Al Jinz would do well to limit the numbers of tourists they accommodate and to ensure a fulfilling and educational visit for those who secure a place.  We expected to be guided to the beach as part of a small group and we expected to learn something, perhaps to be shown a presentation or see some pictures even if we couldn't see the real thing.  We had no interaction at all with staff regarding the turtles. We could have been waiting for anything, anywhere. Nothing made it unique or special.

I am fortunate enough to have witnessed turtles nesting elsewhere in the world and the experience couldn't have been more different.  I visited Borneo's Selingan Island a few years ago.  There, limited numbers of visitors had the chance to stay overnight to see the turtles, and strict rules and regulations were enforced to ensure the turtles weren't disturbed. Rangers took just a handful of people at a time to where the turtles were and, during any time not spent on the beach, the work of the national park was explained in detail. Visitors also had the opportunity to visit the island's hatchery and release baby turtles into the sea.  Even if we hadn't seen the nesting turtles, it would nonetheless have been an incredible experience.  Sabah in Borneo has the oldest turtle conservation programme in the world and it seems like Oman could learn something from them.

I am almost glad that no turtles came to the beach at Ras Al Jinz whilst we were there. If they had, I can only imagine that there would have been a stampede of people.  Ras Al Jinz doesn't charge much to visit. It might be better if they increased their prices but limited access and put money back into both visitor education & awareness raising, as well as conservation.  

After our trip I sought out some online reviews of other peoples' experiences.  Whilst, in fairness, there are many positive reviews, I also came across people describing their experience as "turtle torture" and describing groups of over 50 people descending on the beach at the same time. Another review talks of adjacent beaches being polluted with oil and litter, whilst someone else mentions a crowd of over 200 visitors over Eid. The same person goes on to say that the number of people resulted in some turtles returning to the sea without laying - something one would want to avoid at all costs.

It is fantastic that Oman has created a turtle reserve and is conscious of the need to conserve this magnificent species. I simply hope that it prioritises turtle welfare over tourists, whilst also ensuring that tourists receive the enlightening educational experience they deserve.

07 January 2012

New Year, New Beginnings...

Happy New Year to all my readers! Here's hoping that 2012 brings positive environmental changes in Oman and beyond. A New Year is always a good time for a fresh start and, with Oman Environment Day taking place tomorrow (8th January), I hope that people will feel inspired and motivated to play their part.  If we all do a little bit then, collectively, we can truly make a difference.

ESO have announced their calendar of events for the year, although sadly, as usual, Dhofar remains completely unrepresented.  This is frustrating,  but it's all the more reason why we need to shout that bit louder to be heard! Let ESO know that you want events to take place in the South too. I get the feeling that they don't think there is enough interest down here to justify it. Let's prove them wrong!!  If you have ideas for specific events you'd like to see here or presentations/lectures you'd be interested in hearing then let me know and I will pass your suggestions on to ESO.

Well in the latter days of 2011 I'm sorry to report that I had quite a depressing Omani 'eco-tourism' encounter at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve. I will write about it in my next post and, meanwhile, will remain hopeful that things will improve for the better in 2012...