A STORY OF REDISCOVERY, RECONSTRUCTION AND NEW MEANINGFUL CONNECTIONS
Back in 2020 we connected with Elisa Spampinato, a Travel Writer, Community Storyteller and Community Based Tourism Ambassador. Passionate about travelling and people, Elisa wanted to use the pandemic lock-downs as an opportunity to armchair travel, share community based stories and inspire others to connect with locals when the world of travel re-opened.
THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ADVENTURE
When Traveller Storyteller launched the Destination Community campaign in April 2020, Secret Paradise was one of the first tour operators to enquire and ask to join the campaign. I was delighted that the campaign’s vision and mission resonated immediately with so many professionals. However, I can’t deny that I felt a bit surprised when I realised that this tour operator was from the Maldives.
Had they realised that this campaign was about connecting with the local communities and revealing the real roots of a place? Are there even any local communities in the Maldives?!
It was my just ignorance talking at the time, and I was about to find out how little I knew about the Maldives. The discovery was a delightful surprise and a real eye-opening experience.
But regardless of the doubts that were populating my thoughts, the strong interest shown by Secret Paradise’s co-founder, Ruth, merged with my natural curiosity and I let my instinct drive me in that journey of discovery, even though I was standing still, on my tiptoes, stretching forward and using my senses to confirm I was in the right place.
When I asked Ruth to direct me to the best candidate for the first story, she was in no doubt: You should meet our guide Kokko, he is a great match for this storytelling project.
A new wave of unanswered questions crashed on the shores of my mind. A tour guide?
I had already written about tour guides in the past, and I very much admire and value their work as gatekeepers of unexplored worlds.
However, what I have discovered with Kokko, and later on Kamey , is the other layers that a tour guide holds. They are the local experts, introducing the visitors to a place’s features and history; but they also embed their own stories and if a tour guide doesn’t add their personality to the recipe, their tour will lose a lot of its originality. Tour guides are cultural connectors but, above all, they are cultural beings too.
The choice to have a local guide, and entirely local staff, is part of the core values of the company, because they are members of the local communities. This supports Secret Paradise’s mission to ‘promote local tourism in line with Maldivian culture and beliefs’, while ‘aiming to protect the environment and limit wherever possible any negative impact to local life’ as you can read on the Why sustainable tourism? page of their website.
I met Kokko in the first few months of my Zoom travelling experience in 2020, which took me virtually to different locations around the globe during the pandemic, to meet members of local communities and amazing Community-Based Tourism projects. I travelled from Brazil to Rwanda, from Panama to Chile, from Argentina to Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador, from Papua New Guinea to South Africa and back to Thailand, but I hadn’t expected to be invited to go to the Maldives at all.
Having worked in Community-Based Tourism for a long time, this archipelago in the Indian Ocean has never been on my radar, because the only things I would have expected to find there were luxury resorts and deserted islands.
I felt guilty about my blindness, but then I realised that I shared that limited, stereotyped view with many others, sometimes even with people that have already travelled there, but who didn’t have the chance to explore what was lies beyond the atoll on which they were staying.
The information we receive through media and travel marketing, regrettably, has somehow completely erased the local communities from the picture, and this is true in the Maldives, as well as in Brazil, Chile, Panama – and in the majority of the tourist destinations, unfortunately. But things are changing, thankfully.
Since I always wanted to bring communities back into the centre of the picture – where they belong – it was such a great surprise to discover that, through the work of Secret Paradise, I could do that even in the Maldives, unveiling a bit about the vibrant communities that populate the 183 local islands through my writing.
‘Bridging the Unknown’ – the first in-depth article I wrote after a couple of virtual chats with Kokko – tells the stories of another Maldives, revealing new perspectives, even to myself.
The stories Kokko shared passionately with me delivered many layers of reality and, most importantly, from a local and personal angle: the environmental challenge of the local communities, the natural hospitality and warmth of the people of the little islands. It also revealed the cultural stereotypes and unconscious bias that he sometimes witnesses in tourists, but that he helps to dismantle through small and meaningful actions, like a word of encouragement, or perhaps a step back to create more space for interaction.
Kokko has shared many stories of the emotional encounters with the sea and its underwater inhabitants that he has guided over the years.
The stories I heard were many, so I could only pack a few of them into the article, but the others are there between the lines and I hope one day to share them too.
It is astonishing that, without planning it, I went through the same process I wanted other people to go through by reading the stories that I write. The intriguing irony of things.
THE CAMPAIGN AND NEW LAYERS OF STORIES
I always invite my readers to discover new things, and sometimes even to rediscover a familiar place we think we know by using a different pair of glasses. In fact, I believe that it is all about using storytelling to include new perspectives and change our mindset, or at least, question it.
This is exactly the reason why the Destination Community campaign exists in the first place, and I am glad that this was what Ruth was looking for too:
‘For the Secret Paradise’s team and I, the Maldives is so much more than the luxury resort destination, it is most known as. Joining the Destination Community campaign allows us to highlight that exploring the Maldives and enjoying the beautiful beaches and tropical waters is just one component that this paradise island offers.
There are also authentic experiences and off-the-beaten-path locations that you didn’t even know were there to discover.’
A NEW GENERATION POSTCARD
At the beginning of 2021, tired of the old postcards that I have been collecting on my wall during all of the journeys in my life, the Destination Community campaign expanded and changed its face.
The Postcard Series was launched, with short, fresh snapshots on the local people, their lives and their connections with the reality they call home and we, the tourists, call our holiday destination.
With the hope of further shortening the distances between the host and the guest, I started creating a new collection of lively postcards that could help future visitors to understand a bit more – and in more depth – about the places they will visit, by seeing it through the eyes of its inhabitants and those engaged in the community.
Kamey, another of Secret Paradise’s tour guides was the protagonist of one of those stories, and I enjoyed discovering his big heart and his intense relationship with the water and the sea, and I will invite you to pick up his postcard and take delight in reading it.
I hope to visit the Maldives soon and I look forward to being guided by the local knowledge and emphatic human connections of the Secret Paradise’s guides, and repeat the experience again, because, as Kokko once guaranteed, each tour is different because each day has a different vibe.
Moreover, each guide will show you a different angle, even if you walk the same streets as the others, because you will be entering their own personal portal and listening to their stories.
Book your tour, enjoy your journey and be assured your trip will be full of marvels.