It used to be that backpacking trips to Fiji involved a bus ride from Nadi to Suva,
followed by a ferry to an area like Taveuni, Savusavu, Ovalau or Kadavu. But not
Now, young budget travelers are standing in line to visit the Yasawa Islands, a chain of
sixteen large volcanic islands and numerous smaller ones roughly 22 miles off the west coast of Viti Levu.
The sunny dry climate, stunning white beaches, crystal-clear warm waters and
spectacular coral reefs make the Yasawa Island Group a perfect tourist destination, but until recently a
Yasawa vacation required a harrowing sea voyage from Lautoka in an unsafe small
boat or a very expensive flight by seaplane from Nadi.
Blue Lagoon Cruises has been sailing among the Yasawa group since the 1950s, but
the well-to-do passengers aboard those ships sleep on board in their rooms and
the local residents receive few benefits from their visit.
Until the Rabuka coups in Suva in 1987, the Fiji government had a policy that the
Yasawa islands were closed to land-based tourists. The long years of military-backed government brought few changes to the Yasawas,
but Australian investors were allowed to build the luxurious Yasawa
Island Resort. A couple of village-operated backpacker camps sprang up on Wayasewa and
Waya in 1991 as well.
Since the early 1980s, local families have operated three small low-budget resorts on Tavewa Island, thanks
primarily to Tavewa's status as a freehold island beyond the authority of the Fijian chiefs. For
years, local church leaders have considered tourism to be a bad outside influence
that should be kept separate from village life.
It would be difficult to imagine anything that could be more removed from the
life of the native Fijians than Turtle Island Resort on Nanuya Levu Island, Fiji's ultimate hideaway for the
rich and famous. Nanuya Levu has been freehold land since 1868, and in 1972 Richard Evanson used
$300,000US he earned in the Southern California cable television business to
Evanson's Turtle Island Resort
became the model for Fiji's current group of boutique island resorts, playing
host to millionaires and movie stars. For example, Brooke Shields stayed here during the filming of
The Blue Lagoon in 1980.
A self-appointed environmentalist, Evanson planted thousands of trees on his
island and converted the mangrove forests into tourist attractions by building a
series of boardwalks.
The resort's food is grown in organic gardens and power is generated using solar and wind energy. Each year a group of volunteer California eye specialists visits Turtle Island Resort to perform eye surgery on needy villagers or to equip them with donated prescription glasses.
Yet for most Yasawan people, life has changed very little since 1789 when Captain Bligh and loyal members of his crew paddled past the
islands in an open boat just after the famous mutiny on the Bounty took place.
Still today, most Yasawan villages do not have running water or electricity, and
there are few opportunities for economic development. The natives of Yasawa have felt neglected by politicians in the distant capital, envious onlookers as mini-cruise ships and yachts carried wealthy
Yasawa vacationers along the islands' shores.
In May 2000, George Speight and assorted thugs turned Fiji on its head when they
took control of the Parliament building in Suva. Speight's pro-indigenous rhetoric struck a chord
with the Yasawas.
Villagers from Nacula Island staged a mini-coup on Turtle Island, locking Evanson in one of his 14 luxurious bungalows as village youths rode wildly around Nanuya Levu on Evanson's golf carts.
When the excitement calmed down, plaited mats were spread and kava roots were pounded, and over many bowls of grog, Evanson and the villagers came to an understanding.
Rather than eliminating the golden goose, Evanson convinced the people of Nacula
that they'd be better off opening their own resorts and allowing him to continue running his business in peace.
Evanson offered interest-free construction loans and promotional support, and the Nacula Tikina Tourism Association was born. The association's
website currently describes a dozen locally-operated resorts around the Blue Lagoon in the central Yasawas, including the three existing properties on Tavewa.
All resort operators must conform to a strict code of conduct intended to preserve the environment and guarantee acceptable levels of service. Though primitive compared to the luxurious Mamanuca resorts off Nadi, the Yasawa backpacker camps provide
relatively inexpensive basic meals and accommodations.
The huge influx of backpackers began in 2002 only after Awesome Adventures, a subsidiary of New Zealand-owned South Sea Cruises, launched a fast catamaran service up and down the
Yasawa island chain.
You can now leave Nadi's Denarau Marina on the Yasawa Flyer any morning at 9:15 and be at the resort of your choice in time
to enjoy lunch. Up to 150 backpackers do this each and every day, and the village-operated resorts on
Naviti, Kuata, Wayasewa, Nanuya Lailai, Waya, Tavewa, Nacula and Matacawa Levu are
enjoying lots of business.
You can make reservations upon arrival at Nadi Airport through any of the dozen 24-hour travel agencies
located right in the airport terminal! Each of these offices sells catamaran tickets with a bus transfer to the harbor included.
Deluxe accommodations and gourmet meals should not be expected at any of the Yasawa
resorts, but the friendly people, stunning natural beauty and very low prices make most
Yasawa vacationers overlook these inconveniences!
About the Author:
David Stanley is the author of Moon Handbooks Fiji and his
Guide To Fiji.
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