Some individuals are redefining the idea of travel. Amanda Suriya Ariffin meets ‘voluntourism’ advocate Daniel Quilter
WHEN altruism is combined with a profit-oriented organisation, it is difficult to suppress some reflex knee-jerk scepticism.
British-born Daniel Quilter, however, founder of Ecoteer and laid back but vocal advocate of a hybrid of conservation and ‘voluntourism’ (volunteering and tourism), handles my inquisitive and somewhat cynical squint quite well. How passionate exactly is this blue-eyed boy and how serious is he about preserving Malaysia’s natural wonders?
“I did a degree in Environmental Science and wanted to get some work experience, and I’d heard of Borneo and the man-of-the-forest, the orangutan, and so I wanted to come out and help. I wanted to get into responsible travel from the very start,” he replies smilingly.
“In the southwest of England, the sea is slightly warmer than the rest of the country, so I was always in the sea,” he relates. “I was always outdoors. As a kid I was always interested in it. My passion’s always been there,” he shares.
A big fan of David Attenborough, Quilter says his father was in the navy and he had, at 15, wanted to be an electrical engineer and join the Navy but changed his mind.
“One night, when I was about 16, I knew I didn’t want to do that. I knew I wanted to work with the environment,” he says, confidently.
And he is confident. Despite the casual attire (“This is the most suited-up you’ll ever see me!”) the 28-year-old has the gift of the salesman’s gab, minus the pushiness.
“I wanted to go and volunteer in Africa on a reserve for about one or two months after graduation (he was 21 by then) but I couldn’t afford it — it had cost about £2,000 (RM9,900),” he adds, chuckling at my surprise. “And that was six years ago — through a normal travel agency!”
So he wrote to organisations around the world, including Borneo Ecotours in Sabah, who asked him what skills he possessed, and found himself working as an intern volunteer for six months in 2005. He’s not left Malaysia since.
What did he learn from transplanting himself halfway across the world in wild forests in sweltering heat? “You’ve got to have a passion for it (environmental work). It’s hard work,” he states matter-of-factly. “You’ve got to know people, you can’t work in isolation, and you’ve got to work well with other people.”
In a nod of respect to the World Wildlife Foundation’s efforts to preserve the “corridor of life”, the Kinabatangan River area, which is home to pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys, Quilter relates that this place “was a hotspot for tourists all over the world” and he was transplanted to his employer’s eco-lodge as a tour guide.
Dropped at the deep end, Quilter experienced quiet anxiety over expectations — working on projects that ranged from organising global ecotourism conferences to being a linguistic liaison between tourists and villagers.
In his seven years in Malaysia, what’s his main take on the preservation of our natural flora and fauna? “When you’re working with animals, if you get any sort of issue, it’s only because of humans,” he replies without hesitation. “You have to solve the human problem before you solve the animal problem.”
RECYCLE FOR MONEY
“You have to look at the community side of it, and get the community involved. Using the stick doesn’t work. You’ve got to use the carrot: economics, money. Like recycling: with paper or plastics, for example recycling only works because people make money from it,” says Quilter.
His passion for preservation is more than apparent at this point.
Though he concedes that he would like to see greater state intervention in the area of environmental and heritage preservation that is transparent and honest, he stresses that protection by law is key. “I know enforcement is difficult, particularly in the oceans,” he laments quietly. “Like the hunting and shooting in the forests — it goes on all the time, but not everyone sees it,” he stressed.
He started Ecoteer Responsible Travel in 2010, and though part of the name may be self-explanatory, the offer of “voluntourism experiences” may cause a few eyebrows to be raised in curiosity or confusion upon first mention. Voluntourism is touted as “travel which includes volunteering for a cause”.
This translates into travellers, perhaps, helping in painting financially-challenged villagers’ homes, providing educational and fun courses to children or picking litter (and apparently, a lot of it, from what previous travellers have said) off Malaysia’s beautiful beaches. The response has been positive, Quilter says, more so from non-Malaysians than from locals.
This is surprising, but, he explains, “the concept of volunteering while on holiday may have yet to gain acceptance among local travellers.”
“It’s about sustainability,” he offers, his enthusiasm un-dimmed. “With the international market slowing down, it’s a good opportunity to encourage local travel, and putting back into the environment, what you may take out with your carbon footprint.”
In the long-term, he adds, he wants “to get voluntourism into the mainstream.” And as is the usual plea from altruistic do-gooders, Quilter says more education and awareness are needed.
Doesn’t he miss home? “My heart is here. It’s an amazing place.” But, he adds, laughing: “I do go home once a year, but I don’t miss having cold feet and toes!”
I try to silence my inner devil’s advocate in thinking, here is a foreigner who is as, if not more, passionate as locals in preserving the natural heritage of his adopted country, but impassioned individuals such as Quilter are a welcome addition to the local landscape nonetheless.