I’ll admit that sometime in February—during the deepest, darkest of New York’s seemingly never-ending winter—I’m tempted by the advertisements to book an affordable getaway to Atlantis Bahamas. But then I wonder how I can support such an enormous property operating near ecologically sensitive areas like coral reefs? After speaking with Debra Erickson, Executive Director of Kerzner Marine Foundation, who will be part of the panel I’m moderating at the Oct. 20 Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singapore, I’m happy to report that environmental degradation is not an issue that the company is ignoring—but tackling head-on.
“All of our properties are built near beautiful marine ecosystems, and we realized that if we want them to be around in 20 years or so, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of them. So the company established the Kerzner Marine Foundation five years ago to foster the preservation and enhancement of marine environments.”
Debra seems to be the right person to head up that mission—she has a long background in overseeing effective social responsibility programs for organizations as diverse as the San Diego Zoo and Anheuser-Busch.
“One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is that if you want to make a long term impact on ground, small discreet donations just don’t do it. So, at the Kerzner Marine Foundation we fund a program for three years. Right now, we’re in the second year of a three-year program to protect the coral reefs in the Bahamas. It’s a multi-prong approach that involves doing scientific evaluation and education outreach.”
The program to which Debra is referring is ambitious—involving a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust. The ultimate goal is to greatly increase the size of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) on the west side of the largest island in The Bahamas, Andros, which has some of the most spectacular and intact marine habitats left in that area.
Debra believes that the ultimate success of a preservation project depends on the partnership with a local NGO—she has definite take on what it means to “go local.”
“One of key things I ask when evaluating funding for a program is, ‘Who is going to lead the project?’ Before we give any money, I fly to the project site and spend at least two days, ask to speak to local government officials, making sure that NGO has support, interacting with community leaders to see who supports the project and their level of interest. I can pretty much tell in the first ½ day if what the organization says their going to accomplish is going feasible. The key is always how involved are locals in project? A lot of Western NGOs go overseas, make a lot of promises, and then the project is done. They go back to where they came from and didn’t develop an infrastructure or leave funding that phases out over time that’s going to keep the project going. If I don’t locals, and if the plan has no one locally getting a salary, I won’t fund it. You have to think about locals.”
Like many others in the travel industry, Kerzner and their properties are trying to figure out how to engage their customers in the challenge of preservation. But Debra sees it as an opportunity.
“One of the advantages we have over others in the industry is our incredible aquarian interaction program that really changes people’s lives by putting them in contact with wildlife. We’re trying to figure out how then you ask them to take the next step and contribute to a program that helps save the coral reef. A lot of people want to contribute—I do get checks from guests who want to help. We are working on a way to engage guests in a more structured way.”
We’ll dive—pun obviously intended—much deeper into these issues with this “Blue Bahama Mama” on our panel in Singapore. For now, I’ll keep Atlantis on the list of possible last minute winter escapes.