The new playground behind the new kindergarten and, top right, the new meeting bure and, right, Conua District schoolkids at the opening of the kindy.
The new playground behind the new kindergarten and, top right, the new meeting bure and, right, Conua District schoolkids at the opening of the kindy. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

Tourists take up the challenge in Fiji

IN YEARS to come, the rugby-mad children of Conua District School in Fiji's Sigatoka Valley may wonder why their kindergarten is named after Australian rules football star Eddie Betts.

Their teachers and elders will then tell the story of how the AFL indigenous ambassador and his Adelaide Crows teammates and coaches added their sweat and muscle power to building the kindy while holidaying about 50km away at Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort.

And they will learn how the kindy and other facilities most Australian schools take for granted are the result of a revolution in thinking about how five-star resorts should operate within small communities in developing nations.

Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort general manager and part-time Sunshine Coast resident Peter Hopgood came up with the community tourism projects idea about seven years ago.


Conua children see their new computer room for the first time.
Conua children see their new computer room for the first time. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

The concept seems improbable on paper: build major community projects from the ground up, relying on holidaymakers' goodwill and donations.

The projects are handpicked, in consultation with community leaders, and guided by a resort building team for maximum benefit.

Peter even had the "audacity" to ask tourists to spend a day or two of precious holiday time labouring and doing other menial tasks, paying them nothing and in fact charging them for the privilege.


VIPs at the new library opening.
VIPs at the new library opening. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

Only in Fiji - one of the happiest and friendliest places on the planet - could such a concept grow wings and fly. But fly it has. The volunteer tourism model has been so successful so quickly that Hawaii-based Outrigger Resorts and Hotels has begun adopting it throughout its global footprint to help its local communities.

Each Tuesday and Thursday at the Coral Coast resort, adults and children have signed up for the 9am departure from reception that also takes in a tour of the picturesque valley, a meet-and-greet with some of the Conua District School children and staff, and lunch at the nearby historical Tavuni Hill Tongan Fort.

Initially, the tourists built a bus shelter, then covered walkways, new bathrooms, fences to keep animals out and painted building exteriors. But from little things big things grow, and Peter's ambitious concept really ramped up in 2014.

He and resort activities manager Kini Sarai, a former Fiji rugby international, happened to be meeting with community chiefs at Conua District School when the heavens opened up. The downpour not only was coming through the roof into the then meeting "hotbox", it was also seeping up through the floorboards.

Peter describes it as "one of those genius moments" the idea to build a community meeting bure.


The old meeting bure at Conua District School still stands.
The old meeting bure at Conua District School still stands. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

The community meeting bure was built at a cost of $126,000 and was opened at the end of 2015 in conjunction with a computer lab ($25,000). A library ($10,000) and kindergarten ($52,000) were added last year and officially opened on November 26.

"It sounds crazy but everyone totally embraced it," Peter said of the community tourism projects at last year's ceremony.


At the opening of the meeting bure.
At the opening of the meeting bure. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

More than 2000 guests - an average 40 a week - have worked on the Fiji projects since they began in 2009.

Among them was AFL Goal of the Year specialist Betts and his family, who signed up for the adventure on a low-key holiday early last year. They were so impressed with the experience that Betts convinced his Crows colleagues and their families to take up the kindy opportunity while enjoying a holiday at the resort.

Their efforts made the kindergarten, which will house 20-30 young students, a reality much sooner than expected.

Betts was unable to attend the official opening on November 26 - his birthday. But Kini told Education Minister Dr Mahendra Reddy and invited guests that the new kindergarten was a dream come true for local villagers.


Sigatoka Valley.

"The emotion that we saw on the faces of the elders when they saw the completed building is something that will stay with me," he said.

Betts said he was honoured the kindergarten carried his name.

"It makes me feel connected to this community and the thought of all the young children who will start their education in this building brings me enormous joy," he said.

"Cultural sensitivity is important and we believe resort general manager Peter Hopgood and the Outrigger family have established respectful and trusting relationships with the local community.


Conua District schoolkids.
Conua District schoolkids. SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

"The Adelaide Football Club players, coaches and families who came to work on the kindergarten have all taken home special memories from working with Outrigger on this project - they all vow to return again next year."

The community tourism projects had a similar effect on the Newport Junior Rugby League Club in Sydney, which helped complete the computer lab.

The next community tourism project will be a Men's Shed-type workshop for Sigatoka Special School. Peter is confident guests will pay FJD$100 per adult to do their bit.

The writer was a guest of Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort

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