Here’s a concept: Locate a remote island, then ask 5,000 people to join a global Internet “tribe” that will build a real-life eco-community. Should there be palm-thatched huts? A beach bar? Organic farm? Scientific research? Scuba school? Almost everything is up to the members. The basic rules: Only 100 people can visit the island at a time, but everyone votes on how the project develops, from lodge construction to toilet type, to ensure that the operations remain sustainable.
The vision took shape when Mark James, a young British entrepreneur, issued a challenge to his friend Ben Keene, an adventure travel entrepreneur and founder of Career Break Café: Could they create an online community with a real-world purpose—something beyond just chatting on blogs and sharing music? Using Google, the two friends typed in “islands for sale” and found Vorovoro, an undeveloped 200-acre island paradise in northern Fiji that for generations has served as home to the chief of neighboring Mali. The Mali islanders, along with their current chief, Ratu Apenisa, were interested in attracting tourism that was compatible with the island’s ecology and culture, and agreed to lease Vorovoro for $90,000 for the three-year global social experiment. After that the people will decide whether to continue, or end, the project.
After leasing the island, Keene and James turned to the Internet to find their “tribe.” In early 2006 they launched www.tribewanted.com. Since then more than 1,000 people have joined, roughly half of them from the United States. About $200 a year gets members seven days of meals and accommodations (airfare not included), plus the chance to participate in the thriving online community. Warren Wright, the first elected chief and, in September 2006, one of the brave early visitors, helped oversee the construction of new lodges and compost toilets and ceremonially blessed the island and its new tribe, hand in hand with the Mali people.
The BBC has a five-hour documentary on the project planned for this fall. “If we can hit a mainstream audience with this,” Keene muses, “if they say, ‘Look, all these people are recycling or building compost toilets,’ then they [viewers] learn a bit more about protecting the environment. Without considering your impact—which is very obvious on an island—you’re really not being very honest about the way you’re living.”—Wendee Holtcamp