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BYU–Hawaii HTM Students Lead Kiribati Tourism Transformation with Innovative Initiatives  

BYU–Hawaii's hospitality and tourism management students, led by Professor Jeff Christensen, have significantly influenced Christmas Island's tourism development through regenerative tourism initiatives. Their efforts to support local tourism and entrepreneurs have made a lasting impression.

Portrait of BYUH hospitality & tourism management students along with Professor Christensen and I-Kiribati individuals
Photo by Victor Itea

Last August, a team of self-funded BYU–Hawaii hospitality and tourism management (HTM) students led by Professor Jeff Christensen embarked on their first mission to Christmas Island to influence the Kiribati government’s tourism development plans. That trip, documented in a previous article, led to a follow-up visit in December 2023, with more trips planned for the future. 

The students' commitment to Christmas Island communities was evident from the start. “During our initial visit, HTM teams conducted surveys and awareness campaigns to educate residents about the Kiribati government's tourism initiatives on the island," Christensen explained. "This was done to ensure locals had an active voice in shaping tourism development strategies." A follow-up study among community members in December revealed a significant increase in awareness and enthusiasm for participating in the growing tourism economy, highlighting the team’s success.

Portrait of a training in Kiribati
Photo by Victor Itea

Understanding visitor preferences was another area of focus for the December trip. HTM teams conducted in-depth guest surveys at all six of the island’s hotels. Today, this valuable data is helping to elevate lodging amenities, guide infrastructure development, and improve guest experiences across the island.

Professor Christensen shared that increasing Christmas Island’s lodging capacity was also part of the mission, as the island has limited accommodation options. “We saw an opportunity to expand lodging while at the same time elevating residents’ living standards by introducing the concept of homestays,” Christensen said. “I-Kiribati HTM students developed and delivered comprehensive training programs for aspiring homestay providers aimed at enhancing their living spaces and hospitality skills. A group of non-Kiribati HTM students then validated these trainings by staying at these homestays.” The effectiveness of the campaign was undeniable; 100% of the trainees said they found the program helpful and felt confident in welcoming future visitors. Tureta Baniera, one of the beneficiaries, shared her thoughts. “What I learned helped me overcome my fear that I can accommodate guests and encouraged me [to pursue this business].” 

The students also worked with the local tourism authority to create a global event. Leveraging Christmas Island's unique position as the first inhabited place on Earth to see the sunrise, they introduced the "First Sunrise of the New Year" countdown. The spectacle was broadcast globally via Starlink on January 1 and, thanks to the HTM students’ marketing efforts, captivated audiences worldwide. “This marked a historic moment for both Christmas Island and our program,” said Christensen. “The celebration generated a lot of excitement for this little-known destination and demonstrated our students’ capacity to create and market impactful events. It was literally a fulfillment of our program’s mission to ‘transform HTM students into spiritually resilient, substantive representatives of God who engage in disruptive innovation, enhance the lives of travelers across the globe, and thrive as visionary leaders in long-term, meaningful careers.’"

BYUH student with I-Kiribati children
Photo by Victor Itea

As a result of their efforts, eight I-Kiribati HTM students have been appointed as advisors to major organizations such as the Asia Development Bank, the Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI), and the Australia-based Destination Marketing Store, which are leading Kiribati’s rebranding efforts.

In addition to these accomplishments, the students also developed visitor tour packages. “The new tours really showcase the island's unique culture, beauty, and history,” said Timeon Murdoch, an HTM student and Christmas Island native who aspires to be a tour operator. Tabware Manibwebwe, another I-Kiribati HTM student, expressed gratitude for being able to “see different perspectives from different international students because it helps us know how to help our government transform Christmas Island." I-Kiribati HTM student Heidi Boraia added, “Growing up, I always took my island for granted. I didn’t think there was anything special about it, but when I traveled there with the other HTM students, I realized how unique my culture is.”

As part of their commitment to regenerative tourism, the students also championed the conservation of a scenic beach previously zoned for commercial development. The teams surveyed potential North American visitors, 87.6% of whom preferred preservation. “We successfully advocated for the beach’s designation as the first national park in the Micronesian islands, and our proposal was accepted by the Ministry of Development,” said Murdoch. “Our next step is to present our plan to the Kiribati cabinet for final approval.” 

Group photo of people in Kiribati
Photo by Victor Itea

Building on their successes, several I-Kiribati students founded Aibwea, a non-government organization (NGO) aiming to provide microloans and business support to the country’s aspiring tourism entrepreneurs. “This lit a spark in the locals about the opportunities tourism offers,” shared Teaitara Baraka, an HTM student who worked for the Tourism Authority of Kiribati before coming to BYU–Hawaii.

BYUH student works alongside an I-Kiribati woman weaving palm leaves.
Photo by Victor Itea

Reflecting on the teams’ successes, Christensen shared, “Beyond the trip’s tangible results, the projects’ true success lies in the students’ transformation from eager learners to powerful agents of positive change.” Caden Hansen, an HTM student from Idaho, said, "There are very few career-altering experiences that people get in life. This was one of them for me." Nance Micabani, an HTM student from the Philippines, shared his thoughts on the mission, saying, "This project wasn’t just about creating tours and homestays; it's about lifting our brothers and sisters. It's a spirit-led work that has the potential to help the entire nation." 

The students have received enthusiastic praise from Kiribati's Ministry of Development for their efforts to implement regenerative tourism on Christmas Island. "We are very thankful for BYU–Hawaii and its I-Kiribati hospitality students' initiative in supporting the responsible development of Kiritimati tourism,” said Natario Kiati of the Line and Phoenix Islands Ministry, “especially as Kiritimati is the closest neighbor of Hawaii.” Temwake Kuraotio, an I-Kiribati HTM student who was interviewed on national television about the teams’ projects, says, “It’s our dream to help our country develop tourism in a responsible way. Having the support of the HTM program and the university is really an answer to our prayers." 

BYU–Hawaii's HTM students are living testaments to the power of collaboration, inspiration, and purpose-driven education. They have exemplified a commitment to service and leadership powered by spiritual resilience. This has allowed them to implement regenerative tourism practices, empower local communities, and enhance the economic and cultural landscape of Christmas Island. As they continue serving Kiribati, they embody the principles of disciples of Christ, becoming "leaders in their families, communities, and chosen fields, building the kingdom of God."

Portrait of BYUH students in Kiribati alongside I-Kiribati individuals
Photo by Victor Itea