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Kiribati Students From BYU–Hawaii Pioneer 'Regenerative Tourism' to Transform Christmas Island

Kiribati students from Brigham Young University–Hawaii recently visited Christmas Island for the purpose of establishing a “regenerative tourism” program, as the country’s national government plans to reshape Christmas Island into a tourist attraction. With a firm mission in mind to educate Kiribati residents and government officials, four Kiribati students who are majoring in hospitality and tourism management (HTM) and their adviser ventured out to their homeland to improve not only the nation’s tourism industry but the lives of locals as well.

Kiritimati, commonly known as Christmas Island, is a coral atoll located in the northern part of the Line Islands (south of Oahu, Hawaii) and is part of the Republic of Kiribati. Similarly sized to Oahu, yet with only approximately 7,300 people, the government of Kiribati wants to transform Christmas Island to support and enhance tourism in a sustainable and responsible manner. With fantastic waves for surfing, beautiful oceans for diving, a rich ecosystem of aquatic life for fishing, and a magnificent view of the skies and stars at night, the people of Kiribati saw this as an opportunity to develop Christmas Island as the place to go in Kiribati.

Kiribati students with Professor Draper stand with Kiribati government leader.
Photo by Victor Photography

The HTM students of BYU–Hawaii, however, saw this as an opportunity to establish “regenerative tourism.” Regenerative tourism is the act of developing the tourism industry in a way that helps the residents participate in said industry by gaining employment. BYU–Hawaii students desire to lead tourism efforts that are by the locals, for the locals in an attempt to make meaningful contributions to their home communities.

This miraculous journey only proved fruitful because of the preparations that took place before it even began. The students who ventured to Kiribati were Temwake Kuraotio, Timeon Murdoch, Garynta Rotau, and Tabware Manibwebwe, who had no in-class preparation for their trip. Instead, these HTM students met independently, often spending eight to ten hours a week preparing for the visit. Also preparing with them was their adviser, Jeff Christensen, Center for Hospitality & Tourism Management director at BYUH. It is also worth noting that while most student trips from BYU–Hawaii are “all-expenses-paid,” this trip was not. These four students saved up and paid for the journey at their own expense, showing their dedication to the mission at hand.

Kiribati students pose with representatives from the Tourism Authority of Kiribati.
Photo by Victor Photography

The purpose of their trip was to help with the Kiribati government’s plan to transform Christmas Island into a tourist destination. To accomplish this, the objectives included:

  • Meeting with government leaders such as the minister of development for the Line & Phoenix Islands and the Tourism Authority of Kiribati (TAK). 
  • Meeting and surveying 13 of 17 local communities to educate them about the government’s tourism initiatives. 
  • Surveying community members’ understanding of tourism issues, advantages, disadvantages, and development for their island. 
  • Providing entrepreneurial training to approximately 120 high school students for their personal exploration of the tourism business. 
  • Establishing a Kiribati-based non-government organization that will raise funds to support local start-up businesses through micro-loans, enabling locals to participate in the tourism economy. 
  • Surveying current guests about their experience on the island in order to get a feel for the amenities that current guests would appreciate having the most. 
  • Taking photos and videos of the island to build a promotional website and application for Christmas Island. 

During the trip, all of the objectives were accomplished and more. The trip served to be educational for all parties, including the students, the adviser, the government, and the locals of Christmas Island. Towards the mission’s completion, the students and their adviser spent the remainder of their time doing tourist-related activities like surfing, honey-collecting, fishing, and more. Even these activities were not just mere fun but also a contemplative way to look for things to monetize as preparation for the tourism industry to be built there.

In short, BYUH students were there to convince the Kiribati government to properly create the tourism industry for their island.

This student-led and student-funded trip was the first of its kind. Jeff Christensen, adviser and HTM director, still amazed by their accomplishments, shared, “We had students in their mid-20s pitching to these high-ranking government officials… and those officials were listening to them and acting on their recommendations. Never before has this happened. It was amazing and extremely rewarding to watch.”

BYUH students posing with high school students in Kiribati.
Photo by Victor Photography

This idea of ‘regenerative tourism’ is not new. Students have a few on-island examples of how regenerative tourism can make a positive and lasting impact. For example, the Polynesian Cultural Center, helps thousands of international students gain a college education through a work-study program called the International Work Opportunity Return-ability Kuleana (IWORK) Program, which the four students are a part of. An international example is the prominently known Hobbiton movie set of The Shire in Matamata, New Zealand. But while the idea is not new, it is the first time BYUH students have ventured on a trip like this to introduce the method to the country of Kiribati.

While the trip is commercially viable for the plans of the government of Kiribati, it was also led by the Spirit.

The Kiribati government eagerly asked the students for help and expertise. Despite not being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the minister of development allowed the students and adviser to pray with him, and by the end of the prayer, stated that they were the answer to his prayers. The locals of Christmas Island, who were usually hesitant to interact with Church members, were remarkably open and willing to engage with the BYUH students. “This experience served as a catalyst for positive change in the local perception of the Church.” Christensen said. He adds, “I’m confident that the numerous endorsements we received from the government helped pave the way for this transformation.”

High school students in Kiribati listening to BYUH student give lecture on regenerative tourism.
Photo by Victor Photography

The trip has also been a profound blessing to the BYUH students from Kiribati. Temwake Kuraotio, the team leader, recognized the hand of the Lord, guiding him throughout his journey. Despite experiencing six consecutive years of rejection when applying to BYU–Hawaii, Kuraotio remained undeterred, viewing these rejections as "privileges given to [him] by Heavenly Father.”

Looking back, Kuraotio noted, "I realized the Lord didn't want me at BYU–Hawaii in those years because he was preparing me for this specific mission. It's been a great blessing to me. To my team and all the successes we've had, enhancing my discipleship of Jesus Christ is part of it… the university's mission and vision: to be peacemakers." Kuraotio’s journey highlights how life’s twists and turns can ultimately serve a higher purpose, contributing to one’s spiritual growth and life’s mission.

An additional team member of the trip was photographer/videographer Victor Itaea, a Kiribati native and member of the Church. Itaea agreed to photograph the trip for free after the team of students covered his travel expenses. After the trip, Itaea stated that when he returned home, demand for his services skyrocketed and tripled his average annual income in less than three weeks. Itaea’s participation in the project not just benefited him financially, but spiritually as well.

Kiribati students with their tour guide standing outside by a car.
Photo by Victor Photography

The trip to Christmas Island has yielded some amazing results. So, what’s next for the Center for Hospitality & Tourism? “Phase two begins this December. It involves developing and delivering training programs for local individuals who wish to provide homestays for foreign visitors, akin to an 'Airbnb' experience, and tour operators who wish to escort tourists on island adventures.” Christensen remarks. This plan may have begun in Kiribati, but other countries will also be touched upon. “We have Tonga, the Marshall Islands, and American Samoa coming up as part of this program. They’ve reached out to us, asking us to provide similar support to their countries.”

The Center for Hospitality & Tourism's profound commitment to its students’ home countries and its vision to “transform HTM students into spiritually resilient, visionary leaders who engage in disruptive innovation and enhance the lives of travelers across the globe” are the foundation of these remarkable efforts. These HTM students’ extraordinary mission to their homeland, combined with a strong commitment to live as devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, has set the stage for transforming Kiribati’s future. To these four students and the other Kiribati students who support them behind the scenes, this journey marks the dawn of the Lord’s expanded influence in their homeland and across the entire Pacific region.