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Before setting off to Fiji, there are a few essentials to know: it’s a tropical paradise comprised of 333 islands with 466 marine protected areas that are surrounded by 1.3 million square miles of tropical blue waters. It’s globally recognized as one of the happiest countries in the world, and the warmth of Fijian hospitality is legendary; locals take immense pride in their homeland and revel in the opportunity to share its beauty and culture with travelers. When it comes to welcoming visitors with open arms, the country stands in a league of its own—and its recent commitments to regenerative travel, conservation, and cultural preservation are quickly cementing it as one of the most sustainable destinations in the South Pacific.
The obvious stars of the show in Fiji are its pearl-hued beaches and pristine waters, but quickly after arriving, I realize the real stars are Fijians themselves. Eager to share their rich cultural heritage through dance and song, I’m warmly invited to partake in what would soon be many traditional kava ceremonies on day one of my Talanoa Treks with Intrepid Travel. Traditional highland villages are connected by a series of hikes for a multi-day cultural experience that supports community-based tourism, cultural preservation, and environmental stewardship. “We partner with the communities we visit through our hikes on a business-to-business basis,” explains Talanoa Treks founder Matt Capper as we hike through the lush jungle from one village to the next. “The idea for Talanoa Treks came from these villages, and while our team focuses on trip logistics, management, and connecting communities to the tourism market, visitors are hosted by our community partners. All of the guides and those preparing meals are from these communities.”
Capper is also the co-founder of the sustainable tourism collective Duavata. Roughly translated, it means “as one together” and “is the happy coming together of a range of tourism operators that share common values and the belief that tourism can be done better to improve the environment, to give back more to communities, and to give visitors a more rounded experience of Fiji as a unique place in the world.” Several of its members, including Namosi Eco Retreat, Muanivatu Trails, Rivers Fiji, and Domoika Adventures, also focus on connecting visitors with the traditional Fijian way of life through adventure.
Below the surface, Fiji’s coral reefs are a treasure trove of marine biodiversity, captivating divers and snorkelers with their enchanting beauty reminiscent of the vibrant underwater world depicted in Finding Nemo. In particular, Fiji’s Namena Marine Reserve stands out as a source of inspiration for the beloved film. It was here that Pixar’s animation team immersed themselves in aquatic research to capture the essence of the ocean’s magic, and a place where I, too, am captivated by its wonders. Equipped with guidance from the expert dive team from Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort and the advanced technology of my Apple Watch Ultra 2 dive computer, I find myself ascending up the reef’s towering columns like Finding Nemo’s Australian dentist. However, reefs like these are under threat, and Fiji—recognizing its importance to the environment, Fijians, and tourism revenue—is dedicated to protecting and restoring them while offering visitors the opportunity to contribute.
“Without a protected environment and culture, we lose what attracts visitors to our shores,” explains Brent Hill, CEO of Tourism Fiji. “We are actively collaborating with industry, community, and government stakeholders to align nationwide sustainability goals, embracing eco-friendly practices, championing marine and environmental conservation, and fostering community-based tourism, all while embracing the renewable energy revolution.” Launching in late 2024, Tourism Fiji’s Loloma Hour program will transform traditional holiday indulgence into lasting joy by offering visitors the chance to contribute through environmental, cultural, and community initiatives for one hour a day, embodying the belief that true happiness stems from generosity. Additionally, Tourism Fiji and PADI’s new Bula Blue initiative will strive to make Fiji the top sustainable destination with the largest network of PADI Eco Centers, enhancing regenerative travel to benefit local communities. They aim to grow Marine Protected Areas by 30% by 2030, incorporate Adopt the Blue at all dive sites, and through PADI AWARE, offer Fijians diving careers and support local conservation efforts.
Countrywide, coral restoration efforts are growing and planting climate change-resilient coral in Fiji. Meanwhile, educational programs for children are nurturing a new generation of potential marine biologists. “Our School Under the Sea program caters to children aged six to 12, immersing them in cultural and conservation activities. They learn about reef preservation in our marine protected area and by collecting corals from our coral nursery, which they then plant,” explains Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort resident marine biologist Ofaine Morell. “Additionally, they’re immersed in Fijian culture, plant mangroves, explore rainforests, snorkel, and interact with local schools to create lasting pen pal friendships while earning a program graduation and fostering a dedication to environmental care.” Complementing these efforts, Nanuku Resort’s Junior Warriors Program introduces children to similar cultural and conservation elements, expanding their horizons with medicinal nature tours and showcasing the healing powers of the natural world.
Meanwhile, on the shores, mangroves are critical in the fight against climate change by sequestering vast amounts of carbon and protecting islands from erosion, especially during cyclones. Kokomo Private Island and Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort’s mangrove conservation efforts are joined by Nanuku’s ambitious initiative to plant 30% more mangroves around the resort each year as part of its Batiwai project. All three resorts involve guests in planting mangroves and donating plants to neighboring villages to assist in their reforestation efforts to protect themselves and the environment.
Fiji’s waters—teeming with over 1,200 reef fish and 75-plus species of sharks and rays, as well as five of the world’s seven marine turtle species—also require protection. Amid the colorful coral gardens, giant clams—crucial for water filtration and listed as threatened by the IUCN since 1996 due to overharvesting—thrive as the ocean’s heaviest bivalves. In response, Kokomo, Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, and the Barefoot Manta Island Resort-led Drawaqa Marine Conservation Trust have launched clam nursery initiatives in partnership with the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries’ Clam Hatchery Conservation Program. These initiatives raise young giant clams, maintaining them through routine cleaning for transplantation to boost spawning and reproduction. Kokomo visitors can observe these clams flourish under marine biologists’ care.
Of the over 75 shark and ray species, the manta ray stands out most for its intelligence and impressive 23-foot wingspan. Recognized as threatened by the IUCN, mantas are the focus of global conservation efforts led by The Manta Trust, supported in Fiji by Manta Project Fiji. Local initiatives like The Kokomo Manta Conservation Project and Barefoot Manta Island Resort’s Marine Conservation Center contribute through research, sustainable manta snorkeling trips, and adoption programs. Similarly, PADI-5 Star Eco Center Beqa Adventure Divers has brought its conservation game to a new level with the launch of the Fiji Shark Lab. This field station is dedicated to the research and preservation of shark and ray species in Fiji and has several research and conservation projects underway, which visitors can support from anywhere in the world by adopting a shark. This “conservation group running a dive shop” also funds its conservation and advocacy through shark diving ecotourism at the Shark Reef Marine Reserve, adding to the long list of ways travelers can embrace conservation by giving back to Fiji.
The kaleidoscopic coral reefs, teeming with vibrant micro inhabitants, never fail to enchant me—yet it’s the manta rays and sharks that hold a special place in my heart. Perched on a natural amphitheater of rock, I gaze into the marine expanse where a ballet of sharks unfolds, captivating the lenses of both my goggles and camera. It offers an acute reminder of the critical role these majestic predators play in the ocean’s health, and their reliance on conservation initiatives like those found in Fiji. Then, as I hand back my rented dive gear, I notice the Fiji Shark Lab adoption board, and a decision takes root: Welcome to the family, Big Poppa the bull shark.