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David Stanley

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Books by David Stanley

An Interview with guidebook writer David Stanley
by David Stanley   

Last edited: Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2002

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David Stanley was recently interviewed by Stuart Wulff of the Pacific Peoples' Partnership in Victoria, British Columbia. That interview appears below.

SW: What prompted you to become a travel writer and what drew you to focus on the Pacific as a subject?

DS: I sort of stumbled into travel writing. In 1976 I spent several months roaming around Indonesia with a slim red guidebook called {Indonesia, a traveler's notes} in my backpack. Upon returning to Canada I mailed the author, Bill Dalton, a few notes of my own and got a cordial handwritten response. A trip to the South Pacific was on my agenda for the following year and I wrote Bill offering some notes on the area for inclusion in his Indonesia guide as a sort of "Onward Travel" appendix. Bill replied that his {Indonesia Handbook} was already billowing out of control and that a separate book was required. He offered to act as co-author (and publisher) if I did all the field research. Not realizing how much work was involved, I agreed, and the first edition of {South Pacific Handbook} appeared in June 1979, the 2nd in the Moon Travel Handbook series which now numbers almost a hundred titles. With the 2nd edition in 1982 I took over as sole author, and a 7th edition was published by Moon Travel Handbooks in early 2000. Bill sold Moon Travel Handbooks in 1989 but he still writes about Indonesia.

SW: What philosophy or principles guide you in how you approach travel writing and writing about the Pacific?

DS: Frankly, I look at everything from the point of view of my readers because they're the only ones who are paying me. I neither solicit nor accept "freebies" from the travel industry and refuse to be chaperoned by local visitors bureaus. In fact, I make a point of not identifying myself while in the islands. This certainly isn't the easiest way to go but it allows me to tell it as it is without any favors to repay. I also try to view tourism through the eyes of island residents, and their interests are not always the same as those of government or business. Governments are supported by taxation, and revenue generators like hotels, airlines, tour companies, and overseas assistance advisors usually dominate policy making. The impact of tourism on the local community is often considered only as an afterthought. Hopefully my books channel tourist dollars into local pockets with overseas leakage kept to a minimum.

SW: What has been your most memorable experience of covering the Pacific as a travel writer?

DS: I still remember vividly my visit to Beqa Island off the south coast of Viti Levu in 1981. I'd met some Fijian firewalkers at Pacific Harbor and they said they were going back to their village in a couple of hours and I was welcome to come along. Of course, firewalking is only performed at the big resorts of Viti Levu and almost never on Beqa itself, but those people were magnificent individuals. That evening all of the men of Naceva village gathered in the chief's bure and I was treated as a guest of honor in a manner I most certainly did not deserve. I learned more about Fijian culture that weekend than during several weeks of hotel travel and it continues to influence my writing.

SW: After covering the Pacific as a travel writer for so many years, what changes have you seen - as a destination, in the nature of the travel experience, in the level of services, in how it is marketed, in the scale of tourism, etc?

DS: Conditions are a lot easier for travelers now than they were two decades ago. On my first visit to Taveuni I had to grovel before an expatriate district officer to get permission to camp beside the government rest house at Waiyevo. Today there are 23 official places to stay on Taveuni including several commercial campgrounds. I remember how during my first visits to Fiji there were almost no Indian restaurants; now there are many. Tourism has become accepted, and visitors to Vanuatu and Solomon Islands are no longer met with overt suspicion, as they were as recently as a decade ago. Some aspects of travel have become more commercialized, especially what's called "soft adventure travel," but it's still easy to do your own thing. The only islands which seem in danger of being overwhelmed by tourism are Moorea, Bora Bora, and Rarotonga. Elsewhere tourist arrivals are still extremely light compared to Hawaii or the Caribbean. The internet has been an equalizer in the marketing and promotion fields, with small countries such as Cook Islands able to mount websites as good as those of tourism giants like Britain and France.

SW: What changes, for better or worse, do you see in how the Pacific is being viewed by outsiders?

DS: The South Pacific is becoming more of a "Pacific paradise" for transnational tour operators marketing consumer packages. Serving as a playground for affluent outsiders can benefit the island economies, so long as local residents and the environment are protected. Otherwise, most people think of Hawaii, Japan, or Australia, when you mention "the Pacific", seldom the 30,000 islands that comprise Oceania. The region has only captured world attention three times: first when Europeans "discovered" Polynesia in the late 18th century, again with the Japanese invasion of Melanesia during World War Two, and finally with the various 20th century nuclear testing programs in Micronesia and Polynesia, all of which have now been stopped. You could do a lot worse than be everyone's idea of paradise.

SW: The new mantras of travel seem to be in niche tourism - eco-tourism, cultural tourism, etc. Do you agree? Is this really anything new or just clever marketing? What are the implications of this for the Pacific?

DS: I hate to say it but most of what is called "eco-tourism" in the South Pacific is mere money-making by expatriate business interests. The most farcical example of this I've seen is the "eco-tour" by helicopter offered in Apia, Samoa. However, they may have a point: Visitors in a helicopter probably have far less impact on the environment than four-wheel-drive tourists or hikers. I'd say the test of an eco-tour should be who gets the profits and what impact there is on the environment. Village-operated eco-tourism, such as the fale resorts of southeastern Upolu, is low-tech and culturally empowering. I'm always watching for tourist facilities actually owned and operated by local people, or even better by whole villages collectively, and I feature them in my guides. Governments have a role here and there should be controls over the way even local people exploit their environment. National parks and reserves are the best way to go as these provide the basic framework for the sustainable development of tourism while serving as magnets in themselves.

SW: What advice would you give to a first time Pacific visitor?

DS: I'd suggest they avoid booking too many tours or accommodations in advance but just get on a plane and go. With a good guidebook in hand they can arrange everything upon arrival at less cost and with more flexibility than they ever could from home. An exception might be having a hotel eservation for the first night or two to soften the landing. Travelers should lower their comfort and convenience expectations, and "go native" as much as possible. Otherwise a package tour to Hawaii or the Caribbean will work out cheaper than the same to Fiji or Tahiti.

SW: What advice would you give to Pacific islanders who want to promote tourism as an economic development option for their people?

DS: You're talking about island visitors bureaus and governments, right? I think they should help their people set up simple tourism businesses without imposing all sorts of arbitrary accommodations standards and licensing requirements. If any type of tourism needs to be controlled it's the packaged consumer tourism which creates little foreign enclaves in exotic locales. Programs should be established which assist local villages in establishing visitor facilities that provide employment and income opportunities for the community as a whole. Such programs should not be run by overseas advisors or travel agents, who may only try to duplicate the expatriate-operated tourist facilities. Everything should be island style in harmony with local economic conditions. Governments should enact strict laws to protect their marine environments, especially the reefs and everything around them. Some of this is already happening.

SW: Thank you David Stanley.

Web Site: David Stanley's Homepage


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Reviewed by Johanna Quartel 4/15/2002
I like the responsible resident-centred focus on tourism. We should see countries as they are, and considerately, rather than as profit-motivated individuals and companies would have us see them.
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