By Mirana Razafindramboa, Former BV Scholar, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York State, USA. The zoo in Antananarivo was a strange place in the 1980s. As a child, the lemurs and birds imprisoned in tiny, rusty cages seemed perfectly happy, even natural. It wasn’t until I was much older that I really understood the incredible natural and cultural heritage of my country. This love of wild Malagasy fauna and flora dates back to when I joined a youth group trip in high school called the Jeunes Lasalliens Missionnaires (JELM). We went to Analabe, Ambositra. I always imagined the smoggy cement and brick capital city was surrounded by a dense forest like those I had seen in tourist post-cards and in books in school so I was disappointed to see that for nearly the entire 8 hour drive, rice paddies, non-native eucalyptus groves, and eroding hillsides were all we could see from the road.
After this initial trip, I made several more field trips to parks around Madagascar. I saw a wild lemur for the first time at the Isalo national park; a ring-tailed lemur, known as ‘hira’ for the local people. Hira in Malagasy means song, and it was such an amazing experience for me to hear him shouting and singing in freedom. ‘It’s a male calling for a female,’ explained the local guide. This male lemur’s cries completed the amazing landscape of the immense Isalo massif, etched with deep canyons, eroded over time into a variety of fantastic shapes; it was such a wonderful spectacle. Formerly, the staring eyes, haunting sounds, and nocturnal ways of some lemur species inspired early observers to think of them as ghosts or forest spirits, which explains why they were called ‘lemurs’ which is actually derived from the old Latin referring to ghosts and spirits.
That day, seeing the ring-tailed lemur in his natural habitat was unforgettable, with his black and grey coat, slightly lighter coloured limbs and belly, and white extremities. Dark rings circled his eyes, his muzzle was black, and his tail banded black and white. After seeing that lemur, so perfect and magnificent in the wild, I thought back with horror to those kept in tiny cages in the zoo.
After completing my undergraduate degree at the National Institute of Tourism and Catering, I started a small family business as a travel agency with my father and sister. The recent political crisis in Madagascar and the rise of Internet airfare bookings now threatens this business, however, we have evolved a niche in targeting missionaries for our travel services, which has proved relatively crisis-proof for now and will allow us to survive in the short-term. Due to the recent success of e-tourism, the traditional tourism business models are failing. I want to learn about this new industry and how to develop it for application in Madagascar, where it is still very new. I am also interested in how e-tourism can be used to develop the potential of cultural tourism by creating closer and more lasting connections between tourists and local communities.
I broadened my experiences in 2009 by temporarily giving up my job in order to become an intern for the British-based marine conservation social enterprise, Blue Ventures, in Andavadoaka. In addition to scientific and SCUBA training, I gained invaluable experience working with local communities on health and family planning projects as well as natural resource conservation. I was fascinated by the wide range of activities they run including some innovative aquaculture programmes. In the same way, I have learned how vulnerable the coral reef systems are, and about the numerous pressures which are causing massive social and ecological change in the region.
I hope to build on this knowledge of scientific management and grassroots conservation through continuing to study in the United States. Since starting my studies, I have fallen even more in love with my country’s natural heritage and discovered more great potential for tourism to incentivise communities to conserve these great resources. Tourism can provide a win-win situation where local communities gain income and development opportunities whilst the lemurs and other animals gain precious habitat.
I am very keen to study Tourism Management in the US in order to pursue a career in sustainable tourism here in Madagascar. In five years, I envision myself starting a social enterprise that unites environmental conservation, women’s empowerment and economic development with an aim to ignite grass-roots change in my home town of Fianarantsoa (southeast Madagascar). In the long-term, we have decided to diversify away from our travel agency and to this end I am leading the creation of a new family business in Fianarantsoa where we will start a small bed and breakfast in the historic section of the city. I plan to have the new business up and running in the next 6 months, before starting my studies abroad. After my studies, I would like to combine my entrepreneurship interests with my passion for the environment to help struggling families by creating a social entrepreneurship organization, which will ultimately help to develop a small network of family-run bed and breakfasts along the popular tourist routes in the region. These bed and breakfasts will provide tourism income to local communities and give them an incentive to develop ecotourism activities such as forest guiding and handicrafts production with support from the organization. This will encourage them to conserve the natural heritage of the area, without sacrificing their ability to make a living.
As a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a degree in Tourism Management will give me a greater understanding of sustainable eco-tourism while allowing me to obtain the skills I require to be successful in my chosen career path. My goal is to learn about strategies, practices and technologies that promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production, while making efficient use of natural resources. I also want to learn about how to engage with public and private sector decision makers concerning the use of protected areas and eco-tourism to promote both conservation and human development goals.
Before embarking on this venture, however, I recognize that I need more knowledge and skills in non-profit management, tourism marketing and in natural and cultural resource management at the regional and local level. It is only through study at an American university that I can acquire the skills that I am searching for. Madagascar doesn’t offer graduate coursework specifically in tourism management. Furthermore, American universities offer much higher quality than anything available in the African region.