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Tribe Wanted: Welcome to Vorovoro
What would happen if two entrepreneurs formed an online community and
then whisked its members off to build paradise in the South Pacific? Let the
experiment begin.
Text and photograph by James Vlahos

Photo: Tribewanted.com co-creator Ben Keene


FIRST FOOTERS: Ben Keene (center), cofounder of Tribewanted.com, hopes to recruit a 5,000-member online tribe and turn it into a real one on the Fijian island of Vorovoro. More than 1,000 people from 25 countries have joined so far with the hope of creating an environmentally friendly, locally beneficial tourist facility in partnership with the local yavusa (tribe) of Mali.

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On January 14, 2006, Ben Keene received an email that changed his life. The weather outside was rainy, windy, and freezing—typical for winter in Devon, England—and Keene was holed up in his loft office, the window fogged with mist. He had just taken a sip of hot tea when the message from his friend Mark James popped up, and Keene did a double take at the subject line: "A TRIBE IS WANTED."

Keene and James, both 26, had been brainstorming ideas for an Internet start-up, and Keene was used to receiving email messages full of improbable schemes from his friend. The business plan outlined in the current message didn't disappoint: We will establish an online community and call it a tribe, James had written. Members will create profiles, post photos, and chat online—the usual stuff—and then do something with no known precedent in the history of the Internet: The virtual tribe will become a real one. We will travel to a desert island, James wrote, and form a partnership with an indigenous tribe. We will build an environmentally friendly tourist facility and show it off to the world as a model of low-impact development. We will be a 21st-century tribe, and you, Ben Keene, will be a chief.

James's inspiration had come in part from social-networking sites such as
Friendster.com and MySpace.com, which were massively popular and attracted hundreds of millions of visitors a year. In his view, these sites were full of untapped potential for altruism. People spent countless hours online but did little more than swap mindless messages and bootleg MP3s. Participants on SecondLife.com even paid to develop island properties that would never exist outside of their computers.

In the tribe that James envisioned, members would steer the development of a real island—making decisions about infrastructure, recreational facilities, rules, and more—through discussions and online voting. Then, traveling in shifts, they would visit the island at a cost of a few hundred dollars a week to construct facilities with the locals. Members of the indigenous tribe would benefit economically; those in the Internet one would experience a tropical adventure
that they could never get at a Club Med.

Keene skimmed the email incredulously and then read its half dozen paragraphs more carefully. For the past couple of years he had worked for a company that took college students on extended trips pairing adventure travel with community development. James's idea offered a similar payoff as well as additional benefits: The experience wouldn't be limited to students, and it would last not just for weeks but, in theory, for years, via the Web involvement. Agreeing to move forward, he and James punched "private island" and "lease" into Google and started talking to the handful of brokers who dealt with such rarefied real estate. "We looked at islands all over," Keene later recalled. "Some were just too expensive and others were cheap but in dangerous areas. Soon
we discovered a South Pacific island in Fiji that looked perfect.

"Vorovoro was a made-to-order castaway isle: 200 acres (81 hectares), surrounded by reefs, fronted by golden-sand beaches, and shrouded in jungle. It sat a short boat ride from world-class surf breaks and the Great Sea Reef, which covers 77,000 square miles (199,429 square kilometers) and is reputedly the third largest reef system in the world. After several long discussions, Keene came to a decision: "We could either sit dreaming of the island or empty out our bank accounts and go for it."

On September 1 Tui Mali stood on the beach with his tribe gathered around and watched as an overloaded boat entered Vorovoro's turquoise lagoon and eased to a stop with a crunch against the sand. The palangi, or white-skinned people, clambered over the gunwales, and, carrying enormous backpacks, sacks of rice, and bags of produce, waded ashore.

Since the spring launch of Tribewanted.com, 920 members from 25 countries had signed up—"this is the best thing since Woodstock,"one of them gushed—and the boat carried Keene and the 13 "First Footers" who had volunteered to be pioneering colonists. I was one of them, signing up for a two-week trip to the island. Half of the Footers were from England and the rest were from the United States and New Zealand; their ages ranged from 17 to 59. They were students, engineers, a machinist, a man who described himself as an "aging hippie," and a transsexual woman. Most of the group had met in person for the first time only hours earlier. (Mark James, meanwhile, stayed home to run the site.)

As the newcomers pressed forward to shake Tui Mali's hand, the chief felt a surge of anticipation. "The world is coming to Vorovoro," he thought. His tribe, or yavusa, was hosting a meke, an elaborate welcoming ceremony, and he had woken up at 4 a.m. to pray for good weather. Now, on a sunny afternoon, an important new phase was beginning in the history of his people.

Continue reading on page: 1  | 2  |  3  |  4  |  5   Next >> 

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