I was talking to the Mayor of Marseilles the other day. Well, actually, he was talking to me and a chamber full of other guests from across the globe but it was tres cool anyway.

We had gathered to witness the signing of an historical document that would put another island on the French coastline into the hands of La Conservatoire du Littoral, an organisation set up by the French Government to buy back and protect the key coastal and island attractions that makes this part of France the No 1 tourist attraction in the world.

I was invited to Marseilles to speak at the Celebrons Les Isles (celebrate our islands) conference by Fabrice Bernard, the man who has the enviable task of buying back these key locations and, thus far under his watch, he has bought back 16 per cent of the French coastline, including many of the battle sites of Normandy and some prime islands including the one the Mayor of Marseilles signed over at the end of the conference.

The opportunity came when Fabrice (the largest land owner in France he jokingly claims) was living in Te Puna on a one-year sabbatical in 2012, and he came along to some of our meetings to help us save some of our little islands and eroding coastline, where our urupa are fast falling into the moana of Tauranga.


So I got to travel to the other side of the world to speak about the smallest island in our harbour, Tu Koro, which we had restored and hopefully saved for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

What was eye-opening about the islands for which Fabrice and his organisation are kaitiaki is they are the jewels in the French tourism crown and any development of these taonga has to meet a strict charter, something the indigenous peoples of Hawaii are struggling to achieve when we travelled around the island last week and witnessed many signs saying "No more development F-off".

Here in Tauranga, we are about to face many of the challenges Le Conservatoire du Latoille faced when it was set up almost 30 years ago and we can learn a lot from it.

Their key focus is on putting people before profit to retain the jewel but also to maximise its potential revenue stream in a sustainable context.

This is a common catch-cry in all of the French business sectors, including agriculture, which see our saturation of whenua with chemicals for short-term profit as something they stopped doing almost 30 years ago.

Why we have to wait is beyond reason and something I have preached for the same reasons. People before profit will guarantee a future for our children and their kids.

It didn't escape my ever inquisitive mind and, at times, dream-time spirit that the message I heard in Hawaii the week before was the same message I was hearing in Marseilles.

The theme of that message is best summed up by Nainoa Thompson, the president of Polynesian Voyaging Society and a master navigator of traditional waka.

"We have got one island called Earth. It's exceptionally beautiful. Its infinitely complex and it's all that we have got, so why not take care of it?"

If a French ministry can clearly see the sense and potential of saving iconic sites so their stories may be told, like the Cote Bleue et Calanques and Iles d'Hyeres we visited - which are rich in history of sailing ships from 1000 years before Aotearoa was discovered - then we should sail in the same direction here in the safe anchorage of Tauranga.

I have no doubt that discerning overseas visitors will come to Tauranga to experience our culture that tells the stories of similar endeavours to those of the founding fathers in France.

In my opinion, flash is trash in tourism; you only have to have a look at Sentosa Island where I am today. There is no interest in the slow pace of learning from the local culture and history of Singapore.

I have struggled to meet one European compared with heaps but a decade ago.

This explains why Hong Kong is about to put a limit on visiting Chinese tourists.

We have something beaucoup special in our own boating backyard that no other country has and we need to protect it and promote it at all costs.

It's our story and it's ours to tell if we can collaborate together as we have done with Gate Pa and they have done on the coastlines of France.

Merci Marseilles.


Tommy Kapai is a Tauranga author and writer.