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A real-world island experiment

Times Staff Writer

TAKE a tribe of international adventure-seekers and a remote South Pacific island and what do you get? In this case, not reality TV.

Two 26-year-old British entrepreneurs, Ben Keene (a.k.a. Chief Bengazi) and Mark James (a.k.a. Chief Marika), are seeking 5,000 people to join Tribewanted.com, a sort of tribal timeshare with a three-year lease on a Fijian island.

The goal: to build a sustainable eco-community and keep at bay developers with dreams of massive hotel complexes.

Memberships -- Nomad ($220), Hunter ($440) and Warrior ($660) -- entitle members to seven, 14 or 21 days on the palm-fringed 200-acre oasis, 100 at a time. Fees cover food, lodging and local airport transfer.

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This is not for the five-star hotel crowd. The tribe will be roughing it, especially the early arrivals, who will have only tents and basic shower and toilet facilities.

“The first job for the tribe,” Keene said, “is to build for those who come later,” working alongside paid Fijian laborers to build beach huts. There’s no electricity, but solar energy will provide Internet access.

From his home in England, Keene said “an initial burst of interest” after Tribewanted.com’s April launch brought in 400 members, about 50 from the United States. They are from 14 countries and are ages 18 (the minimum) to 67. Men outnumber women by about 20%.

Keene and James, both passionate adventure travelers, made a deal with a Fijian chief, Tui Mali (whose immediate family members are the island’s only inhabitants), to let the tribe develop a sustainable island community to benefit Fijians. The lease is about $95,000 for three years.

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The objective, Keene said, is threefold: to provide a unique adventure for tribe members, to pioneer a “social experiment” of 5,000 people working together to create something and “to raise awareness about living sustainably and traveling responsibly.” All while providing local jobs and invigorating the economy

Tribe members Evelina Braga, 31, and Jawhny Cooke, 35, both white-collar professionals in San Jose, plan to marry on the beach at Half Moon Bay in August and hope to take a delayed September honeymoon to the island.

Tribewanted plays to Cooke’s interests, he said, including “interaction between people. Can you take 5,000 people who don’t know each other and get them to achieve things greater than all of them combined?

“A lot of friends have said, ‘Oh, is this like ‘Survivor’?” Cooke said. “I said, ‘No, it’s probably more like ‘Lost.’ You have nothing, and you have to build something.’ ”

Tribe member Kaz Brecher, 30, of Beverly Hills, a filmmaker and project manager for an interactive media company, was intrigued by the social-psychological aspects and the idea of using the Internet to build community. She’s no fan of reality TV. “This seemed much more like a real-world experiment.”

For now, the place is called Adventure Island, but the tribe may vote to use its Fijian name, Vorovoro. On Sept. 1, the tribe -- whatever its numbers -- will elect 12 chiefs chosen from profiles posted online. Each will live a month on the island and be given a stipend to spend as they consider most beneficial.

After three years, the Fijian landowners may decide to extend the lease or vote to bring in another group. “The best outcome,” Keene said, “would be for the local community to take complete ownership [and stewardship] of the project.”

Will anyone get voted off the island? No, Keene said, “unless they break Fijian law. This isn’t a game.”

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