Reporter: Gordon Harcourt
There are few things that shame Kiwis more than international visitors becoming victims in our country.
For the past few weeks, Fair Go has been investigating a so-called "sustainable living" project on the Coromandel and the man who runs it, Jon Traylen.
Young people from around the world pay him thousands of dollars to live and work at his remote " Earthwise Valley " site near Kennedy Bay.
Great website, shame about the reality
The project's magnificent website makes extravagant claims for the site - organic gardens; sustainably constructed buildings with "indoor/outdoor design principles"; off-site accommodation; a low impact "ecological footprint"; "accountability and full legal compliance".
Yet when travellers arrived early this year they found what was basically an empty field, with no gardens, no facilities, no buildings except an old shanty, and piles of what looks like rubbish strewn around the site.
David Wingate from Glasgow was among the eight first ever volunteers at Earthwise Valley. He paid nearly $NZ8000 to attend. He's a sustainable building expert and he was excited at what he read on the website. He was soon appalled by reality.
"It was an empty field with a pile of junk in the middle of it, with no gardens and no facilties, basically nothing there. It's definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth"
Fair Go began its investigation when we were contacted by a young woman from Florida, Ashleigh Diehl, who had paid more than $10,000 to another of Traylen's projects, " Kiwi Internships ".
She was very disappointed by what he provided, and outraged to discover she had "donated" $3350 to his Earthwise Valley project.
Tararu Valley Sanctuary
We then discovered that Jon Traylen has left a trail of angry victims around the Coromandel and around the world.
In 2006, nine volunteers at an earlier project of his, Tararu Valley Sanctuary were so dismayed by their experience that they swore affidavits detailing their concerns.
Coromandel MP Sandra Goudie arranged for the affidavits to be taken. On 5 May 2009 she told the New Zealand Parliament that Traylen "treats the environment animals and people disgracefully. He makes his visitors, volunteers, and interns, who are all overseas visitors, feel unsafe."
Ministry of Youth Development contract
Also in 2006, the Ministry of Youth Development cancelled a $120,000 contract awarded to Traylen's trust, to run a programme for vulnerable youth. The Ministry told Fair Go of "concerns over vehicle safety ... lack of safety gear for building ... serious misgivings [about] ability to provide a safe work and learning environment."
Last year Traylen sold the property near Thames where that collapsed project had run. The new owners found a disgusting mess throughout the house. $20,000 of the purchase price is now being disputed.
Jon Traylen response
We have repeatedly contacted him via phone and email, and have sent him a long list of specific questions about his operations.
Hours before our broadcast, Jon Traylen finally faxed us a statement. We feel it does not address the many specific questions we put to him, but he says:
- Television New Zealand intends to convey an inaccurate and
- At his two operations he has hosted several hundred people over ten years
- Most have had enjoyable and extremely valuable experiences, and he is proud of a no accident/no injury record
- An occasional ill meaning person can affect their own experience and that of others ... these people have a negative impact
By that last comment, we imagine Jon Traylen is referring to David Wingate, whom we interviewed for the story. In fact Fair Go has spoken to six of the eight original "Earthwise Valley" volunteers, and five including David are equally angry. One says she had a positive experience, but she agrees the website is misleading.
And Fair Go has more than 30 different sources for this story - individuals and organisations.
What can you do about this sort of thing?
Jon Traylen attracts his international visitors by way of his brilliantly created websites. The most important thing Fair Go can do is make sure young people around the world see our story as well as his websites.
A search for "Jon Traylen" or "Earthwise Valley" will also reveal our story.
But what can you do to protect yourself against this sort of thing?
If you're travelling in New Zealand, or you know someone coming here, you should look for the Qualmark. It's the tourism quality assurance agency, which physically visits more than 2000 tourism operators each year. If it doesn't have the Qualmark, then think twice.
If you're travelling abroad, don't rely on what the company you are dealing with, or even the people they suggest you contact. See if there is a local Tourism agency you can contact. Does the country you are visiting have a Qualmark equivalent?
But, if you do have a negative experience, then let others benefit from it. Write an online review - but remember, your comments have to be responsible and fairly expressed. You don't want the lawyers calling.