Roger Diski: Social entrepreneur who championed sustainable tourism to post-conflict countries
Thursday 10 March 2011
Roger Diski played an important role in championing sustainable tourism to unlikely destinations. He successfully promoted the principle that local people should benefit environmentally, socially and economically from visitors to their countries – including areas which have emerged from political turbulence and war and are seeking to rebuild.
In 1997, Diski and his wife Judith created Rainbow Tours, named after the "rainbow nation" of a newly democratic South Africa. They offered tailor-made holidays to South Africa and across the region. Neither had experience in the travel business; they were armed only with enthusiasm and a bright idea. Against all predictions, Rainbow Tours achieved commercial success, and won a string of awards.
Even after the Diskis sold Rainbow Tours in 2007, Roger remained a moving force in sustainable tourism. He became a director of the travel company Bridge & Wickers. When he died, he was on a working holiday with his daughter in Sierra Leone. In the days before his death, he talked to officials about tourism opportunities in Sierra Leone, mired barely a decade ago in a brutal war. He talked, too, of the book he was planning to write on the role of sustainable tourism in post-conflict countries.
Our last conversation was partly on that theme, just before he left for the airport to go to Sierra Leone. In the road outside our homes, we tussled – not for the first time – on the subject of Rwanda, from where he had just returned. I work for an organisation which has concerns about human rights violations there; Roger emphasised the social and economic gains Rwanda has made in recent years.
I learned afterwards that he went back into his house and worried aloud to his wife Judith that he had had an "argument" with his neighbour; in Sierra Leone, he told his daughter Beka I might regard him as "a fascist" because of what he said. In reality, although Roger loved energetic exchanges of views, every discussion was infused by his generosity of spirit and his humanity. This thread linked his various lives and careers.
Diski was born Roger Marks in Willesden in north-west London, son of an accountant and grandson of Jewish immigrant tailors. (Immigration authorities had given his paternal grandfather the name Marks when he arrived from Poland. As an adult, Roger decided to merge his own given name and an invented surname to create "Roger Diski", which bore at least a vague resemblance to his grandfather's original surname.)
He was a rebel from an early age, repeatedly threatened with expulsion from school. Aged 18, he took part in the demonstration against the Vietnam war outside the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square in March 1968.
Looking back on that era of confused protest, he liked to describe how he suddenly found himself the wrong side of the police lines on that historic day. Unnoticed by the grappling policemen, he realised that there was little for him to do there. So he wriggled back to continue pushing – safe in the knowledge that he would not break through a second time.
He studied politics and history at Nottingham (and did a lot of acting, "because of the good-looking women"). On return to London, he edited the radical Children's Rights magazine, through which he met Jenny Simmonds. In Jenny Diski's 2009 book The Sixties (dedicated to her ex-husband, "For Roger with love"), the author describes how she and Diski set up a free schools group in north London. She describes Diski's energy in terms familiar to anybody who got to know him later: "Roger besieged Camden Council, and I followed in his slipstream..."
Roger and Jenny married in 1976; their daughter Chloe was born the following year.
He became a history teacher, including 15 years at Holloway School in north London. He also wrote booklets toaccompany television current affairs programmes on subjects rangingfrom apartheid to Stalin, from Bhopal to heroin.
One day in 1989, Diski spotted his next-door neighbour, Judith De Witt, collecting by hand the shards of a smashed window in her car. They had never met before that day. He lent her a vacuum cleaner, arguing that it would do the job more efficiently. Some months later, he went next door for a cup of tea. One thing led to another: a few months after that first cup of tea, the logical conclusion was that he knocked a hole in the wall to create a doorway between his flat and the house where De Witt lived with her three young children. Those one-and-a-bit houses have been the shared family residence for the past 20 years.
The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and democratic elections in South Africa four years later meant huge change, that much was obvious. But few understood as well as Diski did the implications of what this might mean for tourism. Rainbow Tours sold just 17 holidays in its first year of operations. ("The brochure was very worthy but we didn't have any customers," Diski said.)
Within a year, however, the business had taken off. Rainbow Tours was repeatedly voted best small or best independent tour operator. Diski had a broader role to play, too. He became chair of the Sustainable Tourism Committee and vice-chair of the board of Tourism Concern.
He drowned while swimming off the coast of Sierra Leone. During that last trip, he talked of some of the things he remained eager to do. Apart from the proposed new book, he wanted to do more work with asylum-seekers in the UK. On sustainable tourism, he felt that "the trail has now been blazed". A host of engaging new projects was still waiting.
Roger Adrian Marks (Roger Diski), social entrepreneur: born Willesden, London 15 August 1949; married firstly Jenny Simmonds (marriage dissolved; one daughter), secondly Judith De Witt (one daughter, one stepdaughter, two stepsons); died near Freetown, Sierra Leone 23 February 2011.
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