Roger Diski: Social entrepreneur who championed sustainable tourism to post-conflict countries

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.

Steve Crawshaw

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn