SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — It's an intriguing hybrid of Survivor-style reality TV show, holiday time share, and backpacker resort, in which 5,000 strangers from around the world are being invited to live as a "tribe" on a remote South Pacific island.
Only 100 people at a time will live on Vorovoro, an island in Fiji which has all the attributes of a classic South Seas tropical hideaway, from a cave once reportedly used by pirates to an ancient burial site perched on a rocky headland. The rest of the "tribe" will form a global online community voting by e-mail on everything from how to generate energy to which crops to grow.
The idea is to create a sustainable ecocommunity in the tropics, in an experiment organizers fervently hope will be more "Swiss Family Robinson" than "Lord of the Flies."
The project, tribewanted.com, was launched online in April. Since then nearly 800 people from 20 different nations have signed up, more than half of them American.
Now renamed Adventure Island, the palm-fringed outcrop has been leased from local people for three years by British entrepreneurs Ben Keene and Mark James, both 26, with the experiment due to begin on September 1.
Tribal members will rotate through the island, spending up to three weeks on the 200-acre tropical hideaway, depending on which level of membership they pay for – Nomad, Warrior, or Hunter.
The packages vary in price from $220 to $665 and include food, accommodation, a donation to local villages, and an island "passport." The island has no shops or electricity and the first batch of arrivals will have to build their accommodation – probably thatched huts known in Fiji as bures – from the ground up.
"There'll be sanitation and fresh water but to begin with we'll just be camping," says Mr. Keene, who has experience in adventure tourism. The experiment has drawn comparisons with fictional island utopias which turn sour, such as in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," Alex Garland's backpacker novel "The Beach," and the TV drama "Lost."
But the organizers dismiss suggestions that the island idyll could descend into chaos.
"The key difference between this and something like 'Survivor' is that there'll be a fast turnover of people on the island," says Keene.
What happens on the island will be filmed, and members agree that the footage can be used as tribewanted.com desires, which reportedly will include an ongoing video documentary available online for members and other subscribers.
But unlike a reality TV show, where rival groups engage in fierce competition with one another, the 'tribe' will work together to create a viable community.
"There are utopian ideals but it's tempered with reality. Decisions will be taken by the 4,900 online members, not just the 100 people on the island," Keene added.
The popularity of the project reflects disenchantment with modern society, says sociologist Catriona Elder, from Sydney University.
"The Western world is so tired and cynical that we are searching for something simpler and purer," she says. "I imagine though that there will be a lot of problems. What have all these people got in common beyond their idealism?"
While there is a centuries-old history of people attempting to set up utopian communities, e-mails, the Internet, chat rooms, and air travel have made it much easier and quicker to bring together people from all around the world.
But no matter how sophisticated the technology is, creating a harmonious "tribe" is likely to remain as elusive as ever, experts say.
"The perfect society can't be just made, it's something that needs to be negotiated over time," says James Arvanitakis, founder of The Commons Institute, a Sydney-based group that promotes alternative forms of land ownership.
"Just because you go somewhere beautiful, that doesn't solve people's hang-ups and problems. I think there's the potential for chaos, particularly if you get people who regard it just as a cheap holiday."
The project's literature gushes with the virtues of environmentally friendly development and providing jobs for the locals. Proposals for initial developments have a decidedly backpacker theme and range from a "cliff-top lagoon and zip slide" to a sunset stage, beach bar, and jungle sports arena.
When they are not fishing, growing vegetables, or playing sports, the island's inhabitants will be able to retreat to a "secret beach chill-out area."
"It will be like the prisoner game, where people have to work out whether collaboration or confrontation is the best tactic," says Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, a sociologist from the University of Technology in Sydney. "There will be issues about food and shelter, and I think there'll have to be very clear rules on sexual relations."
The cost of joining the "tribe" does not include flights to Fiji, and participants will have to make their own way to the town of Labasa, on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.
From there they will be taken by bus and boat on the hour-long journey to Vorovoro.
The islet is currently inhabited by just four people, including the chief of the local Mali people, who has given his blessing to the project.
The islanders were considering leasing their home to a development company before they were approached by the two Britons.
"If it hadn't been us it would have been a big developer turning it into Costa del Fiji," Keene says.