As research shows consumers are increasingly seeking out socially responsible companies with which to do business, we've been hearing a lot more about sustainability and give-back initiatives in the travel world.
But corporate social responsibility is far from new: Many travel companies have been quietly, but generously, funding important programs for years.
Guests at the Four Seasons resorts in the Maldives can sponsor reef restoration. With their donations small cones of sand covered rebar are placed in the ocean for coral to grow on. Those who donate get annual updates with pictures of "their" reef. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Take Four Seasons. On a recent trip to the Maldives sponsored by its two resorts there, I was surprised to learn that Armando Kraenzlin, head of Four Seasons Maldives, began an ocean conservation program there 17 years ago out of concern about the impacts of global warming.
Today, that program has become one of the region's top marine research centers.
In addition to reef restoration and turtle rescue programs at the Maldives-based Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru resorts, the Manta Ray Trust is based at Landaa Giraavaru on Baa Atoll, which is home during the summer to some 2,000 of the estimated 4,500 manta rays in the region.
The resort provides space, equipment, boats and other resources, and it pays the salaries of two dozen, full-time marine biologists, who track the region's turtles and manta rays by swimming with them and taking pictures of their unique markings, which are like finger prints (on turtles, the identifying marks are the spots on their heads and neck; on mantas, the spots on their belly).
With donations from guests, the program also has transplanted more than 100,000 coral fragments to grow reefs, and onsite scientists oversee 40 tanks of fish, seahorses, larvae and plankton reactors to help replenish ocean life. More than 2,000 turtles and another 2,000 manta rays have been identified in a database, and many turtles injured in fishing nets have been returned to the ocean after being healed.
Guest participation is high. A donation of $5,000 built a rescued-turtle tank. And those who donate $150 or more to plant coral get annual updates with photos of the reef project they have funded.
It's a win-win for the resorts and the guests: it helps advance the protection and nurturing of the endangered turtles, rays, reefs and other important ecosystems, and it provides real immersive marine experiences for the guest.
Lilly, one of several adult turtles with missing flippers who are cared for at the marine centers at the two Four Seasons resorts in the Maldives. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
For instance, guests at Kuda Huraa can attend short briefings on reef sharks, then snorkel with a marine biologist to see the sharks in action. The day we went, we saw more than a half dozen black tip sharks, two sea turtles and so many colorful fish and coral it felt like we were swimming in a live version of the movie "Finding Nemo." In the evenings, scientists offer a quick lecture on spinner dolphins before offering a sunset cruise to find them heading out to feed.
At the Landaa Giraavaru resort, we were lucky to catch the tail end of manta season. Each day the marine biologists at Manta Ray Trust search for them. When they find them, they radio back to the resort, which then alerts guests who are signed up for their "manta on call" program to gather their gear and meet at the dock.
During our three days there we got two alerts on our manta phone, and both times we got to their feeding location in time to swim with the huge creatures. The first time we spent about 20 minutes with a half-dozen rays, which weigh about 80 pounds and have fin spans of about 8 feet, doing endless somersaults beneath us.
Our second encounter was much more up close and personal. About 10 of the majestic creatures skimmed the top of the water, at one point with eight of them coming directly at me, dipping down one at a time at the very last second to swim just below me.
The marine protection program in the Maldives is just one example of Four Seasons CSR projects, most of which operate under the radar.
Perhaps the website listing the community initiatives at their two resorts in Bali sum it up best: "We don't release figures/data but we are extremely generous, in a quiet way. It's not something we do for the purpose of publicity or to be seen to be doing good. We do it because it reflects our organizational culture and the Four Seasons Golden Rule: "Treat others as you would like to be treated."