Indonesia resort melds social consciousness and luxury

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During the height of the recession, many hotels and resorts responded to the backlash against luxury with voluntourism, ecofriendly initiatives and other programs that raised travelers’ social awareness and enabled them to give back to the communities they were visiting.

Those varied and much-heralded projects, from saving turtles to helping build schools or simply donating some of travelers' belongings before departure, are much less talked about these days, but they have become standards at many luxury hotels and resorts around the world.

One new, quiet initiative by a luxury resort on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba is taking that give-back principle to a different level with a promise to donate all of its profits to the island and its people.

Called Nihiwatu, the resort is a luxury upgrade of a longtime surf camp on the island, which is home to about 550,000 people and is about an hour’s flight from Bali. Nihiwatu was purchased in 2012 by American entrepreneur and investor Christopher Burch, who invested about $30 million and hired South African-born hotelier James McBride, a former GM at the Carlyle in New York and former president of YTL Hotels in Singapore, to help him transform the resort into the ultimate ecofriendly and socially-conscious destination.

Nihiwatu offers everything from surfing to horseback riding to deep sea fishing, swimming with whale sharks and spa safaris. It has 29 villas, each with a private pool, private butlers and indoor and outdoor baths, and its recently completed Mamole Tree House features three treetop villas with two infinity pools, 180-degree views and common areas with outdoor entertaining space. Rates begin at $1,000 a night for two.

McBride describes the resort as a place focused on relaxed but active luxury. Seventy percent of guests are return visitors, he said, a rate driven largely by the resort and island’s authenticity, and its focus on helping and preserving the Sumbanese culture.

In addition to its many activities, the resort offer outings with the Sumba Foundation to volunteer serving lunches to schoolchildren, visit nearby villages, tour medical clinics and learn about clean water projects. Besides Nihiwatu, the only accommodations on the island are a few small surf camps and inns.

The resort expects to begin turning a profit this year, and those proceeds will all go to the Sumba Foundation, which currently raises between $500,000 and $700,000 a year from donations from guests and fundraisers around the world, McBride said.

Founded in 2001 by resort founders Claude and Petra Graves, the foundation has set up over 15 primary schools, built 48 water wells and five medical clinics, supplied 172 villages with clean water and reduced malaria by 85% in affected villages.

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