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Nikoi: Sustainable private island luxury

Waking up to nature at Nikoi. Photo: Holly Tuppen

Waking up surrounded by nature at Nikoi. Photo: Holly Tuppen

Nikoi is a private island resort just 3.5 hours from Singapore but a world away; in one of Indonesia's many nature-abundant enclaves of rainforest, tropical beaches and coral reefs.

The resort was recently shortlisted for the National Geographic World Legacy Awards and having been there, we're not surprised. This is one of those places that manages to put nature and the environment high on the agenda without shouting about it. When staying at Nikoi, luxury and eco seem to go effortlessly hand in hand - so much of the Nikoi experience is about being part of its unspoilt natural environment - but we know that behind the scenes, there's a serious commitment.  We spoke to Founder and Director Andrew Dixon about how green they really are.

When did you get started on green initiatives?

It started when we first bought the island. The whole design of the resort was about minimising the impact on the environment and engaging and working with the local community. Our design relies on natural ventilation something we believe is unique at our price point. Driftwood and alang alang grass were the primary building materials and very little concrete, glass, varnish, paint or other man made products were used in the build. The electrical loads in a standard room are less than 150W.

Why did the hotel go down the sustainable route and what effect has it had?

Firstly we wanted to offer guests a unique experience that had a close connection to the environment. Somewhere you could go to sleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore and wake up with a glorious view of the sea. We also reasoned that it would make more financial sense and be more sustainable to use a design that minimised our energy consumption.

We have been overwhelmed by demand and never envisaged there would be as much demand for our unique offer. We didn't want guests to think that they were being short changed. We believe foremost that guests need to leave having had an enjoyable stay so what they give up by not having aircon or a TV in the room they get back in many other ways. It has been fantastic to see how guests (in particular families) love this concept and as a result how they reconnect both with themselves and with nature.

Were there any key influencers in your sustainable journey?

The resort was designed and built by Peter Timmer who has previous experience building with driftwood on remote islands and so his knowledge was crucial. Our staff have worked extraordinarily to achieve the vision and the praise we get from guests for the quality of the service we provide is testimony to this.

One of my partners, Ed Jenne has led the development of The Island Foundation, the registered charity that we formally set up in 2010. Over 500 children have registered at the five learning centres set up by The Island Foundation in local Bintan and other islands. Since the centres have branched out into adult learning, including teacher training, the foundation predicts that over 8000 local villagers are benefiting directly from their programmes. It has been exciting to see this develop into an independently run organisation that is making a substantial impact beyond Nikoi’s neighbouring communities. The foundation is run by Heena Patel whose dedication and passion for community work is extraordinary.

How do your sustainable initiatives impact staff?

Staff training, welfare, engagement and working conditions are all aspects that we strongly believe in and things that we are constantly trying to improve. Our staff turnover is less than 10% per annum. Such a low level in the hotel industry is pretty unique, particularly for an island resort. We believe strongly that happy and engaged staff goes a long way to making sure that we have happy guests.

Why is acting sustainably important?

We don't believe that the sustainability measures we take on board are why our guests come and stay with us. It might help us sell a few extra rooms or get a few guests interested but it is not the main reason by any measure. We justify all of our sustainability initiatives, including our engagement with the community on a commercial basis. This can often require substantial investments both in terms of time and resources but the long term benefits of doing so have been very powerful.

What are the most exciting sustainable initiatives at the resort?

We like to think more in terms of responsible initiatives. Our work with The Island Foundation is one such example. The foundation has grown into a much larger organisation than Nikoi could have ever supported on its own. It has an independent board and substantial external funding. Aside from the foundation some of the initiatives we have made in respect of reducing our energy loads and water consumption stand out for their simplicity.

The Island Foundation's local beach clean up with local schools. Photo: The Island Foundation

The Island Foundation's beach clean up with local schools. Photo: The Island Foundation


Energy & Carbon
On average, Nikoi (impressively) uses less than 14kW/hr. The island has 24kWp of solar panels that are in the process of being upgraded to 28kWp.  Excess energy collected is put back into the battery bank meaning that generators are switched off for around 12 hours a day. On this project the island are working with REC and Contained Energy. Designing a new sensor that will turn off ceiling fans when no one is around, should help reduce the loads even further.

As always with island resorts, water is a precious resource and the reduction of water consumption is a key area of focus. Nikoi has to produce all of its own water and the process of filtering, treating and pressurising it accounts for about a third of total energy use. Highly efficient shower heads reduced total water consumption by 20%. Auto-stop faucets also had a dramatic impact on water consumption. One of Nikoi's top innovations when it comes to water use is using the reject water from the desalination unit to top up the salt water swimming pool. This prevents the need for fresh water to be produced for the pool and salt being imported.

Education & training
Nikoi believes that staff training is the key to staff retention (which is evident in the service provided). Many current staff began working as unskilled labour but by offering them training and opportunities in other departments they have grown to have an excellent understanding of the business and be very loyal employees. Nikoi runs staff training sessions in barista, rock climbing, mixology, scuba, nature, sailing, windsurfing, tennis, cooking, first aid, life saving, wine training and many others areas.

Protection of the local marine environment is also a top priority for Nikoi. Since 2011 a full time Marine Biologist has been surveying the surrounding reefs and marine habitat and the goal is to establish a Marine Conservation Area including a No Take Zone - the island is currently educating locals about the importance of this.

Nikoi’s main community programs are run through The Island Foundation (see above). In addition to the Foundation’s work Nikoi supports many local businesses and have even helped several get established. The resort have played a key role in protecting the local Orang Laut (sea nomads) through opening a dialogue with the government to address challenges to the community and improving education provision. Nikoi also buys almost 100% of supplies through local markets and small traders, avoiding the middle man where possible.

Bintan and its surrounding islands are sparsely populated and therefore lacking in strong cultural identity. Regardless, Nikoi works with local communities and villagers to salvage what remains. One example of this is  sponsoring a local jong race once a year, which both revives a traditional activity along the coastline and helps to generate interest and passion from the younger generations.

What have been the main benefits of implementing these green initiatives?

We proceed with responsible tourism initiatives if we can make a business case from them. This provides a great measurement tool for both assessing an initiative in the first instance and measuring its impact. Improved efficiency, great staff morale and happy guests are what we see as the main benefits to the initiatives that we have implemented.

Do you have plans to expand on green initiatives in the future?

Yes we see this as a constantly evolving process. As new technologies become available we believe there will be even further opportunities to expand on the initiatives that we have undertaken to date.

What would be your top 3 bits of advice to resorts looking to do the same?

Develop a model by which to assess any initiatives and start small. There's often a lot of low hanging fruit that does not even require financial investment. Putting someone in charge at a senior level will help with implementation. Establish a system of reporting and measuring your environmental impact and make sure this report is compiled monthly. Measuring electricity, water and waste is the key to working out how to reduce all of these. Reduction should be the aspect that you first focus on. There is little point installing a state of the art renewable energy system if you have not already taken all measures possible to reduce your electrical consumption.

For more information go to www.nikoi.com [1] and www.theislandfoundation.com [2]