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Making Sumba Sustainable

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How sustainable can a commercial hotel be? Can you limit your global footprint and still remain in business? Claude Graves did just that on the Indonesian island of Sumba after he saw Bali nearly destroyed by an unrestricted tourist population. Relationship expert and  journalist Anna David shifts her focus from human relations to man’s relationship with the environment, exploring sustainable tourism in Sumba.

Sustainable communities are planned to promote sustainable living. Well-named, yes? Well, the simple fact is that this can mean many things to many different people; most, even when they’re making the maximum effort, tend to focus on agricultural and economic sustainability.

But Claude Graves didn’t stop there, which is why Nihiwatu—the only resort on the Indonesian island of Sumba, which is home to 600,000 mostly impoverished people, all scattered into thousands of small villages—isn’t like any other place.

Sumba surfing

It’s hard to find a more beautiful spot than this: two-and-a-half kilometers of untouched, silky, cliff-surrounded sand that’s used solely by those staying in one of seven luxury bungalows, two two-bedroom villas or one three-bedroom villas of the 468-acre resort (a number limited to 30 at a time). The dining room, where guests mingle before and after gathering at the nearby bar, is laid out directly in the sand; it’s a convenient spot to watch loved ones and new friends catching waves.

Many of the 750 or so odd guests that flock to the resort every year are surfers, not only because Nihiwatu limits the number of them (only 10 in the water at one time) but also because the enormous waves that land at the resort’s shore are considered by many to be one of the best breaks in the world.

But all of that is of secondary concern to Graves, a 50-something Jersey Shore-raised surfer and entrepreneur who ran a nightclub in Kenya and built the first house on Kuta Beach in Bali, an area so overrun with tourists now that total intoxication seems to be the only method anyone attempts for managing the crowds (consider it Sumba’s polar opposite).

Building Nihiwatu

This, in short, is the story of Nihiwatu. Twenty years ago, Graves and his German wife, Petra, became determined to build the sort of place they’d like to go to and couldn’t find. “In those days, there was no boutique tourism,” says Graves from a chair near Nihiwatu’s Boat House, which houses the surf boards and wetsuits available for guests (not to mention the staff to bring those boards down to and back from the shore for you).

“I’d drag Petra around to these terrible places and at a certain point she said, ‘Isn’t there anywhere you could take me,s and I’d still have a good time?’” Graves relays.

During one of those conversations, someone who was listening in on their conversation suddenly leaned over and suggested that they “stop complaining and build your own frigging place.”

They decided to take him up on the challenge and landed in Sumba in 1988. After locating their dream spot, they spent time with the elders that populated the surrounding villages, explaining to them that they wanted to create an environment that would provide local families with employment opportunities, education and better health.

But even Graves didn’t realize just how much help was needed—or just how much of his heart the matter would take up. The Graves lived through their own struggles without water (for their first three years, they dug a hole in a creek for water), with sickness (“I stopped counting how many times I had malaria after the 30th time”) and with basic survival.

The Sumba FoundationSumba children

It was in identifying so closely with the natives that Graves began to truly understand their plight, which is how he came to launch the Sumba Foundation in 2000 with California businessman Sean Downs; the foundation’s mission, in short, is to diminish the consequences of poverty on the island. Since their launch, they’ve built and staffed five health clinic, created more than 40 water wells, supplied 14 primary schools with supplies, and had surgeries performed on 368 patients. Oh, and also? They’ve managed to reduce malaria infection on the island by 85 percent, an astounding accomplishment which makes their end goal—to eradicate malaria on the island completely—sound almost possible.

While no funds from the resort are funneled directly into the foundation, the indirect route is amazingly effective. The fact is, Nihiwatu is expensive (during high season, rooms cost $595 a night—“more than I could spend to go on a holiday for,” notes Graves). And the additional fact is that in this day and age, many vacationers who can afford that are looking to visit places where they feel their dollars are supporting some sort of cause. Essentially, Graves lets guests know what the Sumba Foundation is working on. Whether it’s to raise money for a new hand-dug well ($3000) or mosquito nets ($100 for 10), the plans are typed up in a booklet that is laid out in every room alongside a complimentary paint set, beach bag and jar of (regularly replaced) cookies. The system, which Graves stumbled on rather accidentally when one of his early guests donated a few hundred dollars to help out a local school and suggested he gently let future guests know about other foundation needs, has been tremendously successful. “The foundation brings in like half a million [dollars]… a year,” Graves says. “The people who come here have the financial ability to slap down two, three, 10 thousand [dollars], no problem.” (Guests also reconvene at the fundraiser the foundation does every year in the U.S.; this year, it will be in Sag Harbor on September 24th.)

Involving the Locals

Sumba, Indonesia foundation

The guests also become intrinsically involved with the staff; most of the people who stay at the resort are return visitors that get to know staff members well, often greeting them even more enthusiastically than they do members of their own family. (I saw several waitresses in tears as they said goodbye to guests as they departed.)

Between the hotel and the foundation, Nihiwatu employs roughly 200 locals, and when construction projects are underway, that can mean another 150 or so. Construction also means purchasing rock, grass, bamboo, sand and other building materials locally, thus injecting hundreds of thousands more into the community (Graves estimates that they’ve spent around $700,000 for the current project—building three new villas—a cash injection that’s nearly unimaginable in a community where the average annual income hovers around $100). Another sustainable aspect of the way Nihiwatu is run is that instead of buying all their fuel from the government oil company, they make their own bio diesel through coconuts. (Guests can be taken into the Bio Diesel room, where the contents of coconuts are dried out, put through a chipper, pressed, filtered, and mixed with methanol and lye; the process produces 2000 liters of fuel a week, enough to power the entire resort.)

Nihiwatu has also built organic farms and taught locals how to do the same. “The whole philosophy is about transferring knowledge,” explains Graves. “We’ll pair carpenters, electricians, and steel worker guys from Java and Bali with local guys; the idea is that after a year or so, the local guys will have it down and I can hire them as tradesmen and not have to bring in people from outside the island. On the hotel side, it’s pretty much the same.”

For all these efforts and more, Nihiwatu has received a plethora of awards for responsible tourism and poverty reduction. But the Sumbanese aren’t the only ones getting an education. “One of the key things about eco tourism is that you’re educating your guests so that they take knowledge home that they can learn,” Graves says while staring at the beach he’s helped bring to the world’s attention. And that, ultimately, is far more lasting than the memory of standing atop the world’s most killer wave.

Almost.

Text and photos by Anna David for PeterGreenberg.com. Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009), and the editor of the anthology Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010); her memoir, Falling for Me—which covers her attempt to re-fashion her life around the recommendations Helen Gurley Brown made in 1962′s Sex and the Single Girl—will be released in October, 2011. She’s appeared on the Today Show, Hannity, Red Eye, Showbiz Tonight, and various other programs on Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, CTV, MTV News, VH1 and E, written for The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Playboy, and Details, among others, and is the Executive Editor of The Fix, a website dedicated to addiction and recovery.

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