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Saturday May 23, 2009

Behind the scenes

Eight kilometres east of Bintan Island, Indonesia, Nikoi, a private island resort, was started by a group of expatriates in Singapore who were disenchanted with the standard of holiday accommodation in Asia.

“They were either flea-ridden shacks or opulently garish five-star hotels with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. Cultural sensitivity, sense of place and simple luxuries were unheard of,” says one of the founders, Australian Andrew Nixon.

The bar is crafted from driftwood. — LEONG SIOK HUI & NIKOI ISLAND

“Also, there are few places you can go to without having to catch a plane in Singapore.”

From the start, the owners knew they wanted to tread lightly and preserve Nikoi’s natural heritage.

“We realised we were building on a very pretty and pristine environment, so we made the buildings fit the natural landscape,” says Peter Timmer, one of Nikoi’s partners and the man behind the designs.

To minimise impact, no tree was felled — except the dead or dying ones — and no heavy machinery was brought in. The owners even planted more indigenous trees on the island.

“It took us three to four years to build the initial six houses,” says Timmer, 55. “It’s so time-consuming because everything is handmade. The houses’ unique design is a blend of Japanese, Indonesian and Filipino influences,” Timmer adds.

To protect the environment, Nixon feels it’s only logical to keep the development small. Plus it’s economical. Building materials are sourced locally and all the tradesman are Indonesian.

“It was a big decision for us not to rely on air-conditioning. Lots of people say ‘You’re mad! You’re not going to be able to sell it and charge those kinds of rates,” says Nixon.

But the owners stuck to their guns. It turned out the lack of air-conditioning halved the island’s electricity demand.

Room to do more

But there is a lot more to do in Nikoi.

“Our focus is to try not to consume too much but we haven’t been so good on the recycling part,” says Nixon. “We don’t do any grey water recycling and we can’t harvest rainwater with the kind of roofs we have.”

The island’s water supply is drawn from wells, and drinking water is bought from Bintan. During my visit, the drinking water in the guestrooms came in plastic mineral bottles. But the company is in the process of bottling their own drinking water in reusable glass bottles.

Occasionally, guests provide ideas on how to do things better.

“Just last week, I met a UK professor who spends lots of time working in developing countries, helping them improve their water sources and sanitation,” says Nixon during our interview in Singapore.

“He helped identify a few areas where we could make improvements.”

Nikoi also places a lot of importance on fostering a good relationship with the local community.

“We’ve always wanted to be accepted by the local community, and for them to see us as a contributor instead of just someone who’s taking things away,” adds Nixon. “We need each other.”

“But we don’t want to do handouts. We want to help the communities build businesses we can support; for example, get the locals to grow organic vegetables to supply to our kitchen.”

To date, Nikoi has some plans lined up for the community.

They are about to open a children’s library with English and Bahasa Indonesia books for the kids in Teluk Bakau, Bintan, where the company’s operational base is located.

“We’re soon going to start a sailing programme for the children, and start teaching basic hospitality skills to give the community an opportunity to learn some skills,” says Nixon. “It’s also a way for us to get closer to the community.”

Nikoi is also keen to train the community to make products they will buy for their island like soaps, arts and crafts.

As Nixon points out, “These are all important steps to gaining the trust and confidence of the local community.”

Yes, the island still has a long way to go to becoming totally sustainable, but it’s already setting great examples for the bigger resorts in nearby Bintan.

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