Written by Su Mei Toh on 7 Dec 2006 with 0 comments. Be the first!
A hubbub of activity centres on a large fig tree between the beach and the hill forest. As if on rota, wildlife arrive to gorge on its ripe fruit: squirrels clamber up the branches in the early afternoon, mynas arrive noisily in the late afternoon, and at dusk, dozens of fruit bats make their silent approach. It is indeed a most apt statement for Japamala, a boutique resort on Tioman Island in the South China Sea, for it seems to be designed not just for people - wildlife and the ecosystem are also fundamental concerns.
Like the fig tree, the large natural boulders and lush hill forest that surround the property are the main focus of Japamala. The resort owners, Federico Asaro and Maple Loo, are keen for nature to take centre-stage: "We leave the landscaping to nature." But it has taken the couple's genius to gently build a haven for travellers without so much as sacrificing a tree or a boulder.
Wild Asia was recently invited to have a look at the island resort through the lens of its Responsible Tourism framework. Based on the three tenets of responsible tourism - economic, social and environmental responsibilities - Wild Asia developed an assessment method with scoring for each tenet. Ultimately, the intent is to communicate performance levels to tourism operators and how they can improve and progress on these aspects. Not surprisingly, Japamala scores high on environmental responsibility.
Their philosophy is simple: "We don't want to stress the environment. So we keep everything small, like the number of rooms, which means we can keep staff numbers down," says Federico. More staff and guests mean more facilities, more wastes generated, and more impact on the pristine reef-fronted beach and hill forest habitat.
This means that rooms at Japamala are capped at 15 on an 11-acre property. At present, there are only 10 dwellings. If this suggests to you a great deal of space and privacy, you're absolutely right. The wooden kampung-style chalets, snugly nested into the forested surroundings, are built on stilts atop huge boulders. No trees were felled in their construction. "I spend a lot of time walking in the forest to get a feel for potential chalet sites. Only if a particular spot has a small number of trees, then it becomes a possibility," says Federico.
A lot of thought goes into the site selection and design of each room: the best sea views, maximum privacy, and minimum impact. Natural climate control is another consideration. Unlike other beach resorts that swelter in the heat of the day, these spacious and elegant chalets - tucked under the forest canopy - are naturally cool and breezy, day and night. To my delight I also found that our chalet made an ideal private wildlife hide, as birds, butterflies, squirrels, macaques were all observed nearby.
Maple and Federico are also thrilled about the diverse wildlife they have come across since starting operations in May 2004. They have seen up to five species of snakes, flying foxes, wild boars, civets, a slow loris, and a porcupine (drinking from the pool). Even resident dolphins cavort off the jetty. This is probably the closest you'll get to boutique-style wildlife spotting while maintaining a sweet smell - thanks to the original line of aromatherapy products that Maple has created for guests, using only natural ingredients, and all made in Malaysia.
Attention to the environment and wildlife is not merely a façade. Behind the scenes, Federico, who harbours a long-standing passion for diving and marine photography, tries to ensure that "nothing goes out to sea". His effort to maintain the resort in its "raw state" means that waste treatment is a major consideration. Thousands of ringgit are spent each month on non-chemical cleaning and treatment products that use bacteria to decompose waste naturally. "We can save a lot of money using conventional detergents but we don't, because it would clog up the sewers!"
In such a pristine and fragile environment (Tioman Island is located in a marine park), such details make common sense. "Our restaurants and resort reflect our personal interests," says Maple. Apart from the apparent Indochinese inspired concept, their interests also clearly run deep into conservation and environmental concerns.
Despite all the good planning that has gone into Japamala, Maple and Federico realize more needs to be done. They have made a good start in regard to environmental stewardship, educating their staff and supporting educational and awareness programmes for islanders. But there are areas that are beyond their immediate control that will take time to nurture and realise. For example, the overall waste management on the island is presently less than adequate. Also, a lack of markets and options on the island prevents them from "buying locally" to support the island economy as much as they would like.
On the positive side, the size of their operation keeps their ecological footprint to a minimum while their understanding of sustainability issues have led to informed management decisions. "The assessment has also triggered ideas that we have overlooked, which we put on hold because our focus was on developing the rooms," says Federico. It also highlighted new ideas such as "looking at waste prevention to minimise what is brought into the resort; rather than only trying to get rid of it."
Practising responsible tourism is about adapting and taking numerous steps towards attainable goals. At Japamala, their conscious plan to be a small, responsible operation is proving to be a successful gamble - they are frequently fully booked and enamoured guests keep coming back, staying longer each time.
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Su Mei Toh
Su Mei is a natural resource biologist trained in environmental and development studies. Her auditing experience focuses on social aspects of certification systems using the FSC and MTCC Principles & Criteria for forestry, as well as the RSPO Principles & Criteria for oil palm. She has also been inv... more inside »
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