Soaring above the sea, about 150 nautical miles northeast of Singapore, lush green islets pop against the turquoise water.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a small archipelago comes into view. The seaplane touches down and, moments later, a wave of balmy heat welcomes you to Bawah Reserve.
Opened in late 2017 by Singaporean shipping magnate Tim Hartnoll, together with eight investors, the remote resort and marine reserve tops a growing list of small-scale island getaways in Indonesia, many of which are owned by millionaires and billionaires.
Peppered across this nation of 17,000-odd islands, you’ll find Nihi Sumba, Pangkil, Pulau Joyo, Wakatobi, Nikoi and Cempedak, just to name a few.
While the styles and price tags vary widely, these properties tend to follow sustainable principles and buoy the local community with jobs and education programs.
“I see these developments by and large as a positive development,” Andrea Oschetti, the founder of Hong Kong-based luxury travel expert Blueflower Inspired Travels, tells CNN Travel.
“Hotel developments on small remote islands usually mean that the owners want to take care of the island and its natural resources.”
An avid boater, sailor, diver and all-around maritime man, Hartnoll grew up in Singapore, where he spent much of his free time on the water. He’d seen more than his fair share of beautiful islands over the years. But during a diving trip in 2006, he came across a very special mini-archipelago, located within the Anambas Islands group.
“I knew that Bawah was the one the moment I set foot on the island,” Hartnoll tells CNN Travel.
“Out of nowhere, jungled mountain peaks rise above [the lagoons]. From then on, I couldn’t get it out of my mind!”
Hartnoll, who owns $395 million global shipping company X-Press Feeders, set his mind to acquiring the six-island cluster, which is home to three lagoons and more than a dozen beaches.
He enlisted eight investors and secured a long-term lease on the archipelago.
“When the opportunity came up to develop Bawah, it was very important to me that we followed a sustainable plan,” says Hartnoll.
“The water was quite bare [when we first got here] due to lots of dynamite fishing. Marine life was limited and there were some patches of damage to the coral.”
Before opening the hotel, Hartnoll and his colleagues first worked with the government to establish a marine reserve, banning fishing and anchoring in the surrounding area.
It took them more than five years to construct the 35-room property, owing partly to a decision to eschew heavy machinery. Instead, they built everything by hand or with low-impact tools to avoid unnecessary damage to the land.
The finished product is the definition of barefoot luxury, filled with pretty bamboo common areas, stone pathways and open-air restaurants.
There’s a homage to the sea in every corner, from the fishtail-shaped jetty to jellyfish-inspired wicker lighting fixtures.
To complement their marine cleanup efforts, the hotel has established a permaculture garden, waste recycling program, rainwater harvesting and a water filtering system. In addition, they use glass bottles and solar-powered buggies throughout the property.
Roughly 95% of the hotel’s staff members are from Indonesia, and 32.3% come from the direct community.
“There was keen anticipation of employment opportunities at Bawah from the local islanders, which we tried to meet, however, we had limited positions that they were qualified for,” he says.
“So [Bawah Anambas Foundation] is working on educating and training the local Anambas communities so that, in the future, more roles will be filled locally.”
Another high-profile yet small-scale development in Indonesia is Nihi Sumba, set on the eastern end of the archipelago about 50 minutes by plane from Bali.
Owned by US billionaire Christopher Burch, who’s the CEO of venture investment firm Burch Creative Capital and co-founder of designer fashion brand Tory Burch, the 38-room beachfront retreat is surrounded by rugged jungle.
Burch learned about this slice of paradise about a decade ago while vacationing in Bali.
“A friend suggested I check out this cool place called Sumba,” recalls Burch.
“So I flew there on this little teeny plane — the runway was literally just one lane. When I got here, it was nothing but horses. The culture kind of overwhelms you.”
Burch stayed at a small, six-room hotel owned by Claude and Petra Graves, who had visited the island years earlier to partake in the excellent surfing.
“Claude was trying to sell [or expand] the property,” says Burch and soon. Though hesitant at first, the idea of owning this corner of paradise took hold in his mind.
“There’s something about walking into the rice fields, the waterfalls — that feeling of freedom and being away from everyone,” he recalls.
Burch quickly invited a friend and seasoned hotel entrepreneur James McBride, a veteran of New York’s The Carlyle Hotel who was president of YTL Hotels in Singapore at the time, to join him on a second visit.
The rest, as they say, is history. The duo partnered on the project, leased some stretches of land, bought others, and got to work.
“James and I were very involved in every aspect of the process,” he says. “Whether I build hotels or fashion lines, I’m really about the creative side. I like to do things in a very beautiful and tasteful way.”
The hotel features traditional thatched roofs made of various types of straw, muted colors, beautiful woods and elegant stone foundations.
“In the rooms, it’s a really luxurious experience,” says Burch. “But when guests go out, they’re heading into the wild, on a spa safari, horseback riding, hiking, waterfalls, surfing…”
However, building a hotel on a remote island is not an easy task, and it took more than four years to complete Nihi.
“It’s the most beautiful land you’ve ever seen but the [construction process] was really difficult,” says Burch.
“We had many setbacks, everything from [typhoons], rains, disruptions… I wanted to quit multiple times, but the island kept winning me back.”
Six years on, Nihi has forged a strong relationship with the local Sumbanese community — roughly 93% of the hotel’s employees are from nearby towns and villages.
In addition, the team has remained connected to the previously established Sumba Foundation, which works to combat poverty and malaria on the island through education, clean water, food and humanitarian aid.
Burch covers all of the foundation’s administrative costs to ensure every dollar donated goes back toward community services.
In terms of environmental efforts, the hotel produces freshwater through a desalination plant, runs a waste management program across the island and protects delicate turtle eggs from poachers.
“I come back about twice a year with my family. We have a history with the island now,” says Burch. “We are trying to protect the island on every level.”
Invest Islands Eco-luxury Villas | ©
Antony Marden, the owner of Pulau Pangkil private island resort and Pulau Joyo boutique resort in the Riau Archipelago near Singapore, stumbled upon the islands over two decades ago.
“I’ve always been a sailor and I’ve always loved the sea,” he tells CNN Travel.
“On one of my sailing trips around Southeast Asia, I came across these pretty little islands. I took note of them, they were so lovely.”
Formerly the owner of Fenwick Shipping Services, a major ship management company based in Hong Kong, the multi-millionaire soon returned with a friend to explore.
“In those days, [we] used to hire a fishing boat and go out to the islands and camp. We would make a fire, bring our tents, a bottle of rum and just hang out.”
Back then, he says, developers were buying land on the bigger islands, such as Bintan, and the men worried there would be a building boom.
“The islands cost virtually nothing!” he recalls.
“We were scared that there was going to be a big rush for these islands and they’d be [overdeveloped]. But there was no rush. We are still the only people here.”
In his spree, Marden bought nine islands and a “great big beach” but has developed just two.
He started with Pulau Pangkil. Designed with Singapore expat families, weddings and corporate retreats in mind, this private island getaway opened more than 15 years ago, in 2003.
Groups can rent out the entire island, which includes five ‘beach palaces’, a restaurant, bar, pool and lots of watersports equipment.
“Only mad people would start an island resort!”
“I’ve always wanted to build a driftwood palace and, at that stage, there was a huge amount of driftwood lying around. So we started collecting driftwood — big teak logs and hauling them off the reef,” recalls Marden.
“You get a dozen people and heave ho, heave ho, make a raft, then wait for the tide, then gradually pull the wood slowly, slowly, slowly across the island.”
About a decade later, Marden decided to develop Pulau Joyo. The more luxurious of the two, Joyo is more like a traditional boutique property with individual villas, a sweep of golden sand, excellent food, a spa, pool and countless outdoor activities.
“It’s very seductive to have your own island,” laughs Marden. “But it really is bloody difficult to try to run one commercially — there’s the water, diesel, electricity, you’ve got to get food in and out. It’s pretty complicated. Only mad people would start an island resort!”
Marden doesn’t market his islands as 100% “eco” getaways but he does take some steps to protect the natural environments.
For instance, he prohibits deforestation and trawling in an effort to protect the land and reefs.
“We allow men to come and fish with a line. But the wall of death, those great big nets, we say no to,” he says.
Though his first two island getaways have been successful ventures, Marden says he’s stopping there.
“I’m not interested in developing any of my other islands,” he adds. “Actually, I bought them to protect them from development.”
Sustainable development in Indonesia
While these islands have been developed with sustainable principles in mind, some experts are concerned about the overall pace of tourism growth in Indonesia.
The country has seen a surge in international arrivals over the past few years, increasing from 9 million in 2014 to 14 million in 2017.
Furthermore, travelers tend to descend en masse on a select few places such as Bali and Komodo National Park.
In Komodo National Park — famous for its unique Komodo dragons and marine life — tourism has skyrocketed from 15,000 visitors in 2004 to 187,000 in 2018. In 2019, Komodo expects to welcome 500,000 visitors.
Elis Nurhayati, the director of communications of WWF-Indonesia, tells CNN Travel that tourism can be a double-edged sword.
High volumes of travelers typically provide more jobs and boost the local economy, but also have a negative impact on the ecosystem.
“The foreign and domestic tourists that flock to the area lead to more infrastructure and hotel facilities, [which increases] the state’s revenue from tourism.”
“However, the ecological footprint that comes with mass tourism is becoming a serious concern. The average traveler currently produces six kilograms of garbage daily. Just do the math.”
In preparation for continued growth, the park has drafted an ecotourism development master plan with WWF-Indonesia.
Elsewhere in Indonesia, Bali continues to welcome the lion’s share of travelers.
“Despite all the natural disasters in the past years, Indonesia and especially Bali are reporting record arrivals year after year, and the Ministry of Tourism has ambitious plans for growing tourism numbers over the next decade,” says Oschetti.
“I think these private islands and remote developments take a bit of pressure away from south Bali’s over-development. I am all for visitor dispersion.”
Both experts agree that developing smaller-scale experiences, such as privately owned islands with boutique hotels, can open up new regions of Indonesia in a slow, sustainable way.
In addition, they still contribute to employment, language programs and investment in the local community.
“When it is managed this way, as an exclusive ‘private’ ecotourism [experience], the destination along with its surrounding ecosystem will stay relatively intact [because] nature has its carrying capacity,” says Nurhayati.
“For the types of travelers who frequent these remote destinations, a well-kept secret, responsibly managed location — although expensive — is much more alluring than the mass tourism sites.”