Guilt-free luxury


Travel writer Karen Lawson spent time in two eco-friendly luxury resorts to see if they could meet their green hype while she sipped Martini’s by the pool. It was a tough job – but she was prepared to do it!

Chillin’ with a conscience

When it comes to holidays Australians bear a greater carbon emission burden than their fellow earth dwellers. Take an international flight and you wipe out whole years good efforts of turning off appliances at the source, low emission light bulbs, short showers and the constant drudgery of separating your recycled rubbish. So when a resort makes it easy for us to sip a Lychee Martini knowing we havent contributed to global warming, it begs the question “ if you care, why would you holiday anywhere else?

 Walking the talk

The disparity in lifestyles between those who relax in resorts and those who build or work in them is a contradiction facing resorts in developing countries. A self-confessed greenie, I go to find out if it really is possible to enjoy the experience of luxury guilt free. Two companies are leading the way in their embodiment of environmental values and commitment to addresses both the physical and human responsibility which faces them. Six Senses and Banyan Tree have won global acclaim and awards for their dedication. I look at four key areas to assess whether they are walking the green line.

1. Building and operating eco-friendly resorts

Banyan Tree: All resorts are built with consideration of the environment, whether it is the positioning of the accommodation or how building materials are transported to minimize the impact on the local area. Phuket was built on land decimated by tin mining. The UN reported the area was too severely ravaged to sustain development. The soil was so leached by chemicals it could not support vegetation. Costing $250m to build, acid filled craters were filled with fertilized top soil and now contain lakes abundant with wild ducks, fruit trees and migratory birds. Low rise buildings with Thai architecture grace the landscape fringed by the sea. In 2008 Banyan tree launched an initiative across the group to reduce consumption and carbon emissions by 10% every year from 2006 levels between 2008 and 2010. Simply by changing to energy efficient light bulbs and moving the thermostat from 22 to 25 degrees has seen a saving of between 10-30% in electrical costs.

Six Senses: Have developed an impressive social and environment programme in line with its core purpose of SLOW LIFE meaning SUSTAINABLE “ LOCAL “ ORGANIC “ WHOLESOME   LEARNING “ INSPIRING “ FUN “ EXPERIENCES. When a property is developed there are two stages for environmental consideration; Design and Construction. An environmental management system is based on the Six Senses Holistic Environmental Management Programme (HEMP).Both phases include a myriad of steps including legal, local environment, geographical risk, building design, water treatment/ supply and energy management. One of the more recent properties to open in Oman was made from native materials and sustainable sources, creating its own organic garden, waste water plant and a moving bed bio reactor. Great care was taken over the build to ensure that a traditionally important tree for the region, the Sidr tree, was undisturbed given its delicate yellow flower is the basis for one of the worlds finest Sidr honey. 

2. Social responsibility – the human factor

Only when people have food on the table and a promise of a better life will they be open to eco-sensitive practices. The engagement by resorts of local people is key to changing behavior and sustaining earth enhancing activities.

Banyan Tree: Laguna Resorts & Hotels Plc has a dedicated Community Relations Department to work with, and support, local stakeholders. To improve local education the Laguna Phuket resort (which includes Banyan Tree Phuket) established a 2million Baht Education Foundation; this has already provided over 500 scholarships to in-need students in 7 years. A childcare centre has also been established. Initially available as a staff facility this has now expanded to support children from the surrounding area. This award winning facility is completely funded by Laguna Resorts & Hotels Plc.

Other community support programmes include a donated community medical centre, an English teaching centre and support for marginalized communities such as the elderly who are provide with both donations and staff volunteer visits throughout the year to provide entertainment.

Gainful employment and training is also provided and the resorts retail outlet, Banyan Tree Gallery, offers possible sustainable alternate income, for example by procuring triangular ˜Muan-khid cushions that grace their villas.

Six Senses: Contribute 0.5% of monthly total revenue to support social and environmental projects on a local, national and global level. At Zighy Bay in Oman, evidence of this is their collaboration with organizations on both the Omani and UAE side and has developed strong partnerships with the Environment Society Oman (ESO), Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) and the Emirates Diving Association (EDA) already they have been recognised with the Abu Dhabi Council, First Estidama Sustainability Award Sustainability award. The peninsula is home to the Shihuh Tribe who are very different to the Omanis and even have their own language. A hundred villagers live off fishing, date farming, and goats. Six Senses was able to assist with the Omani government with its commitment to preserve the way of life and prevent the abandonment of the peninsula. A regular supply of necessities such as water and basic food is flown in or taken by boat. They have provided new opportunities for villagers to earn an income without having to leave their beautiful bay and are helping them to build better houses in the village and provide free English lessons. Two other initiatives run across the group with the aim of educating the guests. Each guest is invited to ‘adopt an animal’ in Zighy Bay its a toy camel. The proceeds go towards The Care for Children Foundation which operates in China to relieve hardship in abandoned and orphaned children.

The second initiative is, ‘Restaurants Against Hunger’. A special dish on the menu is provided with the proceeds going towards fighting hunger in over forty countries specializing in emergency situations of war.

3. A better future for staff

Employment is a vital enabler with the capacity to positively influence the quality of life for not just the individual but their family and local communities. The ability to operate as a profitable business relies on each companys ability to empower, train and motivate their staff.

Banyan Tree: Last year their 8000 staff undertook 352,884 hours of training. That’s around 44hrs per employee per year. Most western companies would struggle to undertake this level of paid education. A Management academy was set up to develop employees and a Talent Management programme to equip managers with leadership skills. A Lifestyle programme originally started at the Bintang property covers topics such as HIV, nutrition and environmental conservation. During my stay at Phuket one of the marketing executives commented that her first position was as a waitress and within a few weeks was provided with the opportunity to move into an office role, whilst my spa therapist joined the group not knowing anything about massage, underwent training and has worked all over Asia. Staff facilities are also outstanding. Residences include bedrooms, bathrooms, Telephone, TV’s, common areas and access to sporting facilities and staff restaurants. Some choose to live in quarters others take their allowance and live outside the complex. In Phuket, staff busses are laid on everyday from the city so not even transport costs become a worry.


Six Senses:  What strikes you is that Six Senses is very different to the typical structured bureaucratic company with a defined hierarchy. They reflect their vision – an organic, boundary less company.  In fact when they tried to draw a conventional organization chart, it didnt work and they thought that something was wrong! Instead they operate within a number of spheres revolving around each other, inter-dependant, each influencing the other. This is seen at the employee level. At Zighy Bay staff work 5 days a week. This is absolutely unheard of in the hospitality industry as 6 days is universal. The priority is the creation of a holistic balanced life by providing time for education and learning which strengthens bonds with family and workmates. This energy is then passed onto their guests in an organic chain reaction. The staff has their own quarters built slightly away from the main Hideaway villa area. All food, drink and amenities are provided for including transport to take them into Dubai which is a 90 minute ride away. The younger staff love the opportunity to shop, explore and have fun in the ultimate urban playground! An Omanitisation programme is underway to replace expats with locals, providing more opportunity for individual growth. Spa therapists are provided with unrivalled training as key specialist from around the world are brought in to provide continued investment in their skills. I was delighted to find a fellow Australian, Alison Potter providing Wellness Consultations at Zighy Bay. One of the worlds leaders in her field, she commented on how Zighy Bay was truly one of the best examples of its kind.

 4. At the resort – conservation in action

Banyan Tree: At Phuket its great to see those annoying plastic bottles of shampoo have disappeared, replaced by biodegradable toiletries in refillable ceramic or celadon containers. Gone are plastic bottles of water, replaced by recycled glass. Other eco measures include recycling waste water for landscape, golf course irrigation and gardens as well as using bio-degradable detergents and non-chlorinating water for pools. Attention is also given to planting to ensure they are gentle to the earth. High-touch, low tech philosophy is applied to use locally sourced ingredients, from local suppliers and where possible the used of energy zapping technology is avoided.


Six Senses: The list of operational activities to reduce the impact of guests on the natural environment is quite literally gobsmaking. All of the above is standard, but there is a very strong voice of education which is part of your stay. One of the sexy coffee table books is a hard back copy of œThe Inconvenient Truth. All writing paper is recyclable and even the resorts selection of  handbooks are deliberately designed with organic in mind. The Green Book (which is of course Green in colour) highlights hundreds of activities being undertaken and outlines your responsibility as a guest to act thoughtfully. Bags are provided for guests to take batteries and unwanted items out of the peninsula as they do not have a processing plant to deal with them! Every surface, fixture and fitting has been chosen with an obsessive design and fixation on environmental consideration. Even the fly spray has a hessian cover! I read with dismay that my journey from Sydney has created 5.63 tons of CO2, however the carbon calculator provided allows me to offset this for the cost of 73 Rials. I am hoping to find some New Yorkers to tease as they are the next guilty carbon offenders. Whilst golf buggies are provided to assist guest to move around the resort, each stunning villa has his ˜n hers bikes to reduce the drain on electricity.

Sexiness and sustainability

Did I enjoy my stay at both resorts? Yes I did. They both addressed luxury in different ways. Banyan Tree Phuket was the embodiment of western decadence, complete with boutiques, high-end restaurants and a world class spa. As a guest you almost wouldnt know you where in tree hugging land, yet behind the glossiness is an army of environmental warriors.  Six Senses offered a very different experience. Intimate, sophisticated and personalized beyond expectations. The owner of Soneva Gili said that a stay is ‘for haute bohemians who like a bit of sexiness with their sustainability. Both these companies have gone beyond the superficial so that everything you see, touch, taste, hear, smell can be enjoyed knowing that you can lie back and relax because these guys care. They may be in the minority, but they are there!

Banyan Tree:

Six Senses:

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Profile: Karen developed her love of food, wine and travel through her corporate career in Europe, which took her to the best restaurants and enabled her to travel extensively and also study wine. When the itch to see, experience and taste more became too great, she took off on an adventure, which turned six months of travelling into two years of planetary wandering. Now settled in truly one of the best places in the world (Australia) she continues to follow her passions and now writes about them, so others can share too.


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