1. What inspired you to create your business?
After finishing my Masters degree in mathematics in Holland in 1988, I went backpacking for a year in South East Asia.
There are many beautiful countries there, but Indonesia topped (and still tops) the list in every respect for me: I well and truly fell in love with it.
This country had true magic, and it still has it: amazing scenery; a beautiful, proud, but open culture; and fantastic people (and right now, the most lively democracy in Asia).
Then a century-old man in Sumatra offered me an absolutely breathtaking piece of land for just a few hundred dollars…
That’s when I made the decision that I wanted to come back to Asia and build a local resort run by truly local people that highlights the beauty of the authentic Indonesia, while offering some of the comforts that modern travellers are used to.
So I came back to Asia in 1991 on a scholarship from the National University of Singapore to finish my PhD in cosmology.
After discovering, upon receiving my degree in 1994, that there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs around for cosmologists, I entered the education sector as a math teacher, and then bought land in nearby Indonesia in 1998 with the money I made from teaching, with the idea that our resort should also be used to bring Outdoor Education to life. Together with Isabelle Lacoste (the “La” in LooLa; I am the “Loo” in LooLa), we opened the resort in the year 2000 with 10 purely local staff, in the same month as our first baby boy, Igor, was born.
Now, 15 years later, we’re still there, with the same local staff (except there’s now about 50 of them)!
2. How does being responsible help your business attract potential customers?
That’s simple: our guests are well-prepared for their visit and they truly appreciate that all our staff are local people, and they appreciate the possibility of further interaction with local people through community projects. They also appreciate our other eco efforts, such as our attempts to collect all our water from rainwater, our systems to recycle all wastewater cleanly back into the ground table, our efforts to run all our electricity, even our aircons, from solar power, and our chemical-free anti-insect programs. I believe that more than anything, our guests appreciate that we are honest in reporting our successes and our failures in these efforts. Indeed, pioneering some of these eco solutions does not come without its challenges, but the beauty is that our guests always congratulate us on our efforts, while accepting that the results aren’t always perfect.
3. How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?
We hit on a formula that we believe all other resorts could and should copy: we offer our guests the opportunity to take part in a meaningful community project (building roads, building waste water gardens, painting houses, building beds, donating mosquito nets, planting trees, working with local schools and orphanages and so on) and to do so strictly at cost (typically under US$ 25 per guest per day of community activity). The majority of our guests take us up on this offer, and this makes for the perfect win-win: our community obviously wins; our staff wins because they feel proud to facilitate these community efforts; the local government is pleased with us; our guests love it and really feel good about what we do; and for our business, it is revenue-neutral since our guests pay for the community projects. In fact, it is far better than being revenue-neutral, because our guests congratulate us on what we do, and they come back and bring in more guests through word of mouth, so my wife and I (the owners) also feel good about what we do, and we see a business that’s steadily growing in reputation and revenue.
4. What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?
There’s a few things we’re very proud of:
- We have shown that it is possible to make a world-class resort with purely local people who had no prior education in tourism. The staff turnover is literally zero, and all our staff feel like an extended family now to my wife, myself, and our 3 sons. They may have started with almost no education (average education level is about Primary 4), but right now, more than half of them speak English, they own company-subsidized smart phones and laptops and are able to work with Excel, run complicated accounts, run a state-of-the-art solar power system and what not.
- We have shown that it is possible to make local staff full stakeholders by letting them run all onsite sale of drinks and food as their own business, as well as the shop and local services such as massage (our head office in Singapore sells a package that includes all transport, accommodation, buffet food, and activities, but all the rest is our staff’s own business). That’s a win-win formula: we don’t have the headache of running complicated local accounts, and our local staff becomes our partner rather than our employees.
- We have succeeded in making LooLa a test-bed for new open-source eco solutions that are aimed to show that they make economic sense even to poor local communities (for example, our guests have built now well over 60 waste water gardens for local households, and we believe that our rainwater collection systems and our anti-mosquito systems are also almost ready to be adopted economically at the village level).
- We have (kind of) succeeded in our first-in-the-world residential eco-aircon systems: the sun freezes a giant block of ice under our new luxury eco villas during the day, and this ice then cools the bedrooms at night. The systems have had their problems, that’s for sure, but SERIS (the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore) was so impressed with the potential of these systems that they have entered a 2 year research partnership with us to try to optimise the systems,and make them so robust that they are suitable for mass adoption.
5. What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community/environment where you are based?
That is answered in the points above: all our staff are from the local community, all our materials are, whenever possible, taken from local resources, and the community around us benefits from the community projects we undertaken.
6. What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
The biggest joy, overall, is to work with people and with the local communities, but at the same time, it is also the biggest challenge, in particular when it comes to clear communication!
Even when you try to benefit the local community, misunderstandings and jealousy easily arise. You want to motivate staff and you reward them via bonus systems and you run the risk that you have one happy staff but many more jealous ones!
However, I believe these challenges are the same in any business anywhere in the world: people are always the hardest problem.
On the other hand, what is wonderful in Indonesia is that the country has a profound sense of, and respect for, fairness. This means that, as long as you are fair, and you make efforts to communicate things very clearly, all problems can always be solved.
But one thing is certain: prepare to spend a gigantic amount of time on communicating, and to do so for many, many years: teaching people how to effectively communicate and solve conflicts on their own is a very long battle.
7. What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?
We have proved that it can work:
- You can be a Tripadvisor World top 1% resort (for four years in a row now) with purely local staff.
- Local people are happy to stay with your business (so staff turnover is very low) and they provide a genuine local flavour for your guests, which is something that more and more guests are asking for: a genuine local experience.
- It may take a little bit more time to train local people, but it’s more cost-effective than having to import workers from elsewhere, and really, you don’t need to have schooled staff to run a hospitality business: all you need is staff who genuinely cares about the guests, and local people are more likely to care.
- Going local makes the local politicians very happy, which reduces sharply the risk for local political interference.
- Local staff will have a stronger sense of pride; they feel that your visitors are their visitors too.
- Local staff are better positioned to do local community projects.
- Local people are ultimately grateful that they do not have to move out of the village or accept unpleasant unskilled jobs, and this means you can build up an great reservoir of loyalty.
- It’s much more fun to work with local people: presumably, it’s what attracted you first to the place, so stick with it!
In fact, I can’t think of any good reason not to go local.