Chris Burch, the US billionaire investor and co-founder of Tory Burch, has fallen in love with a remote atoll in the Indonesian archipelago: Sumba.
This island is home to the last-remaining Christian Animist tribes, an ancient indigenous people who believe in the spirits of animals and plants. Sumba is at once one of the culturally richest and financially poorest islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and when Burch visited two years ago, the place tugged at his heartstrings.
“I had been to Bali many times and so I wasn’t expecting to be blown away,” he recalls over the telephone from New York. “But after I hiked for hours through this intensely beautiful landscape, I met these wonderful people. They were in a bad way, but their warm smiling faces touched me profoundly.”
Burch was there to scout an investment opportunity in Nihiwatu, a small beach resort founded by Claude and Petra Graves, a die-hard surfing couple from New Jersey. The Graves came to Sumba on a shoe-string in the 1980s to experience the island’s legendary left-hand break and never left. They set up Nihiwatu, which was originally a basic beach hostel with cult status among the surfing community. They established a charitable foundation in tandem with the resort to aid the local tribes.
It was this aspect that captured Burch’s imagination. “I made the decision that I had to invest in Nihiwatu and the foundation to help the local people,” he says.
Burch explains that the indigenous population is in dire need. Geographical isolation and a short rainy season mean that Sumba’s inhabitants have always faced hardship. But over the last eight years financial crisis and political uncertainty in Indonesia have interrupted regular aid, and famine and disease have threatened the future of the islanders. The majority of Sumba’s inhabitants live below the poverty line and malaria is rife. Around a fifth of Sumbanese children are either dead or brain damaged before the age of 10.
Roll forward two years and around US$30 million later, Burch is realising his dream of turning Nihiwatu into the world’s most exclusive sustainable luxury resort and multi-million dollar foundation. Most of the area has been left in its original state of wild beauty; lush jungle, pink sandy beaches and crystal waterfalls. Set within 560 acres of land, including a two-and-a-half kilometre private beach, only a 10th of the land is being developed.
“We’re evolving Nihiwatu into one of the best resorts in the world, where preservation and sustainability are intrinsic and celebrated,” said Burch. “Our investment in Nihiwatu goes beyond tourism — it’s just as much about community investment and how both can symbiotically co-exist to great mutual benefit.”
The project is transforming the lives of villagers, as well as being the most sought-after holiday destination within the most elite circles.
In March this year Nihiwatu re-opened for business with 22 ‘rough luxe’ villas, and it has already been patronised by an eclectic mix of A-listers and surf-obsessed millionaires. High-profile guests have included fashion’s Hermès family, the D’Ornano family of Sisley Cosmetics, Lorenz Bäumer, chief jewellery designer for Louis Vuitton, pop star Pink and William van Cutsem (godfather of Prince George). Even the surfing bay is exclusive, with only 10 slots per day that must be reserved in advance. Burch also visits frequently with his surf-loving sons.
Burch has handed over the management of the hotel to business partner and long-time friend, South African hotel veteran James McBride. McBride, whose experience spans the Ritz-Carlton and The Carlyle — Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, spends most of his time at Nihiwatu driving the subsequent phases of development that will see another 10 villas launched next year, taking the total to 32.
Accommodation at Nihiwatu epitomises simple, intelligent luxury: thatched roofs, sandy-floored bathrooms and private verandas ensconced by blossoming bougainvillea. Built in the traditional Sumbanese style using materials such as alang-alang, teak and rattan, villas are tucked away among the coconut palms and perched above the Indian Ocean, offering both privacy and a feeling of space.
But for Burch, the most important development is the growth of the foundation. Over the past 13 years, the foundation has set up more than 15 primary schools, built 48 water wells, five clinics, supplied 172 villages with clean water and reduced malaria by 85 percent in neighbouring villages. The resort employs more than 90 percent local Sumbanese people and guests are encouraged to visit the villages and donate generously.
Burch tells me he aims to eradicate malaria completely on the island and he reckons, with around another US$5 million and eight years work, he can.
Although Burch has plenty of prior experience investing in the luxury hotel industry, building Nihiwatu has been a massive challenge, he admits.
“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve taken on,” he says. “There was no electricity on the island so we have had to build our own power plants. We are growing 90 percent of the food on the island and planting everything from scratch. Then there is getting people who are essentially farmers to become trained in luxury service in a short space of time. Everything is a challenge.”
Nihiwatu is in fact the flagship of a bigger project for Burch, who is planning similar resorts all over the world. He recently acquired another 100 acres in an area 15 minutes from Nihiwatu to be called Nihi Oka. He is also looking at the nearby island of Flores and the Dominican Republic, to launch additional resorts that will all be “remote, extraordinarily beautiful and in some way help the community”. These will be part of the new Nihi resorts brand, he says.
But for now, Nihiwatu remains a name whispered only in a few elite circles. So elite, in fact, that Burch and his managers took the prudent step of having a map of the archipelago etched onto their bamboo-hewn business cards, just in case.
Rates at Nihiwatu start from US$900 per room, per night
based on full board.