Friday 31 August 2012

a green travel fling : the maldives : part two

After the heavy info from part one of my Maldives experience, here is a good news story for you.

I stayed at the Holiday Inn Kandooma. This is definitely the nicest Holiday Inn I've ever seen, and they've been voted the number one Holiday Inn resort in Southeast Asia - no doubt because of the beautiful location and second-to-none customer service.  While I was there I arranged a tour of the sustainability features of the property, which is certainly not a usual request at this resort, and they graciously arranged one for me.

Before I get into all the details, full disclosure: I did not select this hotel based on any environmental knowledge. My decision was purely based on budget and finding a not-so-romantic option since I was traveling solo. There are a few eco-resorts in Maldives, like the exquisite Soneva Fushi, but they were over my budget. I can take no credit for any eco-research, and really just got lucky (but isn't that wonderful! Changes are happening!).

Despite taking a non-eco approach to hotel selection, when I got to my lovely room I saw these glass bottles of water with a sticker that read:
"This bottle contains purified water and is safe to drink. Reusing sterilised glass bottles saves us from disposing up to 150,000 plastic bottles a year."

I also saw that the shampoo and lotions were in refillable ceramic bottles, and it was then that I made a point of asking about any other eco-actions of the hotel. I was lucky enough to be taken on a guided behind-the-scenes tour of all the plant-systems on the island by the friendly and charming Bandula. Here are some of the highlights:
  • All water is generated onsite through rainwater collection tanks and a desalination plant 
  • Sewage is treated onsite with the treated water used for landscaping
  • Impressive sorting and recycling system
  • Compost
  • Coral regeneration project, trying to improve what was damaged in the 2004 tsunami
  • All fish served on site is locally caught 
  • Grow some vegetables and herbs for use in the restaurant
  • Grow some decorative plants to keep the gardens beautiful
  • Motion sensors for lights in the office 
  • Switching lights to LED and CFL throughout the resort, including gardens
  • Plans in the next budget for solar panels and solar hot water heaters
  • Cleaning supplies will be made green soon.

Herb garden
Compost! The staff were constantly raking up leaves so the beach
stayed that perfect white sand - nice to see they are composted.
Rainwater collection tanks - they were completely full on my visit.
Desalination plant.
Water purifying and testing lab.
Glass post-crusher - it is sold in Male to be recycled.
More recycling! Think of how many more plastic
bottles would have been in there if they did not
purify drinking water for guests . . .
Saving the world from juice bottles! Each room
has a juicer and oranges are replenished daily.

Just wanted to add another beauty shot! Lovely
reception/bar area with gorgeous driftwood
artworks on the wall.

And another beauty shot - perfect spot for a sunset.
This is a great example of a business that is just getting on with sustainability changes because they know the environmental and financial value of doing so.  So while Holiday Inn Kandooma is not a certified 'eco-resort', I was still impressed with the future plans for the hotel and, most importantly, that staff are genuinely interested in making sustainable changes.  They even asked me for my thoughts and suggestions, which will be passed onto their Green Team, and asked for some resources to locate good green 'home and garden' products.

If you know of any great sustainability products that can benefit the Holiday Inn Kandooma, please get in touch with me and I'll pass along your details. They are aware that Australia makes a number of excellent products (particularly in the solar industry), so I hope to hear from some of you!

If even half of the other resorts in the Maldives are as interested in sustainability as Kandooma, we have a lot to feel good about, and I do actually feel that I was living somewhat sustainably and totally in style on my holiday.

Thanks again to all the team at Kandooma for making this an amazing experience!

Thursday 23 August 2012

a green travel fling : maldives : part one

After leaving the stunning Kimberley region of Australia, the hubby and I embarked on a marathon tour of Dubai and landed in Maldives - a spectacular tropical paradise that is even more beautiful than I'd imagined (and I found very hard to leave!).

Look at those colours!
I'd always assumed that this portion of our travels would be the least sustainable - there were a number of flights required to get here, and I've been calling a fabulous 5 star resort my home for the past 10 days - more like Unsustainability with style.

But now I'm not so sure.  In fact, I have so much to share with you I've written two posts - one about the Maldives more broadly and its environmental situation, and one about my personal experience here at the Holiday Inn Kandooma (the nicest Holiday Inn on the planet!).

If you haven't heard already, Maldives is one of the nations most under threat from rising sea levels.  The country consists of over 1,100 low-lying islands structured around atolls, or reef/lagoon systems, and the average elevation of the islands is a mere 1.5 metres. Reports anticipate the majority of the islands will be submerged by the end of this century. I'll admit it was a sense of morbid curiosity that brought me to this country while the hubby was on a surf safari around the islands; I wanted to see it all for myself before it was too late. And now that I have seen it, I can't imagine not doing anything to improve the future of this lovely country.

Damage from the increased storm activity associated with climate change will also have a large impact on the islands. In fact, they are still recovering from the 2004 tsunami. Maldives fared better than many other locations impacted by the tsunami mainly due to the reefs providing protection, but now the reefs are in dire need of regeneration to bring back the health of the important ecosystems under the sea.

A sky-view of the atolls.

It isn't really a secret that the islands are under threat of erosion, and some of the islands have been busy building sea walls to keep out rising tides. Then last week I saw a disturbing 'solution' to the problem in an article on NineMSN about a new development of floating islands in the Maldives to replace the current ones not able to be saved. Good in theory – climate resilience must now be a major point of discussion in the climate change conversation – but the proposed developments appear to be for the extremely wealthy. I’d like to see a realistic plan for the people of Maldives, the actual residents who will be most impacted as some of the world's first climate refugees. Right now all I see are dollar signs flashing in property developers’ eyes as they think of how to cash in on the international tourists who flock to the islands.

Switching gears a bit - let's talk trash, shall we?

No, not gossip, but actual rubbish, and what you do with it when you're an island nation.

The population of Maldives is under 400,000, but with more than 700,000 tourists visiting each year, who generate an average of 7.5kg of waste per person each day (ugh . . .), it is a huge problem. One of the current solutions is a garbage island, also known as Thilafushi.

Not as beautiful as the others, is it?
Image c/o

Thilafushi was originally a lagoon, and in the 1990s the government reclaimed the land to use as a rubbish tip. Unfortunately today the result is an unsustainably-managed waste disposal site with constantly burning fires and smoke plumes drifting to other islands.  Without going into all the dirty details, it's a huge environmental concern for this country. There are also discussions around whose responsibility it is the manage all the waste, with some suggestions that the international community step up with funding because it's the international tourists who add the bulk of the waste.

It does pose an interesting dilemma - without knowing what the regulations are for setting up a Maldivian resort, whose responsibility should it be? What do you think?

The rubbish boat at my island - they keep it covered!

Residents have told me you can see the rubbish boats floating around, collecting waste from islands and then driving off without covering the rubbish, allowing the wind to whisk away what it will into the pristine waters.  The locals I met are well aware of the troublesome pollution and waste situation (as well as environmental concerns more broadly), but don't have many options at this point or the local expertise to develop a lasting solution. Most 'local' islands (those without resorts) actually burn their rubbish on their own islands, another troublesome solution. 

Not an unfamiliar site I'm afraid, and it was worse in Male, where there are no
resort staff around to keep the waterways clean.

Another blow to the Maldivian environmental situation took place earlier this year when the government, and it’s environmentally-minded president, was overthrown by the previous dictatorship. Before the uprising, then President Mohammed Nasheed was striving for the Maldives to become the first carbon neutral country by 2020, and to generate 60% of its electricity from solar without raising energy prices (which turns out would be quite easy - the nation is heavily dependent on diesel and is at financial risk to rising oil prices).  Nasheed was an inspirational voice on the international stage, helping to bring human faces to climate change impacts. Now that the government has returned to Gayoom's dictatorship the country’s policies on climate change are increasingly hazy and Nasheed's environmental advisors have resigned.

There is hope for Nasheed to eventually return (or another like-minded president). There is an undercurrent of political unrest, particularly in Male, and citizens hope for another democratic election. As a matter of fact, my second night in the Maldives I was in Male, the capital, and right outside my hotel a political demonstration took place. After speaking with hotel staff I learned that these demonstrations occur frequently, citizens demanding a democratic vote, and at times the police are ordered to shoot rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.  I was reassured not to worry, ‘they don’t go for the tourists’.

I suppose until the government begins taking more of an interest in environmental policy it is up to citizens of the Maldives (and the world!) to keep their environmental sustainability movement moving. 

Another aspect of 'sustainable travel' is cultural learning/appreciation. It is not that easy to get to know the 'real' Maldivian culture at this point in time, because tourism is heavily focused around the 100+ resorts each on their own islands. There are tours you can do of the local islands, but I don't know that a 1 or 2 hour tour would enable any tourist to authentically connect with locals. According to one article I read, this is something the Maldivian tourism specialists are aware of, and are considering if and how to support more homestays or smaller hotels on local islands.

So much food for thought following my visit to this magical country!

And while I didn't solve any major climate challenges, and there is not a whole lot of good news in this post, I still found my time in the Maldives to be extremely important and more sustainable than I'd assumed it would be, because I was able to delve into understanding these issues on a personal level.  I saw the rubbish burning on local islands. I saw the garbage boats driving around. I saw plastic floating in the turquoise waters. I spoke with residents about their concerns and knowledge. And importantly I had the time and head-space to consider what a tragedy it will be for the world to lose the Maldivian culture and islands if we don't all act swiftly to reduce our impact as well as invest in resilience solutions for these islands.

So, while I emitted a lot of carbon getting here, and possibly generated a huge amount of waste (though I think not, according to what I leanred about my hotel), there is definitely something sustainable about seeing these issues firsthand , researching and reflecting upon the information, and sharing it all with you.

Oh, and if you're a sustainability professional, Maldives desperately needs your expertise, so it may be time to consider working abroad for awhile!

Isn't this worth protecting? I say yes.
Get ready for my next post to see what steps the Holiday Inn Kandooma are making to lessen their impact, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised (I know I was!).

Monday 6 August 2012

a green travel fling : the kimberley

My hubby and I have just completed an incredible two-week journey across Northern Australia, primarily the Kimberley region.  Before I delve into my sustainability tips and comments, I want to dedicate some space to the awe-inducing beauty of this corner of the world.

Here is a collection of photos to give you an idea of the magnificence of this special place (of course you could also watch Australia, as much of it was filmed up here, and I definitely want to watch it again now!).

Visiting places like this with such unspoiled (to my eye!) wilderness is certainly powerful inspiration to continue to work for a sustainable planet.  The thought of the Kimberley being damaged as a result of human activity is simply too much to bear now that I’ve experienced it all for myself.  It would certainly be a tragedy if this magical place wasn’t around for future generations to appreciate.

I could wax lyrical about the beauty of the place, the animals, the space and the plants for days, so I better move onto the sustainability notes. . .

While no vacation is as green as a ‘staycation’, my husband and I are traveling extensively this year, and I hope be as sustainable as possible, as well as learn more about environmental issues in each of our destinations.  Having said that, there were things that had nothing green about them on this part of our travel (aside from all the flying, which we’ll be offsetting):
  • Driving with just 2 people in a diesel-guzzling Toyota Landcruiser.  We traveled 3104 kilometres and average 17.8mpg or 13.6 litres per 100km. Quite a hefty carbon footprint. We could have lessened this by going on a tour bus, but we chose to do it alone this time.
  • There are very few recycling facilities around. We would hang onto our recyclables as long as possible in hopes of recycling, but at certain times space-constraints and hygiene concerns forced us to throw away recyclable materials.
Some of the things we did to lessen our impact included:
  • Eating fresh (non-packaged) foods as much as possible to lessen waste.
  • Ate mostly a vegetarian diet – just like home! Not always easy when you can smell everyone else’s meaty barbecues.
  • Visited ‘green’ stations and homesteads including El Questro, Home Valley Station and Mornington Wilderness Camp (more on Mornington below). We ran out of time to visit Birdwood Downs due to car troubles, but I definitely want to make the visit and take their eco-tour!
  • Why shower when you can swim in a freshwater gorge or waterfall?
  • Camping inside National Parks and bush camps – on the one hand, they are unpowered and frequently use bore water, so your footprint is only what you bring in, which for us means cooking with gas and using headlamps to see. I also feel it’s a better alternative to camping ‘wherever you wish’ because the human impact is focused in designated areas, instead of trampling on top of native flora and potentially interrupting the local wildlife.
While I was usually the only person using her own grocery bag inside the shops, and probably the first person to purchase soy milk from the Imintji Store in 12 months, there is a decent focus on conservation of the land and the wildlife. 

We chose two spend a couple of days at Mornington Wilderness Camp because it is run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), a non-profit organization working to protect Australia’s land and wildlife. In addition to being incredibly beautiful and serene, Mornington attracted other nature-lovers, and the vibe from the other campers was very mellow compared to other spots along the tourist track.  There was also a presentation on night near the bar/restaurant/education centre, and I managed to take some notes on my hubby’s iPhone. 
  • AWC manage 3 million hectares across the country where they establish sanctuaries, identify threats to biodiversity and implement land management programs across entire landscapes – they also carry out ecological monitoring. All their activities are informed by scientific research and are reported and monitored.
  • Recent attention has been turned to northern Australia as mammal populations are disappearing at an alarming rate
  • 22 Australian mammals have become extinct since European settlement – more than any other country. There has been a sharp decline in small mammal populations in recent decades, with a combination of reasons responsible for this decline – introduced herbivores, late dry season fires and feral cats.
  • Feral cats are directly responsible for one third of the mammal extinctions in northern Australia. One cat eats 12 native animals per day, and there are estimated to be 2 million cats. Fire patterns also influence cats, as they go to the edge of the fires to eat the animals that are exiting the fire – so late season, harsher fires have an even more detrimental impact on the area.
  • If you’ve ever been to the Top End, you’ll know it is frequently burning as Indigenous culture included planned burning to control the bush throughout the Dry. Fires began becoming more harsh as Aboriginal people left the land, the fires are now later in the dry meaning they are hotter, last longer and are much more destructive. AWC is trying to shift the fire season back to earlier in the dry. AWC have initiated the EcoFire project, which includes shifting the season earlier in the year. Timing is essential, with the best time typically in April and May, when there is still green growth around, and to light the fires in smaller patches. They plan in consultative approach with Indigenous communities and stockmen, so all work together as natural allies, and have had great results.
  • AWC are working to destock areas as well – cows as well as feral donkeys, horses and buffalo – because these animals stomp down plants that mammals use as food and shelter. Now 40,000 hectares destocked, and huge improvement in mammal numbers since this happened. From 1 to 8 collections per site per night, everywhere else is in decline (even in Kakadu).
  • Because of their positive results, AWC have recently begun two very important projects.  One is a partnership with Yulmbu Community, who approached Mornington to help with conservation and land management.  The benefits to Yulmbu are great: they receive annual income in the form of a lease payment, training and employment in the delivery of land management, infrastructure improvements and a modest, sustainable cattle operation. The second partnership is with the WA government on the Artesian Range partnership, managing this significant area as a team.
  • Over 80% of AWC staff are in the field doing research, 90% of funds go directly toward conservation.
I can’t say enough great things about Mornington and the AWC – check them out for yourself and considering becoming a donor.

The Kimberley certainly didn’t disappoint, and I could have easily doubled the time I spent exploring without experiencing everything on offer. I’m sure I’ll be back one day.

Next major stop on the travels is the Maldives – I’ll be in touch!