Six Senses Laamu & The Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI)
Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto
In 1992, the fate of Thilafushi – an island of the Kaafu Atoll in the Maldives – changed drastically. To assess the increasing amounts of solid waste in the capital Malé, Thilafushi’s pristine lagoon became the country’s official landfill: pits were dug and filled with unsorted garbage, then covered with construction debris and white sand, decreasing the lagoon inchmeal. Other islands of the Kaafu Atoll and resorts across the country soon began sending their waste to Thilafushi, and with the eventual increase of landmass came the idea of leasing the island for industrial purposes. Both the industrialization of Thilafushi and the increase in the amount of garbage has brought in a wave of foreign “guest workers” who manually sort what is dumped and remove what is recyclable.
A 2015 press release by the World Bank mentioned that around 350,000 tons of solid waste are produced annually in the Maldives. Out of that, a Maldivian living in Malé contributes an average of 1.8kg per day, while inhabitants of less-populated islands dispose approximately of 0.8kg per day. In resort-islands, however, a single tourist produces 3.5kg of solid waste daily, which is either discarded in the ocean (food and organics), incinerated onsite (paper and other combustibles), or compacted to be sent to Thilafushi (plastic and other inorganics) where they’re burned to further reduce the volume, consequently combusts toxic clouds of smoke that can be seen from Malé.
Such overproduction of garbage on the part of resorts and their guests and the environmental consequences it causes has sparked a growing discussion about the importance of sustainable practices within the tourism industry in the Maldives and the role each one – government, resorts, locals, and tourists alike – should play in it.
As an island-country highly dependent on the tourism industry for the livelihood of its people – yet whose land and species are threatened by the rising sea levels as well as environmental imbalances due to a coral bleaching epidemic in 2016 – tapping into sustainable tourism practices is increasingly off the essence in the Maldives. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism means “tourism that meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing the opportunity for the future. Rather than being a type of product, it is an ethos that underpins all tourism activities. As such, it is integral to all aspects of tourism development and management rather than being an add-on component. The objective of sustainable tourism is to retain the economic and social advantages of tourism development while reducing or mitigating any undesirable impacts on the natural, historic, cultural or social environment. This is achieved by balancing the needs of tourists with those of the destination.” In other words, losing its reefs would mean losing its tourists, which would consequently shake the entire economy and the quality of life of Maldivians.
“The combination of being an island nation and not having proper waste management makes plastic pollution a huge problem here in the Maldives. Hence, plastic is a common sight on the beaches and reefs of the Maldives,” says Megan O’Beirne, Sustainability Manager at Six Senses Laamu, situated in the Laamu Atoll,just an island-hopper flight south of capital Malé.
According to Megan, Six Senses Laamu has been dealing with the issue of plastic waste by “bottling desalinated water in reusable glass bottles for guests and staff, replacing plastic straws with paper ones, providing guests with paper bags in exchange for duty free bags at the airport, requesting suppliers to send goods with less, non-plastic packaging, and making as much food in-house as possible from local, natural, unprocessed ingredients in line with our Eat With Six Senses philosophy. These efforts extend into the local community via Six Senses’ Sustainability Fund spending. 0.5% of the resort’s revenue is allocated towards projects that benefit local ecosystems or communities.”
Six Senses has kept sustainability as a core principle to the brand since the beginning, in 1995. Six Senses Laamu has set the benchmark in the group in the field of marine conservation, growing the team from just one marine biologist in 2012 to ten in 2019. Nowadays, the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) hosts researchers from the Manta Trust, Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), and the Olive Ridley Project, as well as resort staff and interns, who conduct an array of research projects, education programs, and community outreach to address current and potential future threats to Laamu’s marine ecosystems and beyond.
“MUI facilitates more than just guest experiences, but also meaningful research and conservation work, as well as community outreach and education programs in all 11 islands across Laamu Atoll. MUI is working to spread the word and share the team’s capacity with other resorts, helping them to implement more sustainable practices as well and raise the standard for the entire industry. The resort incorporates local culture into guest experiences by serving Maldivian cuisine, offering local island excursions, and also working with local and national government agencies; Six Senses Laamu, alongside the Laamu Atoll Council, are working with the Ministry of Arts, Culture, & Heritage to restore cultural heritage sites in Laamu, in addition to the Ministry of Fisheries and Ministry of Environment to establish a locally-managed network of marine protected areas in Laamu,” says Megan O’Beirne, Sustainability Manager at Six Senses Laamu. There are many challenges faced by such an isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, often related to importing food and the associated by-products. “Self-sufficiency is our target in order to produce as much as possible on site. This includes an onsite water desalination plant, tailor shop, carpentry workshop, herb and vegetable garden, chicken coop, and an ‘Earth Lab’ where everything from compost to old towels to citrus peels are turned from ‘waste-to-wealth’,” she adds.
Working with and giving back to the community are central to the work Six Senses and MUI are doing in Laamu. Conservation and sustainable development require a great level of community buy-in, and all stakeholders must reap the benefits. So far, through the Sustainability Fund, the resort has donated 61 water filters to schools, pre-schools, universities, police stations, and households across Laamu, assisting more than 4,000 people to access safe drinking water without having to rely on what used to be 1,500,000 single-use plastic water bottles per year.“ As part of Six Senses Laamu’s ‘Eku Eky’ Program, which translates to “together” in the local language of Dhivehi, education and outreach programs are conducted in all 11 islands and 13 schools across Laamu Atoll. School sessions, council meetings, and community forums raise awareness of marine life and habitats, marine protected areas, sustainable fishing, as well as pollution and waste management. ‘Hello Hallu’, meaning “hello solution” in Dhivehi, is MUI’s yearlong education program, whose aim is to inspire the next generation of ocean stewards to be advocates for their own island’s natural resources,” says Megan. On top of that, the Eku Eky Program brings together representatives of local councils, schools, and women’s committees quarterly to discuss ways of developing sustainable measures across the atoll, one of which is to make Laamu the first single-use plastic-free atoll in the country.
On July 1st,the Maldives parliament passed a resolution for banning single-use plastics by 2025. Aware that there is no time to waste, Six Senses has set its own goal to be plastic-free by 2022.“We hope that this [legislation] will motivate businesses, including resorts and their suppliers, to make measurable changes quickly. Maldives faces many other environmental pressures, including rising sea levels, coral bleaching, and overfishing, that the government will need to address in a similarly urgent manner if the country is going to preserve its marine environment and natural resources for generations to come,” says Megan. She also stresses that embodying corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the tourism industry doesn’t refer to acting solely for benefit of the resort and its immediate surroundings, but extend to the improvement of the quality of life of surrounding communities who too rely on the natural environment. “Six Senses Laamu has hired a Sustainability Manager to work on increasing resort efficiencies and decreasing waste, a Permaculturalist to cultivate gardens and raise animals that produce the resort’s food, a Community Outreach manager to build strong relationships with the local island communities, and 10 marine biologists to conduct research and education surrounding Maldives unique marine environment,” says Megan.
But it is not only up to the government, business owners, and the local community to sustain the beauty of the Maldives. Tourists, who indulge in much of what the islands have to offer, also play a key role in Maldives’ sustainable development.. At present, guests of Six Senses can get down to work by going on a research dive and study manta rays with the Manta Trust team; help the Oliver Ridley Project collect ID shots of turtles for their database; have children sign up for the Junior Marine Biology Program, or even donate directly to the organisations. They are also reminded not to bring plastics, use only natural shower products, and encouraged to bring items such as books, reusable water bottles, or snorkelling equipment to donate to one of Laamu’s local schools. “Six Senses wants guests to learn something during their stay to better their life back at home; whether that’s eating more sustainable seafood, avoiding single-use plastics, or supporting local businesses, guests can feel that are contributing towards the preservation of the Maldives, even after their holiday is over,” Megan emphasizes.
With the tourism industry in the Maldives booming, so is the demand for places to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. And as demand grows, more resorts are being built, which presents yet another potential threat to the very environment they are hoping to profit from. “Land reclamation for the construction of man-made resort islands has done serious damage to reefs around the Maldives’ central atolls, and directly links to the transplantation of coconut palm trees from other islands onto these barren sandbanks. It is important that companies building resorts do not do so at the expense of long term natural or environmental capital. Ensuring resort construction does not negatively impact the natural heritage of the Maldives is an issue that should be strictly mandated and enforced, as not addressing it will be detrimental for the Maldives’ cornerstone industries of fishing and tourism,” Megan says.
Along these lines, one of the most recent and remarkable projects MUI has been running is the #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass – a campaign that not only reached 1.2 million accounts on social media and convinced a quarter of Maldives’ luxury resorts to protect at least 80% of their island’s seagrass meadows (which totalled to 655,000m2 or 90 football fields of seagrass) but also showed that there is hope in taking collaborative action to protect the marine environment. “Raising awareness about the plight of the Maldives, as well as simple, defined actions that people can personally take, are critical to ensuring generations to come can enjoy an equal or better quality of life. Tourists have the ball in their court, and it is their responsibility to question resorts about their sustainable practices, push them to adopt more environmentally-friendly operations, and choose businesses that value the natural environment. If enough resorts take responsibility for the conservation of their natural assets, it’s likely that the whole tourism industry follows suit,” Megan concludes.
Felippe Dal Piero, the founder of Mahalo Surf Experience, returned from a trip with guests to the Maldives. They had the pleasure of staying at Six Senses Laamu and getting to know the initiatives conducted by the resort and the people behind the operations. This trip has stirred some of Felippe’s relationship with the idea of sustainability – a trait he has deliberately infused into Mahalo’s ethos.
“At Mahalo, we seek to adopt simple but very efficient practices by conducting extensive research on where we will be doing our surf experience and checking what impacts the trip may have on this particular region so that we can think about how to minimize it. Each of our partners – boutique hotels or resorts – are carefully chosen based on their Green Footprint; we seek to work with organizations that are deeply involved in Sustainable Tourism and advocate for ocean preservation.
In our trips, we refrain from using plastics, have opted for organic sun cream for over two years, and make available carbon reductions to our guests who wish to reduce the emission of CO2 from their flight. We also try to participate in any educational lectures and/or events that take place during our stay, as well as donating to some organisations focused on marine conservation.”
“When it comes to surf tourism, I believe that surf travel agencies around the globe should think beyond the immediate profit this activity brings us and consider the ways how it can be developed without causing even more impact on the natural environment. This goes from thinking about the type of sunscreen you use to running clients through the environmental threats our destination faces and what initiatives are underway, in the hope that raising awareness will generate a long-term habit change from those who partake in this experience. In my opinion, calculating the maximum capacity of your operational scope is also crucial for sustainable surf tourism. This can be achieved by avoiding overcrowded areas as well as understanding that the local community can meet that particular demand in terms of infrastructure, so as not to allow the uncontrollable growth of areas related to surf tourism.”
Sustainability is a broad and controversial topic, but its essence lies in striving for harmony. As a means to elucidate and promote the concept of sustainable tourism, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has created a series of criteria that stipulate whether or not a resort/hotel, as well as a particular destination, is sustainable or not. They have conceptualised these criteria based on four main points – Sustainable management, Socioeconomic impacts, Cultural impacts, and Environmental impacts – which together assist in the core purpose of creating a common language around tourism sustainability, whilst forging baseline standards to be used globally by/for all sorts of tourism-related private and governmental organisations.
In the end, this is a team effort: it is up to all parties involved to be aware of the role they play and understand how they can engage more consciously – and sustainably – to promote positive change. Things may not yet be ideal, and sustainable practices may take a while to gain momentum and solidify. But with inexorable intention and dedication, and taking responsibility for our actions, step after step, awareness is raised and the “harmony” that the word sustainability corresponds to can become more of a reality.