PUBLISHED November 01, 2019




What does sustainable tourism mean to you?


Really it comes down to balance. By its very nature, the tourism and hospitality industry takes a huge toll on our planet’s resources and contributes to all manner of footprints (carbon, food, plastic etc.); therefore the industry has a particular duty to make responsible decisions and holistic choices which affect how it operates. These considerations should not only aim to reduce any negative impacts on surrounding environments and local communities, but also support development and enhancement – encouraging both people and planet to prosper, whilst enabling the business to profit. Sustainable or responsible tourism is really about ensuring that you engage with your stakeholders effectively, in a two-way process, and looking to create long-term value for all parties involved.


To me it is the opportunity to travel and explore our beautiful world, whilst being conscious of the footprint we leave behind, in order to preserve and protect it for the next person who comes along. Here in the Maldives, this of course includes the beautiful coral reefs, which are a major attraction. Every company has the power to influence the development of destinations, which can also lead to negative impacts, but I’m proud to say that I work for a company like Banyan Tree who have utilised this influence positively by giving back to the local communities. They look to protect one piece, albeit relatively small, of a larger puzzle that is the complex coral ecosystems of the Maldives. As an industry, we need to come together to prioritise conservation of the environment and these beautiful reefs for future generations to enjoy.

Angsana Ihuru and Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru have been running a Marine Lab since 1996. Can you tell us a little bit about why the marine lab was established?


My understanding is that it was somewhat an organic process, the coming together of proactive minds who shared the same values for conservation of the natural environment. Banyan Tree was the first international 5* brand to open in the Maldives. The owners Mr and Mr Ho were committed to the company’s mission statement, ‘embracing the environment, empowering people’. After being introduced to the former Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree and Angsana Maldives and one of the Directors of Ihuru Investments PVT LTD, Mr. Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem – more familiar as N.D. Azeez, who had started coral conservation on neighbouring Ihuru island (now under the Angsana sister brand to Banyan

Tree), they together pioneered the first resort-based marine conservation lab here in the Maldives. It is famed for being the first resort-based marine lab to hire qualified marine biologists to carry out research. In January 2004 the team was welcomed into the new conservation hub for Banyan Tree, on Vabbinfaru. The Lab has a long history of remarkable projects and its collaborations with different researchers; when I first joined the team in March 2018 I was amazed at its achievements, and I am proud to be a part of this legacy. Personally, the most significant work undertaken by the lab includes the first video recording of coral spawning in the Maldives, which received gratitude from former President Nasheed; as well as being the first islands in the world to accommodate electric reef technology led by N.D. Azeez and two other scientists - Thomas Goreau and Wolf Hilbertz; and finally the Lab ran the longest turtle headstart program in the Maldives, which sadly stopped the year I first joined.

In the lab today we are obviously addressing global issues such as climate change. This involves targeting

critical habitats and species, predominantly focusing on coral reefs and threatened megafauna (turtles) apex predators (sharks) and overexploited species (groupers). The research that we carry out, often in partnership with PhD and Master’s students from international universities, can be used to inform management strategies within the Maldives. Our current research focuses on the connectivity between the coral reefs and the open ocean, with the latest research published in the peer-reviewed journals.

More than 60 per cent of coral reefs in the Maldives were affected by ‘bleaching’ in 2016 was quoted in the Guardian. How colossal is it to restore the affected 60 per cent of coral reefs across the Maldives? Could you tell us something about the amount of work that’s needed to be done?


I think it’s commonly misunderstood that the aim of coral restoration is to create a flourishing reef as quickly as possible, but in reality the true aim is to increase resilience and aid rates of recovery of coral reefs after disturbance; such as the bleaching event in 2016. We can help to restore reefs on a local scale, but in the end if the global climate continues to degrade then it becomes harder to keep restoring the reefs, because they have no time to recover. My understanding is that after the 1998 bleaching event, it took around eight years with no disturbance for the reefs to recover naturally. We are hopeful that the restoration efforts of Banyan Tree and Angsana Ihuru will aid the settlement of juvenile corals and we will start to see the rebirth of the coral reefs, predominantly here in Kaafu Atoll where we operate and in Dhaalu Atoll where our other Marine Lab (for Angsana Velavaru) is based. Whilst we of course hope for swift recovery across the whole of the Maldives, we are realistic in our understanding that the scale of this objective can only be achieved through collective efforts and we hope to play our part by improving awareness to accomplish this.

What does coral restoration entail and what results have you achieved so far?


Our restoration efforts include a variety of techniques such as finding ‘corals of opportunity’, broken off from larger colonies, and transplanting them onto the reef and other structures, including electric reefs. The first electric reef ever built in the Maldives, was in 1996 on Angsana Ihuru, with the second shortly in 1998, and in 2001 a third reef was created. These were created by transplanting corals onto a metal frame structure, which is provided with a low-voltage electrical current to increase the growth rate of corals. These still remain the first and only electric reefs in the Maldives. Our new venture has been an extension of ‘The Necklace’ project which we hope will show promising scientific results. Another aspect of our restoration work involves transplanting corals from our successful coral rope nurseries on Banyan Tree and Angsana Ihuru, onto the reef slope. These colonies grow on ropes at around 10m below the surface, away from warming waters and predators. Each time I dive to clean the nursery it makes me happy to see these healthy colonies on the reef!

How do you measure and monitor the success of your sustainability initiatives?


Truthfully, it is often quite difficult to quantify the success of sustainability initiatives – given the continuously evolving nature of this area, and the fact that much of the value these initiatives create or conserve is intangible – such as coral reefs and other fragile ecosystems, public health, cultural values and traditions. Though a few bold environmental and social economists have dared to financially enumerate some of these values, it is tricky to establish how much impact individual activities can have towards achieving their ultimate goals, like solving hunger and poverty. This being said we do use simple metrics and indicators to measure the progress of our initiatives, such as the number of participants who attend our cleanups or educational talks, the kWH’s of energy we save, the litres of rainwater we harvest, the number of trees or corals we plant and KG’s of trash we collect. Using these data, we can then benchmark our progress and measure it against other companies and industry standards, with help from our strategic partner EarthCheck, who provide us with third-party external assurance through annual audits. Success is only really understood

 as progress – and we strive towards our targets, objectives and goals, year after year, such as our current ongoing commitment to becoming a plastic free Banyan Tree, for which we have currently eliminated somewhere close to 90% of targeted single-use plastic items here in the Maldives, since we pledged on Earth Day 2018.

From an environmental perspective, what are the main challenges that Angsana Ihuru and Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru face today?


Being based within one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world comes with challenges; each island comprising the Maldives is at risk of disappearing due to the impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be tackled by one single nation, nor region, but requires cohesion across the whole international community, regardless of whether you are a coasta or landlocked state – the connectivity occurring between all environments means that we all have a role to play.

Here in the Maldives, as well as climate impacts you have added human pressure especially here in North Male’ Atoll where you have very high boat traffic, we are within such close proximity to the airport and Thilafushi and there is a higher density of resorts within a small area. The combination of this leads to overfishing and somewhat ineffective waste management, both of which I am sure can be improved with continued management and greater awareness. Like any ocean space, which is by nature vast, it is hard to monitor and enforce fishing regulations and control what does and does not occur. In terms of trying to conserve iconic species from human impacts, the Maldives has definitely set the benchmark high as one of the only nationwide shark sanctuaries in the world, and more recently also placing turtles under complete protection. It is great initiatives such as this that I hope will inspire other countries to follow suit and become fellow stewards of the natural environment.

In your view, how important is sustainability performance for the reputation and competitiveness of a hotel?


It really depends on how this question is approached or perceived. On one side of the coin, a company or hotel’s sustainability performance should not be influenced by how they believe they will be regarded by the public and to impress upon the ‘trend’ of sustainability – i.e. leading to what we may call greenwashing and committing to sustainable or even philanthropic practices, simply to gain a competitive edge over competitors and prospective clients. Improving sustainability performance as I hope I addressed in my answer to the first question about defining sustainable tourism, is simply about doing what is right; acting responsibly to ensure you only bring positive change to communities and the environment. On the other side of the coin, it is however a positive thing that more and more people are taking sustainability performance into consideration when they choose which hotel to spend their dollars at, or even which destinations to visit; driving hotel businesses to become more accountable for their actions and the way they operate. It is not hard for me to imagine that in the near future, we will see sustainability performance indices up on sites like and tripadvisor, which will allow us to filter hotels in the same way we currently filter by price, location, room size and whether it has a swimming pool or spa – and I hope to see things like energy usage rating, use of single-use plastic, community relations and staff wellbeing driving consumer money more wisely towards responsible businesses, who are willing to invest their profits towards sustainable development of our planet and its people.

Since the inception of the Green Imperative Fund in 2001, Banyan Tree has raised over US$7 million. In which ways have these funds been expended that benefited the local communities?


The Green Imperative Fund is an inspiring mechanism, in my opinion, providing Banyan Treehotels and also the Banyan Tree Global Foundation (BTGF) with a means for funding sustainability focused initiatives conducted around the world. Every Banyan Tree property, as well as those of sister brands Angsana, Cassia and Dhawa, operate an opt-out guest donation policy matched dollar- for-dollar by the respective properties. (Just as a side-note, as of this year we have raised over $10 million.)Twenty-percent of raised funds are kept by the property, to spend autonomously on context-based initiatives that provide external benefits, either to local communities or the natural environment. The remaining eighty-percent is returned to BTGF, the decentralized non-profit arm of the group focused towards sustainable development and CSR. We at BTGF look to allocate these funds towards specific projects proposed by individuals at our properties via funding cycles at the start and finish of each year. As an example, this year in celebration of Banyan Tree’s 25th Anniversary, we invited project proposals focused on schools and education. In total we allocated over $100,000 to support 4,000 students at 25 schools, which scaled everything from building whole schools in Morocco, Mexico and Laos, to redecorating classrooms and improving facilities, and purchasing books, computers, desks, chairs and other learning materials – across China, Seychelles, Indonesia, Thailand and here in the Maldives.

The funds are also used to support annual groupwide initiatives, such as our Seedlings programme that aims to develop vocational and life skills for youngsters from underprivileged segments of society; or the Greening Communities program, which supports restoration of natural habitats including mangroves and rainforests, with half a million trees now planted worldwide. The fund is often utilised for emergencies, providing disaster relief and humanitarian aid to areas affected by natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions. Following the 2004 Tsunami, A recovery fund was established to rebuild homes and provide support to affected people in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and here in the Maldives. Banyan Tree Maldives staff spent 3 months rebuilding a total of 80 homes in Naalafushi.

Past projects funded by GIF are diverse, for example here in the Maldives funds have supported research and conservation of coral reefs and endangered species such as sharks and turtles, as well mangrove restoration and island cleanups across multiple atolls. A primary school was built on Feydhoo island, a children’s play park for Hithadhoo, a cooperative farm on Magoodhoo island. Learning materials and technical equipment such as computers and projectors have been purchased for schools across the Maldives, including specialised equipment and teaching materials for deaf and mute children in Jamaluddin School, as well as hiring audiologists to test hearing and supply hearing aids; and blood filters for thalassemia patients, a prevalent condition here in Maldives.

You have given two amazing presentations at the White Fire photography exhibition. How was the response from the public? Do you plan to collaborate in similar projects in the future?


Thank you very much – The response was positive, and it was a wonderful opportunity addressing different demographics and members of the public who may not be our usual target audience, and yet are as significant when it comes to making a positive difference and spreading awareness.Being a part of something a little different, like this exhibition, acted as a reminder that it is not only schools, colleges, councils and business partners who can benefit from hearing about the positive impact that tourism can have on society and the environment, when managed effectively. The exhibition also aligned with our belief that learning should be fun, and important messages can be expressed through experiences - art, music, sport and adventure, which is how we look to engage our staff and guests with core sustainability principles at all our properties. We certainly look to collaborate with any like-minded individuals or groups, here in the Maldives, in the future – with the hope that collectively we can have a greater impact and shed light on important conversations that must be addressed among society, by both the public and private sectors.

Dr. Hussain Rasheed Hassan, Maldives Environment Minister mentioned during his speech at theopening ceremony of the White Fire photography exhibition that he accepts the invitation extended by Mr. Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem (N.D. Azeez), former Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree and Angsana Maldives to visit and see the Necklace Project. Have you conducted any consultations for the current or former government with respect to your environmental practices?


Since I started my position as the Marine Lab Manager, it is obvious that the Lab is respected for its long history of coral reef restoration and environmental leadership in the Maldives. There are long-standing relationships with the Ministry of Fisheries, Marine Research Centre and IUCN, providing data to support research. In 2016 our properties pledged to support the establishment of the Maldives as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In 2017 under supervision from Dr. Steven Newman, our Director of Conservation, the Marine Lab provided technical guidance, training and assistance in monitoring coral reefs for the Biosphere assessment. We have just wrapped up our fifth year of annual reef monitoring at 8 local sites here in North Male Atoll, adding to long-term data sets that can be used for future management plans within the Maldives.

Your thoughts on the current state of tourism sustainability in the Maldives?


It is clear just traveling through Kaafu Atoll that new resorts are being built at a fast rate, only time will tell if this is being done sustainably. But due to the early efforts of Banyan Tree, almost 25 years ago, it is now almost expected for every resort in the Maldives to have a marine biologist that can advise resorts on the best practice for the environment and create awareness among guests. Our collaboration to create the first Marine Science Symposium in the Maldives allowed all of these marine biologists to come together and share research findings and hopefully help to improve cohesion between resorts, spreading the positive message about sustainable tourism.


I am a bit of perfectionist, so of course I think there is greater room for improvement when it comes to the current state of tourism sustainability in the Maldives. There are both positive and negative examples to be found across the country and I think at this time, the key is to follow caution and not to let the bad outweigh the good. Sustainability is technically all about continuous progress and making improvements, therefore my hopes are that better understanding will lead to better management and more sustainable development of the tourism industry here for the future.

Although I have only been working here in the Maldives for a couple of years, I have in this short time seen a large increase in the number of hotels and guesthouses being developed and opened – not only in Kaafu Atoll, but all over the country. In some respects, this is an encouraging sign – more business, generally means better prospects, for both the population and the country’s economy as a whole. I think this is especially the case on smaller local islands and for the guesthouses that serve them. They have helped to open up the country to a more diverse demographic of travelers, and at the same time offer income to a greater spectrum of the country’s population. However, this is not necessarily a positive situation where the so-called luxury resort market is concerned, which is increasingly saturated and provides a very small minority with a disproportionately large amount of wealth – this further supports the argument that such businesses have a duty to act responsibly and support the communities and environment which enables them to prosper.

I have in recent years come to learn about the threats of ‘overtourism’ – a phenomenon occurring across the planet following recent booms in tourism – and the damage it can do to a country’s cultural identity, economy and the environment. I believe the Maldives could learn from examples such as Bali or islands in the Caribbean, especially where air travel is combined with cruise lining. Coral reefs are extremely fragile ecosystems and they are under enough threat as it is from existing human pressures. Increased tourism must be met with effective management and greater regulation and enforcement, to ensure that development is sustainable and minimizes risk and negative impacts on local communities and the environment. As an environmentalist, I am of course against things such as unnecessary dredging and land reclamation, and I have seen firsthand the damage this causes to coral reefs. I think that an effective land use plan should properly consider utilization of naturally formed islands as a priority over creating new artificial ones, especially when its just for the sake of being closer to an airport or appearing in a specific shape.

Any words of wisdom for the young environmentalists?


Quoting one of my favourite school teachers and a true inspiration in my early life, “Snooze time is lose time”, so get stuck in whilst you can and before it is too late. We need people from all walks of society to come together to fight against the increasing threats to our planet. A career in sustainability is by no means a one-size-fits all vocation, and in fact requires teams that can draw upon multi-disciplinary skillsets – artists, communicators, legislators, researchers, debaters – you name it! If you have a passion for the environment, focus on developing your skills and consider how you can apply them to the broader goal of protecting and conserving nature.


I am in awe of the young environmentalists of today, who have a much greater understanding of the climate crisis than I did at school. It is so inspiring and I’m glad to read about people such as Greta Thunberg making big movements towards influencing people’s perspectives and advancing their understanding on the current state of the climate. I think my advice would be to have patience, but keep fighting for our future.



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