SINGAPORE (Nov 25): It was a serendipitous accident that set Rory Hunter and his wife, Melita, on the path towards Song Saa Private Island — Cambodia’s first luxury coastal resort — and more than a decade later, Hunter still speaks of Song Saa with wonder.
The award-winning Song Saa Private Island, which opened in 2012, is considered a pioneer in conservation-based luxury tourism in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago. Today, it is a widely known private resort that combines conservation and environmentally responsible tourism.
“We didn’t set out with the grand plan to buy an island and build a luxury resort there,” Hunter tells Options over the phone. He is in Hong Kong, where he and Melita are mostly based nowadays. “It really was a chance encounter with a guy nearly 15 years ago, who told us of an island off the coast with beautiful white sandy beaches and virgin rainforests, and it all sounded a little too good to be true.” But they had to see it for themselves. So, they found someone to charter a boat for them, and spent two weeks circumnavigating the archipelago off the coast of Cambodia.
When they found it, it was just as beautiful as they had been told. “There were four fishing villages there, but zero tourism. We had the whole place to ourselves, technically. It was magical. With our translator, we got chatting with the family that effectively owned the island, and they’d been out there for 20 years,” says Hunter. “They told us how tough it was living there with fishing being a declining industry, and they said they wanted to move back to the mainland.”
One crazy proposition later, the then-20 somethings had bought the island, and set about the task of cleaning up 20 years’ worth of rubbish to reveal the jewel beneath the mess. The couple also enlisted the help of the villagers and local community, and it was through this process that they learnt how challenging it was for families who live out there.
“We saw how difficult it was that there was a lack of access to any form of healthcare, or any kind of education for the children. There was little support for women, and other than fishing, there was really nothing for the men to do either,” he says. “So, we were aware of the role that we needed to play as new members of that community.”
According to Hunter, responsible tourism was not yet a “thing” fifteen years ago. “But it made sense to us that the people who would be visiting our resort would also care, would want to be in an environment that was protected and be among a community that was supported and nurtured. And so, the notion to weave a triple bottom-line business was pure common sense — why would we do it any other way?” he says. His long-standing respect for the natural environment and the unique opportunity that he was afforded drove his decision to create a positive impact. “I’ve learnt that philanthropy and business are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to make all of your money at the expense of people and the environment, and be philanthropic only when you’ve made your money. The idea of business doing good, is good for business.”
As such, Hunter was driven to embark on perhaps his most ambitious project yet — the Song Saa Reserve in Siem Reap. The site, located five minutes from the famed Angkorian temple of Banteay Srei, with a 35ha lake as a central feature, will see hotel and villa residences integrate with a comprehensive series of sustainability-based initiatives, including educational centres, a solar farm and restored sections of indigenous rainforest.
Initiated through the Song Saa Foundation — a non-profit organisation Hunter and Melita established in 2013 to protect the habitats of the Koh Rong Archipelago and improve the welfare of its communities — the reserve will work in tandem with developers to ensure the Song Saa Reserve fulfils the standards for place-based sustainability and care that Hunter and Melita have established.
Not only that, the foundation is pioneering a rainforest restoration project in the lower Mekong, the transboundary river that runs through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. It aims to return 30% of the reserve to natural forest cover, with the target of planting one million trees over the next five years.
“We’re really trying to look at how we reimagine a community for the 21st century. It will be a net positive producer of energy, be water-neutral and waste-neutral, and focus on being a regenerative community, instead of [being] simply sustainable,” Hunter says.
Living in big cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is too easy to be disconnected from the environment, the lives of the people we touch and the ingredients that go into our products, he notes. “As a species, we really are living beyond our means; I think we need to reshape our views of not just consumerism but also economic models as a whole.
“We’re far from perfect, we’re doing the best that we can, but if we’re going to survive as a species, we need to have a paradigm shift and look at our world through a different lens.”