How do you turn an unspoilt tropical island into one that retains its beauty but is also economically viable? How do you create a setting that still supports local inhabitants and makes money through tourism, yet doesn’t damage the environment?
Easy questions, difficult answers.
When the owners of Nikoi Island, just off Bintan, were building on their little patch of paradise, these questions were particularly relevant to them; and they relate to the whole of Bintan Island, along with countless other islands in the region.
The natural inhabitants of Indonesia’s Riau Islands, the Orang Laut (“Sea People”) were nomadic. Some fished for a living (except in monsoon periods); others were involved in crafts such as net-making that supported the fishing industry. They moved as they needed to and lived (literally) on top of the water. Some pirated the sea; others linked in with traders. Singapore, the most northern of the Riau Islands, was home to many of these indigenous communities until the 1930s.
When the seas started being policed by various governments, and vast tracks of land in and around Bintan and Batam started being bought and developed by individuals, the natural flow of life for this group was stemmed. Change is inevitable, of course, but it meant the introduction of a different lifestyle for the indigenous community and the need for a new means of making money.
The Island Foundation
The owners of Nikoi Resort, through their development of this tiny island and their relationships with their local staff from Bintan, learnt more about these issues first hand. They decided to set up The Island Foundation (TIF) as a registered charity to help in whatever way they could.
The foundation’s manifesto is clear from its website (www.theislandfoundation.com): “TIF has begun to build a two-way bridge based on knowledge, skills, culture, tradition and history between the islands of the Riau Archipelago, Singapore and the rest of the world. TIF works in partnership with each target village, employing local villagers and helping them develop the skills with which to take control of their lives and develop a sustainable path out of poverty.”
I recently met up with expat Heema Patel who is the executive director of the foundation in Singapore; later she linked me up with the head of the team in Bintan for my visit to the island.
Heema showed me the craftwork of the ladies of the Orang Laut. Using her own background of making and fixing fishing nets, she is working with them to help expand their skill sets so they become financial independence. She had previously taken them some beads to work with and the results are just beautiful; she’s now looking at ways to sell the resultant necklaces and creations in Singapore without having to go through a third party. Their basketwork, including a magazine holder made from recycled newspapers, is also brilliant.
Fishing opportunities have always been limited because of the monsoons and many fisherman borrow money to get through the “dry” months. This creates an awful cycle of poverty. The team have identified that learning English and computer skills are keys to enabling income through alternative sources. They have set up computer learning centres in a couple of the villages to help children and adults to train for alternative work options. Getting teachers is a major issue though; volunteers, even part-time, are desperately needed.
Through TIF, the owners of Nikoi are working with the government and the individual villages on all areas from building to improving health and environmental and social standards in the region. It’s slow, but it’s going in the right direction. I think it’s brilliant that they’re not just thinking of the bottom line.
Throughout the resort – and there’s another one coming soon, by the way – they are keeping true to their word. In their use of natural resources and local manpower, they’re working with and supporting this amazing part of the world. And how lucky are we to be living in it.
After meeting the village chief and seeing a couple of the learning centres on Bintan, I understand how important it is to create jobs so that the lifestyle of the locals can be retained, at least to some degree. This culture is so far apart from the skyscrapers and bustle of Singapore, yet it’s just a short ferry ride away. We don’t want to create just another metropolis, where craft and history – not to mention the laid-back lifestyle – are replaced and forgotten; but the people from the towns and villages do need the skill sets to be financially independent.
After a short boat ride to Nikoi, I am witness to what I first saw over four years ago, and what a tropical island should be like. The sand is white, and the sea is perfectly clear and a little turquoise. One of the staff is quietly playing a guitar near the bar, everyone’s smiling, there’s no sound of television or traffic and there’s no tarmac. The mangroves are intact. It’s bliss.
Nikoi’s “chalets” are built mostly from old washed-up wood, which is cut and made into furniture by local craftsmen in the island’s own workshop. The floor throughout is mainly sand, even inside the dining areas, so you are constantly bonded to nature. The resort has its own water purification system that supplies most of the water, though the drinking water is imported.
Wood flooring is used upstairs in the large bedroom (you don’t want sand in your bed!) and, as much as possible, local suppliers are used for everything else. The chalets are open with no glass which is lovely but it does mean that you can hear the neighbours if they’re noisy. (The second resort being built by the Nikoi team will divide the clientele between families and romantic getaways.)
Chalets are right on the beach and through the night there’s the soft sound of the waves (and one rather noisy fishing boat at 2am). I was last here about four years ago when it was just opening and I had forgotten how the stars shone at night; it’s easy to forget what a proper sky even looks like living in Singapore. On Nikoi, it’s like someone has placed a very bright light behind a big black sheet with lots of holes poked in it.
There’s a huge bonfire on the beach at night – a big hit with most guests but especially with children. There’s no television or video on the island, so it’s a brilliant opportunity to get back to nature; activities include kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and swimming – enough to keep everyone busy. I couldn’t believe how many fish there were in water that was just thigh-deep, with plenty of large and colourful tropical fish and huge shoals of silver fish that you can swim through, like swimming through a mirror. Brilliant coral, too, including eye-catching deep purple ones.
The island is so small it only takes half an hour to walk around; there are mangroves and little bays with rope swings where kids can play make-believe pirates, or they can use the swimming pool away from the main area.
Breakfast is average but the rest of the meals – all three course – were excellent. The staff are definitely an added bonus on Nikoi – one of them even remembered me from my first visit! You can choose to have your meals bought to you in the room or you can eat in the communal dining rooms. One room is for children and families, the other one for couples or groups without families. It’s a tough situation as the resort really is perfect for both groups, though perhaps not ideal for them together.
After our first visit, my girls described Nikoi as the best place they’d ever been to. Going this time on my own, it was still special. Whether you’re getting into a kayak and paddling out on the beautiful flat sea, or finding one of the little sitting areas just to watch the view while enjoying a cold beer, this is an island to treasure.
If you would like more information about The Island Foundation or are keen to get involved in any way (or have any children in university who have holiday time to spare), please email Heena Patel at email@example.com.