July 18, 2024

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Real eco-tourism needs to go beyond sustainability and strive for regeneration : social entrepreneur Tomo Hamakawa | News | Eco-Business

11 min read

When it comes to Bali, most people think of an exotic island paradise with beautiful beaches, terraced riced paddies and a lively nightlife. Over the years, the Indonesian island has grown to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

More than 5.2 million foreign tourists and over 9.4 million domestic tourists visited Bali last year, according to the Bali Tourism Agency. While the huge influx of visitors have no doubt benefited the local economy, it has also put enormous strain on Bali’s natural resources and infrastructure leading to environmental issues such as pollution, waste management problems, water shortages, and incredibly congested traffic.

One Bali resident has witnessed first-hand the downsides of mass tourism on the island, which has picked up after the pandemic. “All the major areas are completely clogged [with traffic],” said Tomo Hamakawa, who was born in Yokohama, Japan.

Hamakawa is on a mission to spark green tourism in the island. He is the co-founder of Mana Earthly Paradise, an eco-resort located in Ubud, Bali.

Mana Earthly Paradise, established in 2019, is the first B Corp certified hotel in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Its villas were built using earth bags filled with mud, a technique that allows the buildings to be both durable and have low heat transfer. Wood used to construct its facilities came from reclaimed old wood sourced from all over Indonesia.

The low-impact resort, which uses solar panels to power its lighting, captures rainwater from its roofs and filters it to potable quality for distribution in the hotel, and has a food waste composting system, is helping to answer the call from the Indonesian government to support sustainable tourism in the archipelago and to reduce the risks of over-tourism.

Hamakawa, who has lived in Bali for the past nine years with his wife and four children, said his interest in sustainability began when he worked for an American non-governmental organisation in Tibet, China – his first job after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from Harvard University.

“I was doing environmental conservation, cultural preservation, education, health care and providing very holistic support to Tibetan communities,” said Hamakawa who also holds a masters in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School. “Since then I’ve been involved in the social impact area, whether it is for a small nonprofit, a big private foundation or doing short term engagements with the World Bank.”

In 2014, Hamakawa and his wife Aska co-founded Earth Company, a Japan and Indonesia based impact-driven social enterprise that also manages Mana Earthly Paradise.

Earth Company’s aim, said Hamakawa, who is the organisation’s chief exploration officer (CXO), is to contribute to the shift from degeneration to the regeneration of the environment and society.

“The way we inhabit this world is quite extractive and exploitative and definitely not sustainable,” he said. “Sustainability is only a middle point, we need to strive to get to regeneration.”

Sustainability, said Hamakawa, is usually conceived as a way to address or negate problems that humanity has created. However, regeneration goes further than sustainability because it prioritises not only preventing harm but on doing more good, such as becoming carbon positive instead of being carbon neutral.

“Regeneration will get us to a net positive level,” he said. “It is about contributing to communities, contributing to the environment and leaving the world a better place than when we arrived in it.”

One way that Earth Company is contributing to the community is through its Impact Heroes programme, where selected individuals in developing countries in the Asia Pacific receive support from Earth Company for three years in the form of fund raising, leadership coaching, marketing support, networking opportunities and management consulting to help them realise and accelerate the transformative changes they hope to bring to their communities.

“We really want to support change makers who we believe are making serious impact on the ground, who are inspiring and who have the trust of local people,” said Hamakawa,

Earth Company also runs a programme called Impact Academy, which organises sustainability training for companies, schools and universities. “We invite our impact heroes to be guest speakers in these [Impact Academy] programmes,” said Hamakawa. “The best way to learn about SDGs [sustainable development goals] and issues on the ground is from people who are dedicating their lives to address to solve these problems.” 

In this interview, Hamakawa shares his thoughts on how to solve over-tourism in Bali, how he balances having a positive impact with his business while maintaining financial sustainability and the one environmental issue that worries him.

There is a lot of preaching about sustainability and I think people are sick of that. I think it is much more effective if we can make it into a pleasant experience.  

With the rise of sustainable tourism, many hotels claim to be green and environmentally responsible. What sets Mana Earthly Paradise apart?

What is most visible and easy to understand is our B Corp certification . We are the first B Corp-certified hotel in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Among B Corp-certified enterprises, the hospitality industry is very underrepresented. There are only a few B Corp-certified hotels in the world.

The B Corp certification shows that beyond environmental impact, we also take care of our employees, community, guests and stakeholders. It is a very comprehensive approach that we take.

Many things we implement at the resort – using solar energy, rainwater harvesting, permaculture and other green initiatives – are not innovative. Thousands of other companies are doing it, but not many do it in an integrated way. I think that is what sets us apart – we do everything we can within our budget and resources to embody the concepts of sustainability and regeneration.

There are concerns about over-tourism in Bali that leads to problems such as waste build-up, water shortage and overcrowding. In your view, what are key steps that the tourism industry can do to overcome this issue?

The main issue with tourism [in Bali] is the traffic. I’m part of the sustainable transport team under an Australian-Indonesian initiative, and one of the projects is to look at the transport system in Ubud. The current infrastructure is doing a disservice to the tourism industry because people are having a terrible time stuck in traffic. 

Bali didn’t capitalise on the opportunity during the pandemic to revamp the infrastructure. There was no one here [due to travel restrictions], so it was the perfect time to strengthen the transport system. 

I think a cap [for tourist arrivals] would be beneficial. It would definitely impact businesses but I think the only way to go forward in the longer term is to manage the [traffic] levels while the government improves the infrastructure.

Also, I think the first thing you should ask yourself – and this goes for everyone and not just the tourism business – is what kind of impact are you making on society? You try to understand the effects that you have as a business on the community, on the environment and on the stakeholders around you. You also must quantify it as much as you can and have a baseline so that you can see how you are able to make improvements.

At Mana Earthly Paradise we have this environmental dashboard where we monitor the energy consumption, water consumption and the amount of waste generated [at the hotel]. Only through measurement can you start talking about reducing [your environmental footprint]. I think an impact audit is a really good first step.

[Note: Based on the B Impact assessment, Mana Earthly Paradise earned an overall score of 86.3. The median score for ordinary businesses who complete the assessment is currently 50.9. Companies need to score 80 to qualify for B Corp certification.]

Paul Polman, the former chief executive officer of Unilever, once said, “Is the world a better place because your business is in it?” I think that is the ultimate question for companies and very few businesses can confidently say yes to that question. It is not really about certification or scoring – it is about how you can answer that question in a transparent and meaningful way. It is also about how we can improve the aspects of our business that we aren’t yet proud of.  

Mana Earthly Paradise_Tomo_and_Aska

Tomo Hamakawa and his wife, Aska, at Mana Earthly Paradise in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The eco-hotel which they manage and is run under Earth Company uses solar energy to power its lighting, rainwater harvesting to provide potable water and has permaculture gardens which provide fresh and local ingredients for the hotel restaurant. Image: Earth Company

But is there more that can be done? In what ways has Mana Earthly Paradise been able to influence its hotel guests and the locals in Bali to live more sustainably?

For our guests, we look at edutainment. There is a lot of preaching about sustainability and I think people are sick of that. I think it is much more effective if we can make it a pleasant experience. The entertainment aspect is important but it is not easy to do. If you really want to be sustainable, that means living in harmony with nature, right? It also means living with insects, mosquitoes, snakes, frogs, all these things that some people don’t want to get close to. So we try to minimise that so that people won’t be disturbed. It is about trying to strike that balance.

People need to realise not just the importance of sustainability, but also the ease with which one can live sustainably. I think a lot of our guests get that message by staying at our hotel, eating at our restaurant and shopping at our store.

For example, at our restaurant, on one of the wooden pillars, there is a sign that says it is from a 100-year-old jackfruit tree from Java. We used reclaimed wood and didn’t cut a single new tree to build the facility, and our guests can read more about that on the signs at the restaurant. There is also a board that showcases the solar energy and waste management initiatives at the hotel. We carefully vet the products we sell at our store and make sure they have a positive impact socially and environmentally. So while you shop and buy souvenirs for friends, you can also learn about the stories behind the brands and the impact they are making.

Also, once a month we hold “Susta Festa”, which is a sustainability festival open to the public. During this festival sometimes we hold workshops such as a natural candle making workshop, natural incense making workshop or natural skincare product workshop. Through these workshops we try to get people more engaged [in sustainability]. It is about making it [sustainability] more experiential, interactive and fun. 

How do you keep your businesses financially sustainable while still making sure they create a social impact?

That is a million dollar question for all social enterprises. Under Earth Company, we have three programmes. Other than Mana Earthly Paradise, there are Impact Heroes and Impact Academy.Impact Heroes is a non-profit programme. so it relies on grants and donations. Impact Academy and Mana Earthly Paradise are run as businesses.

Five per cent of all accommodation income from Mana Earthly Paradise is channelled to the Impact Heroes programme. Impact Academy also brings in profits to pay for the overhead costs of the businesses.

We set a pricing that is affordable and allows us to make a profit. Because of our pricing, we attract clients, for Impact Academy, that are private schools, or schools and universities with big budgets. For example, we are working with a private foundation in Japan. We told them that we wanted to offer sustainability training to public schools, so they subsidised it and asked us if we can offer this programme for public schools in certain areas of Japan. So that is an example of how we scale our programme to the wider public.

Where do you think the biggest opportunities lie in sustainability with respect to the hospitality industry in Asia?

There are some statistics from a global annual survey by Booking.com that demonstrates just how much pent-up demand there is for sustainable tourism globally. 

76 per cent of people surveyed want to stay at sustainable properties. I think the supply [of sustainable properties and services] is not keeping up with the increasing demand for sustainable tourism in Bali and the rest of the world.

Sustainable accommodation options are also too expensive. Some properties would have sustainable initiatives, but at the same time also mark their prices really high, that it becomes inaccessible to a lot of travellers. 

When most people think of sustainable properties, they envision beaches or remote islands. But we need to see more examples of these in urban settings. For example, if there is a property that embodies sustainability concepts in Bangkok or Singapore, that would be really exciting.

[Note: Mana Earthly Paradise typically charges around 2 million rupiah (US$129) per night for a single villa.]

What is one sustainability challenge that keeps you up at night?

The plastic challenge. It is so in your face in a place like Bali, Indonesia. Our lives are so immersed and intertwined with plastic pollution, it is crazy. It is kind of mind-boggling how reliant we are on single use plastic, or all kinds of plastic in our lives.

There is one organisation called Sungai Watch in Bali that sets up barriers in rivers to prevent trash from entering the ocean. They invite volunteers to do the cleanup and I’ve done a few of these [clean-ups] in the mangroves and in the river. It is such a visceral experience. It is not just the volume of the trash and the plastic [that surprised me], but also how deeply ingrained in the soil the plastic already is. There is no way you can manually pick some of the plastic pieces up, and the soil is hence contaminated. And by cleaning it up, we are only scratching the surface of the plastic mess that we have created. 

It is easy to blame plastic producers, but consumers are buying [plastic products] too. There won’t be supply [of plastics] if there is no demand. I think it needs to be tackled from both ends. Businesses need to reduce or find alternatives [to plastic] but consumers also need to demand for these changes. 

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