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Pandemic pushes hotel-led charity help

The pandemic has devastated local communities across the region. Gayatri Bhaumik and Carolynne Dear find out how Asia’s hospitality industry has been stepping up.

Many hotels have reached out to their local community offering personal protection equipment to help in the fight against Covid.

The coronavirus has more or less put paid to tourism in Asia, leaving hotels and their surrounding communities reeling.

In response, many of the region’s hotel groups have redeployed their resources to where they can do the most good – their local communities.

Lockdown stories will no doubt be told for years to come and the staff of Amanbagh, a Moghul-inspired luxury hotel in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan will certainly have a tale-or-two to tell. Once a lavish hunting retreat, the property has held long ties with the surrounding community. And these ties have only been strengthened during India’s months-long lockdown. During this period, 65 members of the hotel team were unable to return home and had to live at the resort. While they have busily taken advantage of the opportunity to complete further online hospitality training, the team has also pillaged the hotel spa’s supply of calico to create face masks for local school children. Back-to-basics help has also meant heading out each day and helping the surrounding villagers gather firewood.

“It’s been incredibly tough for our hotels, their teams, and local communities,” says James Lohan, founder of Mr and Mrs Smith, a curator of luxury boutique hotels. “Thankfully, furlough schemes have helped hoteliers and their staff, but the true extent of the damage probably won’t be visible for several months, if not years.

“Hotels are often the hub of a community because so many of them employ local people,” he continues. “The pandemic has put enormous pressure on hoteliers and their staff, especially in remote locations… This is being felt everywhere, from the comparatively small boutique hotel in Morocco whose owner is dipping into personal savings to support his staff to a manager in Brazil who, because of the upkeep required at a resort that operates in very humid conditions, has to retain 50% of staff.”

“The impact has been devastating,” adds Andrew Dixon, founder of Cempedak and Nikoi Island, two private island eco-resorts in Indonesia. “The two main sources of employment in the communities around us are tourism and fishing; tourism has been badly affected and fish prices in the market have fallen due to a lack of demand, impacting local fishermen’s incomes.”

For hoteliers, the first step to providing help is figuring out what’s needed most. To this end, Avani Hua Hin Resort in Thailand has been working directly with the Thai government.

“Based on its direction about which communities require the most help, we’ve donated food and water, as well as essential supplies to communities in need,” says Matthew Fryar, general manager of the resort.

Food is one of the most basic needs for those that have been laid off or had their salaries cut.

The Anantara Siam Bangkok is giving away food twice a week to those in need and the Avani Pattaya Resort is donating the vegetables and produce grown at its on-site hydroponic farm to local communities and temples.

Potato Head in Bali founded the Wasted Wheels farming programme on hotel land.

In Bali, Ronald Akili, founder of Potato Head, realised early on that food was going to be an issue and also that the island’s strong community ties were going to be useful.

“Balinese culture is very communal, so they band together to help each other during these difficult times,” says Akili.

To help locals during the pandemic, Akili and Potato Head created Wasted Wheels, a programme which saw them turn two plots of hotel and restaurant land into syntropic farms.

“Food is the greatest need for the foreseeable future in Bali,” continues Akili. “Accessing food in Indonesia isn’t as easy as it sounds with little to no income. The beauty of Bali, however, is that the island’s connection with the land and its agricultural roots are still strong. As someone who has access to land, I feel obliged to help.”

Farming was the obvious choice, but putting the Wasted Wheels programme together wasn’t easy.

“We spent the first couple of months carrying out research and development. We decided on syntropic farming as it follows natural principles to feed people and regenerate ecosystems,” explains Akili. “Our seedlings were ready to harvest by August and produce is sold at cost to the community, it’s given to our staff and plant-based meals are distributed to the communities most in need.”

Also in Indonesia, Nihi Sumba resort already boasted plenty of green initiatives and has long assisted the local community through the Sumba Foundation.

In the wake of COVID-19, the foundation has distributed more than 1,500 food parcels, 1,000 masks, vital medical supplies and vast amounts of antibacterial soap and personal protective equipment.

Resort owner Chris Burch has personally furthered the cause by covering the foundation’s administrative costs and contributing to projects focused on health, clean water and education.

Nihi Sumba, along with the foundation, has set up a crisis relief fund of US$200,000 - a sum that will be matched by Burch - to provide much-needed medical services, testing, education and food aid.

Cempedek and Nikoi private island resorts in Indonesia have committed to a raft of conservation efforts with local communities.

The private island resorts of Cempedak and Nikoi, also in Indonesia, are deeply committed to supporting local communities and conservation efforts and the pandemic has pushed them to double-down on these efforts.

With schools in nearby Bintan island closed, the Island Foundation has become the sole source of education for many local students and staff quickly adapted their programmes for home learning.

“We surveyed families who were registered in our learning programmes and found out they needed home learning materials for ‘hard copy’ work as many of them didn’t have access to the internet,” says Dixon. “The team was quick to adapt, printing classroom materials out and dropping them off to families so children could continue to learn. As a result, attendance and participation rates have increased to higher levels than before.”

Over in Myanmar, the eco-friendly Wa Ale Resort in the Meik Archipelago supports local communities in ‘normal’ times through its Lampi Foundation, investing in local entrepreneurs and funding social projects. During the pandemic, the foundation has taken things a step further by funding medical facilities, paying teachers’ salaries and providing scholarships so that local students can study on the Burmese mainland.

In Asia’s cities, Hong Kong’s luxury hotels are also reaching out. Staff at the Mandarin Oriental donated their time to local charities who help the city’s vulnerable and less fortunate. There have been many facets to this aid, from packing anti-epidemic supplies with Oxfam Hong Kong and refurbishing donated computers for low-income students with Crossroads Foundation, to feeding the homeless in partnership with local charity ImpactHK and participating in online storytelling sessions for underprivileged children with the Hong Kong-based Bring Me a Book campaign.

Etihad's loyalty programme has provided donations of thousands of ventilators and masks for Covid patients around the world.

And the good works have not been limited to hotels. Etihad Airways' loyalty programme, Etihad Guest, and its members donated 48 million miles to support Covid-19 relief campaigns, as well as Australia's bushfires and the explosion in Beirut. A total of 23 million miles went towards buying ventilators, masks and soaps for those affected by the pandemic. In June, the programme asked members to nominate a friend to receive a gift through the 'Moments of Thoughtfulness' campaign. More than 8,000 members participated and upgrade vouchers were distributed to more than 3,000 recipients.

When things get back to ‘normal’, nobody knows. But what we do know is that post-coronavirus Asia will be a very different place to pre-pandemic times. It’s now up to all of us to support its recovery.

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