Best practices for sustainable tourism from one of the most eco-friendly private paradises on Earth.
When you’re asked to picture paradise in your head, the scene probably involves pristine white sand beaches, turquoise water and palm trees swaying gently in the breeze. Tetiaroa, a small private island in French Polynesia, comes very close to this vision of heaven on earth. The island was purchased by veteran Hollywood star Marlon Brando in the 1960s. In 1999, Brando connected with an environmentalist who had experience building sustainable luxury resorts in the region. Brando wanted to construct a carbon-neutral and self-sustaining resort that still offered guests an elevated level of luxury, with a focus on biodiversity and natural resources. Enter The Brando, which became a reality in 2014, a decade after Brando’s death.
The resort combines luxury and sustainability, through seawater air conditioning, coconut oil generators and solar panels, amongst many others. We spoke with Boris Kopec, Sustainable Development Coordinator at The Brando, to find out more about this unique hotel in the middle of paradise.
On the photo: Boris Kopec, Sustainable Development Coördinator
Why is sustainable ecotourism important for your brand?
The Polynesian islands have this glimpse of paradise on earth. Our first and only goal is to protect this paradise - both in terms of nature and culture. If we adapt the definition of Sustainable Development to Sustainable Tourism, it would be answering the needs of the tourists of today, without compromising the tourists of tomorrow. Any activity has an impact on the economy, society, the environment, or culture. Tourism has an impact too. Our vision is to minimize these impacts while offering the chance to discover our island, and maintain the beauty and wealth of this place. Working with Straw by Straw is an example of what we can do to minimize the impact on the environment: removing single use plastic, as straws are at the top of the list of plastic object found in the ocean nowadays.
What is the inspiration for the business?
I would say that today, tourism needs to be more than just offering a hotel experience like renting a bed for a night. People need more than that when they go on vacation. In the 70s and 80s, the model was based on 3S (sea, sand and sun). We want our guests to understand that tourism can be a useful part of protection and conservation. Fees for a night can go towards a project run by scientists, which might help in the future. In the 80s, people wanted to just get a tan and drink cocktails, but now they’re looking for an experience. They need memories. There is also an element of people wanting to feel - not guilt free exactly - but conscious. By coming to our hotel, guests can experience everything: excursions on the lagoon and on the island, and taking part in nature tours. We want to give them comfort and luxury as well as focusing on sustainability.
Okay, so you’re offering a taste of both worlds to your guests. Could you walk us through your attitudes to sustainability, and tell us what measures The Brando has in place to promote sustainability?
To give you an example, we have different water loops. We use non-drinking water to flush the toilets and to wash the linen. We use recycled water to irrigate ornamental plants in the resort. We produce our own water using the reverse osmosis technology. So it's like desalination - which means we use ocean water to produce fresh water. For the last year and a half, the water I’ve been drinking is ocean water. It's really amazing.
Another example is the materials we used to build this hotel. Iron wood is used for building, and we’re at 95% LED for the lights. As I mentioned, we have different water loops of drinking- and non-drinking water, and a Sea Water Air Conditioning System. The fact that we’ve been integrating into the environment was part of the idea to get certified for our building construction. We are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified - which is the highest distinction.
When our guests do the Green Tour with me, they realized how sustainable the hotel is. The energy, the buildings, the projects we run, the lifestyle. I can see in their eyes how conscious they become for the rest of their stay among us. I explain to them that the hotel is perfectly integrated into its environment and this is why, even from the plane when they arrived, they do not see the building, hidden in the middle of the coconut trees.
Your hotel operates Green Tours to give guests a look into the ways you promote sustainability. Do you think sustainability is a big draw for your guests? Is it hypocritical to fly all the way across the world to French Polynesia to stay in an eco resort?
I know that it looks controversial. But I would say that mankind has always travelled - for thousands and thousands of years! If it wasn't for religion, it was for business. If it wasn't for business, it was for war. We will never be able to stop people from travelling and they will always be on the move. What we can do is focus on reducing the negative effects on the environment so people can compensate for their travel in a small way. I live in French Polynesia, but my family's in France, so it’s hard for me to say “I moved to French Polynesia and I will never go back to France because of this environment issues”. I know that people are starting to naturally make better decisions, you know: they decide to take the train or to stay in their country. But we should also find other solutions to the effects of travel.
The Brando is situated on the island of Tetiaroa in French Polynesia, so obviously there isn’t much else around. What challenges does the geographic location of the hotel pose for sustainability efforts? How do you get around these obstacles?
To give you an idea, we have a pipe reaching one kilometer deep into the ocean, to get to where the water has a temperature of 4 degrees. This four degrees water in the Pacific Ocean lets us cool the entire air conditioning system of the resort. So we use solar energy to provide us with electricity, and deep sea water to cool the resort. In using these methods, we reduce the impact on the environment by 90% when compared to another air conditioning system.
Tell me about the non-profit your hotel is involved with: the Tetiaroa Society. Why is this important for you?
We support the Tetiaroa Society nonprofit organization logistically, which is based on the same island as us. They host scientists, students and volunteers and their own different projects [all based around sustainability]. To give you an idea right now, we’re in the green sea turtle season. We have volunteers from an association called Te Mana o Te Moana (the Spirit of the Ocean) [which is different from Tetiaroa Society] coming here for five or six months, and then we'll be monitoring data on green sea turtles, including their eggs and how many hatch per season. By doing that, we recognise the fact that the green sea turtle is really important in French Polynesia, and needs protecting. The more we study them, the more we can understand them and protect them. That’s just one of the projects.
What responsibility do you think hotels have in terms of the environment?
There are two parts to it. We obviously work with Straw by Straw, and we offer the guests water bottles with the Brando logo as well as bikes. During their stay, they won’t be using any plastic for the week they’re with us, they’ll be using eco-friendly sunscreen, and they’ll be made aware of how they can continue to live sustainably when they’re home. In turn, we see our staff participate: they sort their own recycling in the village, and understand how we power the villas with our own energy. After being in paradise, people realise just how beautiful this planet is! And that attitude continues when they go home and decide they don’t want to use plastic bottles anymore. It’s all about educating people. We have guests here who go on snorkelling tours and who ask to take bread to feed the fish. They say that’s what they did in Bora Bora - but I never saw a bakery down in the ocean!
We have guests here who go on snorkelling tours and who ask to take bread to feed the fish. They say that’s what they did in Bora Bora - but I never saw a bakery down in the ocean!
If you’re from a city like Paris or Amsterdam or London, you haven’t seen many of these animals in the wild before. Our guests haven’t seen whales or dolphins out in the wild. They don’t know how to recognise turtle breeds by the shape of their marks in the sand, and they don’t know that when they use flippers in the sea whilst swimming or snorkelling, the sediment and sand moves, and the coral is unable to survive. All of these subjects are explored during guests’ stay here at the Brando, and at the end of their trip, they know how to take better care of the environment. And then on the CSR side: we have suppliers, and we have third parties. We have guests, employees and suppliers - all these people gravitating like satellites around the Brando. The Brando has an economic impact, of course, and also a social impact and an environmental impact. It is our responsibility and our mission to measures these impacts and improve ( with good social impact) or minimize them (when it comes to environment impact).
What is your message for other hotels that want to get more involved in sustainability?
Trust in people, I would say! I’m doing something with my staff this week as it is the European Week for Waste Reduction to show them new sustainable products that are out there, to make sure they know about them. I'm pretty sure most of them don't know that girls can use sustainable makeup remover wipes, or that people can use sustainable deodorant. We have Green Tours that we offer guests, and we also make sure that every new member of staff who arrives at the hotel takes part too, learning all about the environmental issues connected to the hotel.
Oh, that’s really interesting! What’s the thinking behind that?
For us, in the employee village, it’s important that people know you can stop thinking on an individual level, and start thinking on a collective level. You raise awareness of a new way of thinking amongst one group of people, and that sets off a new wave for the future that they then pass down to their kids and future generations. So what can other hotels do? It starts with the staff, making sure they receive information, training and incentives, and then that dissipates down to the guests as well.
It’s important that people know you can stop thinking on an individual level, and start thinking on a collective level.