Behind the luxury accommodation, azure waters and dancing palm trees, one Maldivian resort – Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru – is working hard to ensure guests will enjoy this unique destination for generations to come. By Nick Walton
It’s rather easy to forget all the hard work that goes into building and maintaining a resort in a setting like the Maldives. Guests are mesmerised by powder white sandy beaches and turquoise lagoons, but the more delicate the destination, the more sensitive resorts like Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, a pint-sized retreat a quick speed boat from the international airport, need to do so as not to negatively impact their paradisal surrounds.
Banyan Tree, as a brand, has always strived to put more into the environments in which it operates than it takes out, and in the Maldives, where the sibling brands Banyan Tree and Angsana operate three resorts, much of that attention is focused on the waters that wreath the archipelago’s tiny atolls. Banyan Tree’s environmental focus in the Maldives is on coral bleaching, reef restoration, and the monitoring of shark populations as part of the country’s National Plan of Action for the Management of Sharks following its ban on shark fisheries.
“Banyan Tree built the first resort-based marine lab in the Maldives, back in 2004, first on Vabbinfaru and later on Velavaru in 2007,” says Steve Newman PhD, group director of Conservation for Banyan Tree. “These both support our conservation efforts with interdisciplinary multicultural teams but also focus on conservation, restoration, education and research.” He says the brand and its marine lab teams have developed a research programme that informs conservation, restoration and education programmes, while also measuring the success of those efforts. “In turn, findings from our research are shared with government to assist in local management of coral reefs and shark populations.”
Travellers fly from around the world to snorkel and dive on the reef systems of the Maldives but the effects of El Nino and climate change have meant that in some parts of the nation 90 percent of the coral formations have been affected. “The biggest concern recently has been the bleaching and subsequent coral mortality experienced in 2016,” says Newman. “We implemented a coral bleaching management plan in 2016, and have a well-established reef restoration programme, including coral nurseries and transplanting to assist natural recovery of the reefs.”
Guests can get in on the action with reef nursery activities and weekly reef clean-ups as part of Banyan Tree’s innovative Citizen Science initiative, which gives guests of all ages and experience the chance to learn about the island’s marine environment and key specifications and collect data – using photographic underwater check sheets – that support the brand’s conservation efforts.
Eyes are not only on the seas but also in the skies. “We’re also concerned about long term island erosion,” says Newman. In response, the team was the first to use drones to 3D map the island from the sky, so the team can better understand change in sand volume and island persistence. The island has been mapped every month with GPS since 2004 and by drone since 2016.
One of the group’s newest initiatives, founded in 2018, is the Plastic Free Banyan Tree pledge. While many hospitality brands are trying to limit – if not completely cut out – single use plastics, doing so in the Maldives, where resorts are far from suppliers and subject to high logistics cost, is truly ambitious.
“We have pledged to reduce and ultimately eliminate all single-use plastic in Banyan Tree properties around the world,” says Newman. “This is particularly pertinent to the properties in the Maldives, with plastic accounting for almost 90 percent of marine debris.” The group is in the process of benchmarking its plastic use and phasing out single use plastics at all three properties so the next time you dive into the Indian Ocean you’ll only see what Mother Nature intended.