‘Being sustainable costs more’

Samit Sawhny, Managing Director, Barefoot Resorts India, feels it is unfortunate that the market for sustainability remains a marginal one

Two decades back, in 2002, Barefoot Resorts commenced operations with the mission of incubating tourism initially in the Andaman Islands and then in other remote and beautiful locations of the country. To achieve this, it was necessary to tackle demand and supply side issues simultaneously. In the first few years, Barefoot didn’t just set up a resort to house guests in but also a Destination Management Company (DMC) to look after ground logistics, an adventure sports and eco tours entity for scuba diving and other activities. It also became a charter flight operator, linking Thailand and Port Blair to address connectivity issues.

However, the birth of Barefoot Resorts took place when IIM graduate Samit Sawhny, who had worked with EY, arrived at Havelock in 2001 as a backpacker and got blown away by the sheer beauty of the place – dense green rainforest, crystal clear sea and powder white sand. And he stayed on. Today, 20 years later, Barefoot at Havelock Resort comprises 31 elegantly designed, island-inspired tents, cottages and villas complete with spacious interiors and modern amenities. It is the first and only eco-friendly resort in the Andaman Islands. The rooms at Barefoot at Havelock Resort have been constructed using renewable materials such as cane, thatch and wood and are built on stilts to let the runoff after the rains take its natural course back into the sea. 

Sharing more about the sustainability efforts at Barefoot Resorts, Samit Sawhny, Managing Director, Barefoot Resorts and Leisure India, says, “We set ourselves out to be sustainable by design. Key initiatives we took include growing an endemic rainforest on campus, being water-independent and self-sufficient, constructing all buildings with natural materials, high rate of local employment and materials sourcing. Then we also got into zero single use plastics, recycling and environment cleaning initiatives, scientific and practical measures for waste treatment and waste management including use of livestock in the process. We ensured no interference with local wildlife including allowing resort land to be used as a corridor by not using artificial materials for pathways nor introduced species of exotic plants for landscaping, minimal and muted lighting at night to minimise disturbance to nocturnal birds and other creatures etc.”

For Sawhny, the biggest challenge that remains is the one that was always there: Being sustainable costs more than not being sustainable. “In some cases, being sustainable means eschewing certain luxuries. However, while a potential guest will be quick to commend an organisation for sustainability, when it comes to spending their own money on holiday, most potential guests choose tangible luxury infrastructure over a sustainability product. The challenge is on the demand side. It is unfortunate that the market for sustainability remains a marginal one and that social good is not valued as part of most guests cost-benefit equation,” he explains.

To keep tourism sustainable, Sawhny says that a single resort can only have a limited impact. “Sustainability starts at the destination level and it is only through a Master Plan process for each tourist location that sustainability can be achieved. In the interim, industry bodies can make a difference as can pressure from guests. Hopefully, the younger generation of travellers will put more pressure on tourism service providers to be genuinely sustainable. At the moment, as the demand side is weak, the supply side has no incentive towards sustainability and the regulatory side (which is the only other avenue in the absence of demand-supply solving the problem) is largely absent from the conversation,” he explains.

On being a part of the hospitality industry, Sawhny feels that it has been a constant and ever-changing challenge. “In the last two decades, we have witnessed the shifting sands of technology as every few years the means and media to reach our customers have undergone a sea change and the need to learn, forget and relearn is now a constant. It seems as if every other year, there is a new challenge and the hospitality industry is particularly susceptible to external factors. Through it all, however, the capability to improvise and reinvent has been a determinant of success – and survival,” he observes.

Expressing his views on the scope for growth in India’s hospitality sector and how to reach out to newer audiences and target new sectors in the domestic travel sector, Sawhny says, “Post-lockdown revenge tourism has shown us the scale of the domestic market and the vast appetite for travel and experiences. It has shown travellers the value and need for these experiences.” He adds that with an expanding economy, growth in the industry is a given. “Having seen the spending power of Indian travellers who, pre-pandemic, had chosen to mostly travel abroad, a key task for the hospitality sector is to retain a proportion of their travel spend domestically, post-pandemic. There is no short cut, and only quality of product and experiences can enable this,” he says.

Whereas the world talks about living life in the ‘new normal’, the founder of Barefoot Resorts strongly feels that there will be no ‘new normal’. “Everyone wants a return to the ‘old normal’ aka normal. We lived through a ‘temporary abnormal’ (lockdowns) and now an ‘interim normal’ when we have most of our freedoms back except a few, including, in large part, the freedom to travel abroad. Once the normal returns (as it will), beyond a temporary readjustment period, people will behave mostly as they did before. Beyond considering Indian destinations for a few short breaks, and extended patronage for a few “gems” discovered during the pandemic, I don’t see a large-scale shift in mind-set to eschew international destinations in favour of domestic destinations, going forward,” feels Sawhny.

“The scale of domestic market and propensity to travel is itself increasing rapidly and is a huge positive. So the trend of increased demand for holidays is here to stay and the trend of choosing domestic over international is an artificial construct which will return to equilibrium,” he adds.

The coming year, discloses Sawhny, will witness Barefoot Resorts adding a new property on South Andaman Island and also expansion of its menu of experiences across the archipelago. “In the medium term, there is an upgrade and expansion planned for our flagship resort, besides which, we are now structured to explore growth through the management contract route and are open to discussions with small resorts in unique locations who require our expertise in project design, operations and our help to reach a wider audience,” he concludes. 

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BW HOTELIER MAY-JUNE 2022'


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