Southeast Asia has been a part of my life for decades.
As an owner of Kingsley Bate I first came to Indonesia in 1986, where I lived and worked for many years. In the early 1990’s as our teak furniture business became quite successful, I began visiting Myanmar in order to research the price of their highly regarded teak wood. Once I arrived in country I discovered that their focus was not so much on building and marketing high-end furniture, but rather on simply exporting their beautiful teak logs. Their lack of a “downstream” business model surprised me, as did their policy of harvesting teak from ancient forests rather than growing commercial teak on plantations, as they did in Indonesia.
At the same time, I was taken by the beauty of the country and by the genuine nature of its people, who have endured many hardships since colonial occupation, war, and decades of poverty. And I found an immediate rapport with many members of the Forestry Department, who were enthusiastic about new ways to do business.
My involvement in Myanmar and my special feeling for its people has evolved over more than 25 years.
After much negotiation I started a furniture factory, convincing the government that focusing on downstream industries would keep their teak cutting sustainable, while creating jobs in Myanmar and earning more money.
Starting from scratch, over eight years our Myanmar business became quite successful, eventually employing more than 300 Burmese workers in three different factories and shipping beautiful teak furniture to the international marketplace. Many in the forest department saw our success and agreed with the idea of stopping the export of forest-grown teak logs, although due to increased internal pressure, the money earned from exporting those teak logs still determined national policy.
We eventually lost our furniture business in Myanmar due to increased US sanctions on the Burmese government.
When American sanctions on the Burmese government were announced in 2001 I was forced to close our factory operations in a short period of time.
Regrettably, I had to let go all of my well-trained employees, including several talented Burmese who were moving into positions of business management.
This did not significantly hurt our company’s overall business operations but I never forgot my friends in Myanmar, or the feeling of how much good we had been able to do before I was forced to leave.
Returning to Myanmar and deciding to develop the Wa Ale Resort.
In 2009 I returned to Myanmar as an adviser to Senator Jim Webb’s historic trip that began a renewal of US – Myanmar relations. During this visit I met with
some of my former contacts in the Forestry Department to discuss how we might again work together. I was grateful to learn that some of the gentlemen I worked with in the 1990’s had pushed through a new law banning teak log exports from Myanmar, as we had discussed years before. They asked if I would like to invest in a new furniture factory. I declined, stating that my motivation was less about teak and more about how much I had fallen in love with their country and wanted to continue my involvement.
They told me they were also looking into Eco tourism, and had several places they would tender for projects. The idea of investing in and developing an eco tourism resort which was directly related to a charitable foundation excited me, not only for the opportunity to again do business in Myanmar but also to show my own children the importance of responsible business. I visited several of the sites they had earmarked and immediately fell in love with the location – and the potential future – of the Wa Ale project.
I really wanted to do this, to again be connected with the Burmese people, for the ecological contributions I might make, for the creative unknowns of this uncharted business model, and for the lessons I could provide to my own children.
A date was given for the tender offer. I myself as well as four other companies submitted offers. I won the open tender even against large Burmese corporate interests. The deal was completely above board and showed the Forest Department’s desire for new ideas and for conservation in protected areas.
A Unique Visitor Experience: The Wa Ale Resort!
Winning this tender gave me a special obligation. The Wa Ale Resort is located in a National Marine Park, but the Forestry Department does not have the funding to ensure adequate protection of natural resources in the areas surrounding a resort project of our potential size and sophistication. And thus it falls upon the revenues of our resort and Foundation to fund conservation efforts, protection of the Park and aid to local fishing villages. There was another challenge. At the outset our project was supposed to be simply a camp located in a unique ecological wilderness, but as I began developing the resort I was captivated by its larger potential. Being in the design and furniture business, rather than erecting a simple camp I only wanted the best quality construction. Remaining true to my word to the Forest Department, I built the entire project using the utmost environmental standards – in the parlance, Wa Ale was built completely green. I used no heavy machinery, not even barges. I preserved all of the coral reef that surrounds the island.
Over three years of development a great deal of money was spent on every aspect of conservation. These careful investments were not coming from any profits of the resort since we only opened four months ago. But they represent the intentions and the legacy of this unique environmental paradise. Wa Ale Island Resort is a business which was built by hand with reclaimed materials and which left a minimal footprint on the environment. We are proud of this. But it is also a vehicle to produce income for conservation, charity and entrepreneurship, especially with women in local communities. We have pledged 20% of all profits and 2% of our room revenue to fund these projects.
In the past three years we have put more than 8,000 baby sea turtles into the ocean. We have built and supplied a medical clinic for local inhabitants in a
nearby fishing village. We have funded a new business for a local midwife in the village. We have rebuilt the local school in the village and supply it every six
months with new school supplies. We have bought a new patrol boat so that the Forestry Department can patrol and stop illegal fishing in the Lampi Marine National Park.
The Lampi Foundation has financed all of these projects, prior to any profits
being earned from the resort itself.
The Wa Ale Resort is a unique, unforgettable place. Frankly, I do not know anyplace else in the world that can offer such a combination of unspoiled natural
beauty, an insistence on ecological purity, and an absolutely first-class visiting experience for those who visit. And for me it is the ideal result of nearly thirty years of involvement with the beauty of Myanmar and with the gracious, simple elegance of its people.
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