DESTINATIONS OF THE FUTUREOcean

Tides of Change: How James McBride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Tides of Change: How James McBride Created an Island Eco ParadiseThis article is a part of Destinations of the Future – OCEAN partnership with Robb Report UK

James McBride, renowned in the hospitality industry for his 25-year career, has notably led The Grosvenor House in London and The Carlyle in New York and managed Rosewood’s Caribbean Resorts. In 2012, he transitioned into entrepreneurship with Christopher Burch, acquiring Nihiwatu, a surf spot on Sumba, an Indonesian island. Today, NIHI Sumba, celebrated for its accolades, embodies sustainability and philanthropy, focusing on preserving Sumba’s culture and empowering its local communities.

Q. What inspired you to work in travel and tourism? Was this an early aspiration?

A.

Growing up in South Africa, I was drawn to hospitality from my teenage years. This industry is more of a calling than a mere vocation. It demands being a “people person”—someone inherently committed to guest satisfaction and passionate about service. The best hoteliers are curious, open-minded, and enthusiastic about connecting with others.

Q. What do you think led you to the conception of NIHI Sumba?

A.

Christopher Burch first convinced me to travel with him to Sumba in 2012, seeking a hotelier’s perspective on a resort he had experienced and considered for potential purchase. This resort was Nihiwatu, beautifully situated on Nihiwatu Beach, which translates to “mortar stone.” The island’s untouched natural beauty immediately struck a chord with me. As a South African, I found a sense of familiarity here; it echoed my homeland’s tropical and community-centric ambiance, yet it was uniquely Asian. The tribal nature of the Sumbanese people and their distinct culture offered a vivid contrast to Bali, despite being just an hour’s flight away. We realised substantial investment was necessary to elevate Nihiwatu to its full potential. This place, truly “the edge of wildness,” felt like a discovery unlike any other.

Q. Can you detail the transformations made to Nihiwatu after its purchase by Chris Burch?

A.

Chris’s purchase of Nihiwatu and a subsequent investment of over $30 million completely transformed the resort. We expanded the number of villas, each featuring a private swimming pool, and added a new multi-villa estate. Significant additions also included a beachfront infinity pool, the Nihioka spa, Sandalwood riding stables, a chocolate factory, an enhanced boathouse and water sports centre, and several unique dining options like Ombak Restaurant and Nio Beach Club. Our approach was deeply rooted in sensitivity, ensuring every enhancement integrated locally sourced Indonesian design elements. This was crucial to maintaining authenticity and a strong sense of place. The use of local timbers and craftsmanship, ikat fabrics, beach restaurants, and vernacular architecture are all true to Sumba’s cultural and architectural heritage.

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Q. Why did you decide to rename the resort to NIHI Sumba, and what future plans do you have for the NIHI brand?

A.

Chris and I decided to shorten the name to NIHI Sumba to reflect our broader vision. We plan to open other NIHI hotels in similarly “edge of wildness” destinations, each designed to live up to or even surpass the incredible experience we’ve crafted on Sumba Island. This renaming signifies our commitment to creating a distinct brand identity synonymous with unique, uncharted luxury experiences.

Q. What do you believe makes NIHI Sumba an irresistible destination for guests?

A.

The allure of NIHI Sumba is uniquely captivating and profound. It’s not just a destination; it becomes a part of you. Many guests find that once they experience its magic, they feel an irresistible pull to return. This is evident in the growing number of guests who discover NIHI and choose to return annually, a testament to its status as an unspoiled paradise. NIHI offers unparalleled freedom and a new kind of luxury, one that’s deeply rooted in the authentic and untouched beauty of its location.

Q. What qualities make NIHI Sumba and the island itself stand out as idyllic destinations?

A.

NIHI Sumba breaks the mould of conventional luxury resorts. Being under a single, visionary owner allowed us the freedom to create something extraordinary. NIHI exudes a laid-back luxury that immediately sets our guests at ease. It’s slightly off-grid and a touch wild, and its natural beauty rivals that of any luxury resort globally. Moreover, NIHI offers a plethora of activities. Guests can tailor their experiences, but some unmissable ones include the “Spa Safari,” with its half or full day of unlimited spa treatments in a secluded bale, a day of spearfishing with our guides, or’swimming with horses’. These are just a few of the unique, ‘pinch-me’ moments that define a stay at NIHI.

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Q. How does the culture of the Sumbanese community impact and influence NIHI Sumba? Also, how do you encourage guests to immerse themselves in the local culture?

A.

At NIHI, the heritage, culture, stories, and people of Sumba are central to our ethos. The architecture, with its thatched, cone-shaped rooflines, vibrant Sumbanese colours, ikat fabrics, and local carvings, embodies a strong sense of place. We facilitate visits to local villages, supporting artisans and craftspeople, ensuring guests authentically experience Sumba’s unique culture. Most of our staff are Sumbanese, embodying the heart and soul of NIHI. Their pride and warmth leave lasting impressions on our guests. The Sumba Foundation, our philanthropic arm, is integral to NIHI’s DNA, reinvesting profits into local schools and health clinics and supporting the island and its people.

Q. Can you tell us about the significance of horses at NIHI Sumba?

A.

The Sumbanese horses are a defining feature of life at NIHI. Witnessing them run along Nihiwatu Beach is a daily spectacle. The Sandalwood stables house our Sumbanese horses, who, after grazing on a hill, parade majestically down the beach for exercise and cooling. This sight, though practical for the horses, has become a phenomenal and much-loved spectacle for our guests, offering a unique and picturesque experience.

Q. What key sustainable measures have you implemented to give back to the community and help the environment?

A.

NIHI is the largest local employer on Sumba Island, playing a pivotal role in the community. Our focus is on local engagement, exemplified by our local market, where Sumbanese sell their goods, and our collaboration with the Sumba Hospitality Foundation School. We take pride in our workforce, with 90% being Sumbanese, reflecting our commitment to improving local lives and families. Our actions are intertwined with the community, aiming to hire as many locals as possible.

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Q. Could you elaborate on the Sumba Foundation and its role in your operations?

A.

The Sumba Foundation has been a cornerstone since Nihiwatu’s inception. Founded in 2001 by Claude Graves and Sean Downs, it became a key element of our vision when Christopher Burch and I took over in 2012. Under our stewardship, the Foundation has grown significantly, focusing on eradicating malaria and malnutrition and providing clean water. During COVID, our efforts were concentrated on food provision and catering to the islanders’ needs. The Foundation’s ethos is central to NIHI and is a significant reason guests return, offering their children exposure to impactful and meaningful experiences.

Q. What is the importance of wellness and health at NIHI Sumba?

A.

Wellness and health are integral to NIHI’s culture, approached with a sense of adventure rather than rigid discipline. We offer diverse activities, from yoga at our scenic pavilion to equine therapy and the unique NIHI Spa Safari. Our ‘Wild Wellness’ concept combines health with adventure, allowing guests to choose their journey to the Spa Safari, located on the private peninsula of Nihioka. This remote location offers plunge pools, open fires, lush fields, and treatment villas with stunning sea views. The experience is about surrendering to the moment and enjoying the adventure, making it ideal for everyone, especially couples and honeymooners seeking privacy and uniqueness. At NIHI, we embody the ethos: “Be Wild. Be Free. Be Well.”

Q. NIHI Sumba has been awarded the world’s best hotel by Travel & Leisure. Was there a pivotal moment before this award when you realised the impact you were creating for vacationers and locals on the island? 

A.

Achieving the level of Travel + Leisure’s Best Hotel in the World required foresight and overcoming many obstacles, but the raw authenticity and beauty of NIHI were always evident. The resort’s location on 2.5 miles of pristine beach, featuring Occy’s Left, a world-renowned wave, fueled our passion. The integral role of the Sumbanese culture in our guest experience significantly contributed to our recognition. They are the reason we touch hearts and often change people’s worldviews. NIHI is a transformative place; guests leave differently than they arrived.

Q. Not only are you the CEO of the world’s best hotel, but you’ve also found your calling as a shaman. How has this journey influenced the future of NIHI Sumba?

A.

While I don’t consider myself a Shaman in the traditional sense, if it means serving culture and community, then it resonates with me. The future of NIHI Sumba and future NIHI resorts will always centre on serving local communities. We aim to immerse our guests in these communities, impacting their understanding of the world and humanity. This approach has proven to be impactful for our guests.

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Q. What have been the biggest challenges in creating a resort on a remote Indonesian island?

A.

Initially, the fear of the unknown was immense as we introduced NIHI and Sumba to the world. While gaining exposure has eased some challenges, our geographical remoteness remains an obstacle. Early days were tough with supply chain issues, training a local team, and limited access. Overcoming challenges in infrastructure, logistics, and accessibility was key. Now, NIHI operates smoothly, thanks to innovative solutions for creating the NIHI experience.

Q. What criteria do you use when choosing a location for your resorts?

A.

Our criteria focus on stunning beauty and a touch of wildness. Engaging with local communities is vital. The Sumbanese people, our biggest asset, are ingrained in NIHI’s DNA. Their pride and connection make them special. The Spa Safari is another unique NIHI experience, involving a scenic trek to a remote spa paradise with unlimited treatments. The Sumba Foundation, driven by our owner, Chris Burch, is integral, with future NIHI resorts also having local philanthropic associations.

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise

Q. What do you believe is the future for luxury resorts?

A.

In our post-Covid world, travel is thriving. Luxury resorts must offer authenticity and a strong sense of place. Guests seek immersive experiences. NIHI Sumba’s interiors, authentically Indonesian with local art and crafts, set a standard for future luxury resorts. This authentic character is essential to impressing discerning travellers.

Q. What advice would you give to your younger self?

A.

Stay focused, curious, and have fun. Work hard and be professional, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoying your work is crucial; passion and enjoyment translate into better performance, rather than working solely for prestige or remuneration.

Q. What advice would you offer to someone aiming to create a positive impact within their business?

A.

Action speaks louder than words. Lead by example, prioritise others, and give back to the community. These principles should be core to your business, not just promotional material. A genuine commitment to these values is key.

by Hershey Gargash, Founder and Editor at WAWW

Tides of Change How James Mcbride Created an Island Eco Paradise