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Rory & Melita Hunter of Song Saa

Rory & Melita Hunter of Song Saa

Rory & Melita Hunters are the founders of both Song Saa Private Island & its charitable foundation the Song Saa Foundation. We talk to them about their philanthropic and environmental work in the Koh Rong Archipelago, Cambodia since they pioneered this unique and beautiful hideaway.

 

RoryMelita001What was the inspiration behind Song Saa?

In 2005, a two week exploration of the remote Koh Rong Archipelago in southwest Cambodia led us to two twin islands known as Song Saa – Khmer for the Sweethearts. We completely fell in love with the land, water and local communities of the Archipelago – a utopia of turquoise waters and pure white sand beaches, brimming with virgin rainforests and waterfalls.  As we began to look deeper however, we were shaken to see the consequences human activity was beginning to have on this heavenly environment.  In 2008, when we began building Song Saa Private Island, central to our vision was a deep respect for the environment and the archipelago’s people, combined with a belief that as private operators we have an important role to play in the preservation of these magnificent isles. Rapidly we discovered that the resort project wasn’t an isolated development, it was very much intrinsically linked to the environment and the people that live out here, allowing us to go on and do something that wasn’t just a commercial project, but one which also had major philanthropic components.

 

You are the first luxury island in Cambodia, was it difficult being the pioneers of this area?

Cambodia is an incredibly unique destination. The horrendous political situation in the 70s and 80s meant that it was relatively undiscovered in comparison to neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam, so it was very exciting to go in as the first private island resort and really help to establish Cambodia on the luxury travel map. Becoming the first to develop a private island in Cambodia brought us the opportunity but also the responsibility to set a benchmark in sustainable development and pave the way for future developers that might follow suit.

 

What makes this part of the world and Song Saa so unique? (ie. Everything from biodiversity to architecture)

The Koh Rong Archipelago is a beautiful part of the world, with clear turquoise waters and pristine white sand. It’s uniquely undiscovered for the area – whilst much of the Gulf of Thailand has seen the arrival of huge resorts and heavy development, Koh Rong had just been overlooked.

The waters surrounding the islands boast incredible biodiversity and the diving is sublime. We started the work to establish Cambodia’s first private marine reserve back in 2010, and with the help of funding from partners such as Prince Albert of Monaco and FFI, this is being expanded to form a multiple use Marine Protected Area (MPA), designed to benefit local fishing communities, marine life and the responsible sustainable development of an area. The lush jungle is also home to hugely diverse wildlife, including many different species of bird.

We’d also say that Song Saa is unique in its closeness to the local community. They have supported us – and we have supported them – every step of the way, and this has created a very strong bond between the resort and the local villages. The Song Saa Foundation was created in 2013 to foster this relationship and ensure that the resort continues to work to benefit the local people.

 RoryMelita002

What drove you to make Song Saa an eco island?

We’re both very passionate about sustainability and the important of preserving the local environment. When we first arrived at Koh Rong, it was so upsetting to see fishing boats left to rot in the waters and a lack of awareness of the importance of conservation. We knew from the outset that Song Saa would be a very different development – one which preserved the natural environment and worked with local communities to raise awareness of conservation.

We made a huge effort to use local and sustainable materials wherever we can without compromising on quality and comfort. For example, all of the floors in the villas are made of old recycled housing materials from Thailand and Cambodia, and the work stations are made from century-old Cambodian beds. We created beautiful panelled art using the fishing boats that were once left to rot in the sea. This theme of repurposing runs throughout and the resort, contributing to the unique décor at the same time as protecting the environment.

 

Why do you feel it is so important an eco property in travel today?

There are many examples around the world of luxury resorts which paid little heed to protecting and conserving the natural environment. We were determined that Song Saa would be different. Discerning travellers want to know that destinations like Song Saa are mindful of their impact on the environment, as well as providing positive outcomes for the local community. Adopting sustainable practices was always going to be top of our agenda. It’s luxury with a conscience and we believe the two can go hand in hand to create something truly special.

RoryMelita003

Tell us about the founding of the Song Saa Foundation?

In September 2013, we launched the Song Saa Foundation to manage a range of environmental and community initiatives in the Archipelago. The islands had been somewhat forgotten and as such suffered from a range of issues, including little access to education, limited livelihood opportunities, poor nutrition, lack of access to medical care and limited infrastructure. The work of the Foundation focuses on three main areas: people, land and sea.

 

What are some of the conservation initiatives around the island?

One of the first projects undertaken by the Song Saa Foundation was the establishment of Cambodia’s first protected marine reserve, which saw steady recovery of fish stocks and corals in the region. Since then, the reserve has expanded, and we have also trialled artificial reefs as a rehabilitation option for damaged coral reef systems.

The Foundation works to educate local communities on the importance of nurturing the land, from creating composting toilet facilities to growing organic, seasonal produce.

The Boat of Hope aims to provide much-needed educational support by transforming a Cambodian fishing vessel into a mobile teaching and learning centre which can take its sustainability message out across the Archipelago and beyond. The current medical outreach programme also sees international medical students travelling out to the remote villages of the archipelago to provide vital medical and healthcare every year.

Our Journeys of Change programme was introduced in 2014. The programme sees the proceeds of three four-night villa stays per month from May to October donated directly to the foundation. This initiative takes place every year.

During their stay, guests are invited to participate in the work of the Foundation or learn more during their visit with the help of a Foundation Ambassador.

Such Journeys go beyond existing socially conscious and luxury travel experiences in Cambodia to offer something that is completely transformational for both locals and visitors. We hope that those who venture on these trips will leave and carry with them a legacy, through the connections that they make and what they leave behind.

RoryMelita004

You also are involved in a lot of community work on Koh Rong?

Yes, the Song Saa Foundation works to promote the well-being of the Archipelago’s land systems to achieve its conservation goals for this region. This includes working with authorities, landowners and local people to promote the protection and restoration of mangroves and tropical rainforests.

The Foundation also works alongside local villages across a variety of areas including education, community, health, waste management and livelihood activities to build a sustainable future for the villagers of the Archipelago.

 

What do you feel are the most important aspects of working with the local community?

Working with the communities from a needs first approach. We are not there to tell them to do things our way but we are there to listen and provide tools, funding and expertise in areas in which they need. We want to empower them and help them with a roadmap to a fruitful future for the generations to come.

 

Tell us about your plans for the future Song Saa destinations we can look forward to.

We’re always open to new ideas and projects, and the next few years are shaping up to be very exciting in this regard. Any future projects will retain the Song Saa focus on emerging destinations and fragile environments – both within Cambodia and elsewhere – with the same model of environmental protection, social responsibility and world-class luxury.

 

For more information: www.songsaafoundation.org

 
 
© 2014 The Eco Gypsy - Ethical Exploration.
   


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