Based in Cape Town and with 15 luxury lodges and camps across six regions and four African countries, HOTELS asked Singita Founder Luke Bailes for his thoughts about the global hotel industry, macro-economic trends, his favorite hotel moments, what he does to balance his work and personal life, and he refused to answer them. All he wanted to talk about was Singita’s role as an ecotourism and conservation brand working to preserve Africa’s wilderness for the past 26-plus years. He has no time for platitudes as he is singularly committed to Singita’s purpose and sharing his ideas on what he considers a desperate environmental situation looking increasingly bleak. Considering the current state of affairs, his message should resonate even further.
Singita’s revenue from a customer base of high net worth individuals is used to buy and rehabilitate land to house and protect wildlife, for anti-poaching efforts and community development projects, as well as to improve local environmental conditions. “There’s an authenticity of place at each of our lodges that is not only a rarity but touches guests on every level – spiritual, emotional and physical,” Bailes said during an early March interview.
But for now, with the COVID-19 crisis, Singita has new challenges. “We have been severely impacted financially due to many countries locking down, closing borders and grounding flights – resulting in almost no travel whatsoever,” Bailes said in early May. “Our large-scale community and conservation initiatives on all of our properties throughout Africa are vital to the wellbeing of our neighboring communities and indeed ecosystems where we are situated. We are committed to keeping these going and are working incredibly hard to do so. Our model is dependent on hospitality revenue and donations to ensure that the projects our partner funds and trusts undertake are carried out and new ones are embarked upon. This is proving to be very difficult for us at the moment.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is putting conservation under enormous pressure. Africa’s wildlife is gravely at risk if ecotourism stops funding conservation work. If tourism collapses, the ripple effect could threaten to wipe out decades of proactive conservation work on the continent. In the current climate, communities are most affected and the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases. For this reason, we encourage our guests to postpone travel to 2021 to ensure the ongoing protection of pristine areas under our care. At Singita, our long-term approach to conservation has always taken 50- and even 100-year horizons into account, and our resolve to preserve and protect large areas of African wilderness for future generations is stronger than ever.”
In partnership with non-profit Funds & Trusts who implement strategic conservation projects in each region, Singita’s 100-year purpose is to protect and preserve large areas of African wilderness for future generations. Its conservation model is centered around three core pillars: biodiversity, community and sustainability. “Every decision we make is governed by our purpose and this has been in place since the very beginning,” Bailes said. “In fact, we feel it’s more relevant now than ever. We see no reason to change. We do face different challenges at times, but we are single-mindedly committed to our purpose – our reason for being.”
Singita, meaning ‘Place of Miracles’ in the Shangaan language, manages and supports almost one million hectares of land, conserving everything from lions and elephants to hippos and rhinoceros. It all started when Bailes, fascinated by his family’s plot of land in Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa, grew to love the wildlife that roamed there. He launched the luxury brand in 1993 with Singita Ebony Lodge on a piece of the family land.
Today, with Africa’s exploding population expected to hit 4.4 billion by the end of the century (40% of world population), the animal population is increasingly declining – 60% over the past four decades. Bailes’ crusade is to save as many as he can by creating stories and experiences that inspires greater conservation and environmentalism.
Among his more recent undertakings: the acquisition of 170 acres of land near Volcanoes National Park, where mountain gorillas live in the forest, and where Singita is reforesting to create even more habitat.
Walk the walk
Among the topics Bailes was willing to discuss is his worry about the ecological state of the planet and what role Singita can play? “I’m desperately worried. We are in a dire situation, that looks increasingly bleak,” he said. “In Africa, we’ve lost 60% of our animals in 40 years and it’s been forecast that 1 million species could face extinction in the next 20 years. The hotel industry, and Singita, should highlight this at every opportunity and become role models and fine examples of how to live sustainability. Singita is an example of how to run a luxury ecotourism business of this size, while minimizing our impact on the land. This holds true in cities and in rural areas.”
Of course, Singita sites are in remote areas and therefore completely responsible for power and water generation, waste management, employing and buying locally and using local building materials, among other things. Successes and improvements are measured each year as Singita has been a subscriber to One Planet Living standards since 2012.
“I’ve realized that a lot of the people in our industry don’t subscribe or don’t have to subscribe to those stringent standards,” Bailes said. “But to me, if you’re really serious about this, at every single touch point, you have to consider the ramifications of your actions… You really must walk the walk. You can’t just talk it.”
Bailes added, “I’m pretty scornful about that. My strong recommendation is if people don’t really start taking this seriously and do it, and have good examples, and stop the greenwashing, they are going to be exposed, ultimately. No doubt about it. And guests won’t support them.”
Bailes quickly points to the likes of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who recently said the company is only going to invest in companies that are sustainably oriented. “You saw Amazon’s Jeff Bezos allocating US$10 billion to climate change and Bill Gates just announced his foundation is going to change its focus, first and foremost, to climate change. So, this is now really getting traction, which makes us so happy.”
When asked if he is optimistic about the greater hotel industry’s effort to put sustainability at center stage, Bailes said he was not. “In general terms it’s moving too slowly,” he said. “And we really are up against it. I mean we’re in a race against time. I think it’ll come, but I’m worried it comes too little too late.”
Singita is continually evaluating opportunities to expand into areas that need protection and preservation. “It is our goal to expand our footprint and increase our impact,” Bailes said. “For example, in Rwanda, where we opened last year, we have embarked on an ambitious reforestation plan to expand the natural habitat of endangered mountain gorillas, by planting trees, shrubs and saplings, and plan to reforest over 500 acres over the next few years.”