Interview with Anthony Wong, Group Managing Director, Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel, AOS Conventions & Events, Frangipani Hotels & Resorts, Frangipani Natural Farms, Eco Green Design & Construction and Construction Wetland.
PRECIS: In this interview, Anthony Wong talks about:
his background in tourism;
his background in eco-tourism;
what qualifies as a “green” hotel;
fears about overtourism;
his efforts to educate others about eco-concepts;
development of his hotel, the frangipani Hotel & Resort;
planning & roadmap for the future.
Anthony Wong is one of Malaysia’s pioneer inbound tour operators, working adventure tours from the 1970’s. We asked him how he got into the business.
When I left high school, I didn’t have money to go to university, so at the age of 19, I started a travel company, Asia Overland. I had an Australian partner, American partner and a Malaysian partner, and for five years we did South-East Asia overland: Bangkok to Bali overland, Burma, Sulawesi and Sumatra. Tourism was little known at that time, when I started. There was no Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry of Tourism was started in ’86. It was a very tough journey, so five years into the adventure, the partners left, and I began concentrating on Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo, rather than selling the rest of South East Asia. You can’t do everything. So, I started as a tour operator, and we were the pioneers in nature and eco-tourism, although in those days it wasn’t known as eco-tourism. I started home-stay, and national park and nature tours, including 4-wheel drive, white water rafting, rock climbing, hot air balloons, bicycle tours, and so on. This year we have launched “the road to Saigon”, a journey of luxury vintage cars, owned by a British company. Three years ago, we had the Royal family of Selangor joining in a similar trip. From nature incentive tours, we got into congresses. We do most of the big congresses in the country. In the 80’s I got into the hotel business, investing in a hotel in Langkawi in 1991, as well as a lodge outside of Kuala Lumpur, then selling the Langkawi property three years later. We came back to Langkawi in 2005, buying back our old hotel, upgraded, and I told my staff, “I’m going to make it the greenest hotel in the world”.
How do you qualify a hotel as “green”?
It starts with lead certification. In Malaysia, we only started a green building index in 2009. We started with 25 ways to save energy and water and recycle waste, now we have 250. Three years ago, the ASEAN green hotel event was held here. It was the first such event in ASEAN, and people agreed at that time this was the greenest hotel. Most green hotels have 20 or 30 criteria, but here there are over 200 documented ways! We have our own chickens, ducks, fish and vegetables. This year we are embarking on showing the locals how to do hydroponic farming using recycled elements, in order to sell food to restaurants and hotels. We are also working on a small island called Pulau Tuba, because that island has been somewhat neglected. There are 6,000 people living there. We are going to start restoring the main road, and all the food from Tuba, the fresh fish, the crab, the handicrafts and so on, we will sell here on the main island of Langkawi, because they otherwise have no access to market. Most food today is not organic, coming from Thailand, Indonesia, or the Cameron Highlands. So, we are talking about less CO2. We are not only teaching the local community, every week we also have classes for schools. I am actually on the UNESCO board on sustainability, and I have been teaching for over 20 years all over the region, from Australia and New Zealand to Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. The whole region needs to understand and work together.
Many people think it’s very expensive to build a green hotel, and I say, “No, it may cost you 5-10% more, but you will obtain savings of 15-30%. Here, on average, we save 20%, so I am able to reward my staff after three months with the savings. That’s why here I have three full-time environment officers. Most other hotels don’t even have one.
After a number of years, I realised we weren’t doing anything to help the farmers and fishermen. So that’s why I am starting an organic farm school, to teach them, so they can provide food for the tourism industry. We have about three and a half million tourists a year visiting the islands, and we don’t have any waste going out. We even treat our raw sewage to drinking standard using water plants and microbes on non-constructible land. This is part of what we teach to architects and engineers. There are a lot of things that can be done to save water through design. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and very simple. It is just a lot of common sense. Today, the issue of energy and water wastage is one of the key principles of the UN’s sustainability charter. Hotels have more waste than virtually any other industry. So you can do a lot of saving: energy, water, waste, and produce your own food on site. When you produce your own food on site, you save a lot of CO2. Now we are working on bees. We have nine bee hives on site, with stingless bees. We continue to learn and grow, and whatever we learn here, we pass on and teach to the local community, so they can do something similar. We are also teaching other hotel operators what needs to be done. This year, I am running four courses for hotels through the Malaysian Hotel Owners’ Association, of which I am the secretary. It’s a practical course, covering engineering, architecture, and also landscaping. For example, with the latter, when we took over the frangipani resort 13 years ago, only 10% of the greenery you see today was here. 90% of this is new growth. But it’s not easy to grow on sand. Normally you cannot grow on sand, because it does not hold water, but we have developed a way to grow on sand. And now we are teaching others how to do it. We grow a lot of our own food here. Last year we harvested three tons of organic mango. We even have our own mulberry trees from which we make tea.
What are your thoughts about over-tourism and how to overcome this?
It’s a double-edged sword. Politicians always like to have numbers. Here we are sitting on quite a big property, but I only have 115 villas, so my prices are high. This is one way of getting the turnover without having excessive numbers. So, while the politicians want to look at numbers, we hotel operators look at human resources. Too many people means poor services. We have an issue of human resources here. Having big numbers doesn’t necessarily mean the country is doing well. Sometimes a big number doesn’t mean a good return for the local community. Luckily, we don’t have full-board holidays, because then the local restaurants out there don’t benefit. We have around three and a half million tourists and the local population is around 100,000. It’s seasonal, so we have time to rest a bit. But I totally agree that too many tourists would upset the local community, who could start to run short of water and energy, and have traffic issues. We have not reached that level in Langkawi. Hopefully we will not have those kinds of issues!
You just bought some extra land next to the hotel and will be developing there. Please tell us more.
We will be replacing some old buildings with new ones. All new buildings will have flat roofs with organic gardens on them. We are currently only doing a half a million litres of rainwater hours, so we have a big water tank – I have 125 four-thousand litre tanks. The new buildings will probably harvest two million litres, and we are including the storage in the building itself so as not to have talks everywhere. Of course, it will all be solar hot water and electricity. For the moment we only have a small roof area for this, because we have a lot of trees, and it has to be away from the trees. In the long term, the cost of energy will keep going up. Water will keep going up. And there will be not enough water because climate change will increasingly be affecting us. And sometimes it’s the little things that count. For example, we harvest all our air-con water from the compressor. You get eight to ten litres of water a day from each compressor, and there are 115 rooms. March through June is dry season on the island, but last year we had seven months of dry season, so it is very important to collect water.
So, it’s important for people to plan now…
That’s why we have to show people how to grow organic rice on their rooftops. We can show them that they can grow three times more paddy with this system than another way. This is the new system from Madagascar called SRI system of rice intensification. It requires 80% less water, 70% less seed, and no chemicals. Traditional wet rice, you flood the rice field by six or eight inches, but now it’s only half an inch. But wet three days, dry seven days. The soil cracks, so the microbes in the roots, aerobic and anaerobic, will work. They take nitrogen from the air, converting it to nitrates. The root system is twice the size of the normal rice, and it produces twice to three times as much seed from the paddy. It’s all organic, and we use ducks as part of the ecosystem.
Are you members of any other environmental organisations?
I am a member of the Malaysian Nature Society, of the World Wildlife Fund, the Malaysian Green Building Confederation, of the Environmental Research Association. So quite a number of “green” associations.
What’s your “roadmap” for this place?
In the next three to five years, this will be the greenest hotel in the world. We will; be collecting making bio-gas, from waste food and human waste, and the liquid from this process will go to my organic farm on the rooftop. This property will be a best-case example and a green hotel school. I believe in the future, when people go on holiday, they will want to have a healthy holiday. They will want to have real organic food. I believe we should share what we learn and more people can benefit, because they just don’t understand that it can be done, and they think it’s very expensive. So we show them how to do it with a small school here and a bigger one in Kuala Lumpur. It’s called the Frangipani Organic Farm School.
I am launching a website called “Sustainable Langkawi”, and I am also getting all the NGOs on board. We will do crowdfunding to raise funds, so they can do all their NGO activities. Projects will be entirely self-funded, with no assistance requested from the government.