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Walking the Talk
As Tourism Returns to Pre-Pandemic Levels, This Hotel Chain Aims to Take Conscious Travel to New Heights

Naumi Hotels is raising the bar for eco-tourism with its holistic, conscious model — which includes repurposing existing buildings, incorporating living elements and providing employment for low-income women in India.

The world is moving again. After COVID-enforced lockdowns forced us all to stay home, international tourism is showing strong signs of recovery — traveller numbers have hit almost 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the first seven months of 2022, as governments lifted restrictions. Around 474 million tourists travelled abroad during this period, compared to just 175 million in the same months of 2021. Europe saw the most people holidaymaking, accounting for 65 percent of tourist arrivals.

But while the tourism industry brings back hope and opportunity for people everywhere, “several challenges remain, from geopolitical to economic,” says Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization. “Now is the time to rethink tourism — where it is going and how it impacts people and planet.”

COVID gave many industries time to pause, reflect and consider new ways of doing things — not least in the hard-hit hospitality sector. It is no wonder that as leisure travel bounces back, eco-tourism looks set to take off. The industry was valued globally at $181.1 billion in 2019. Today, it is forecast to jump more than 14 percent by 2027, to reach $333.8 billion.

Hoteliers and tour operators have traditionally promoted “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education” (as the International Ecotourism Society puts it). The challenge for the sector today is delivering a sharp focus on sustainability without asking customers to compromise on all the other desired aspects of travel — from design aesthetic and comfort to culinary delights and exquisite service.

One company focused on raising the bar in eco-tourism is Singapore-based Naumi Hotels (pronounced, ‘know me’). Run by husband-and-wife duo Gaurang (CEO) and Arshiya (Environmental, Social and Governance Manager) Jhunjhnuwala, Naumi bills itself as a boutique hotel group whose brand is “synonymous with whimsical spaces, imaginative micro-experiences, bespoke services and prime locality.” It already has hotels in Singapore; Sydney, Australia; and Auckland and Queenstown in New Zealand, with another venue set to open in Wellington before the end of 2022.

A graduate of Babson College in the US, Gaurang has combined his business acumen and marketing agency background with a life-long passion for architecture and design to create what he hopes are unique guest experiences.

Arshiya is another US graduate. After her studies, she returned to her native Mumbai to work at a school supporting children from low-income backgrounds. She also set up a non-profit to work with homeless communities, focusing on employment support and alleviating food insecurity. Then, three years ago, she moved to Singapore to start working with Naumi — and really move the needle in addressing sustainability issues for the company.

“I was always interested in the social aspect of things, but Singapore really helped me see the other side — the impact of hotels in terms of waste and carbon,” she tells Sustainable Brands®.

Gaurang is equally excited about the potential for Naumi to raise standards for sustainable, consciously designed travel properties. He points to the company’s flagship property in Singapore — a hotel with a façade covered in green foliage, which has reduced the overall heating capacity of the building. Eco-tourism is “in vogue,” he admits — “but it needs to be done in a holistic manner, so that it’s not your only USP.”

At the heart of Naumi’s sustainability ethos is its commitment to reusing and repurposing existing buildings, rather than developing hotels from scratch.

“All of my hotels were previously trading hotels that we stripped down to the bare bones and really tried to showcase what the hotel could be,” he says. “We use the nuances of each building and come up with a design that guests love.”

So, how do you create places that people feel good about staying in — and want to come back to again and again? Gaurang says it’s all about making his guests grin because of the color, fun, life and whimsy.

“My hotels are like siblings. They are from the same gene pool, but each has its different personalities. So, we embrace where each is located — understanding what the building once was and what it could be; that’s really important.”

In ensuring Naumi’s hotels are not “cookie-cutter” places to stay, Arshiya and her team fill each of the guest rooms with a range of sustainable products — from tote bags to slippers.

“Our slippers are made of tree bark and take 60 days to decompose. We’re making mini bar treats from artisanal creators in the Philippines,” she says. The terry-towelling robe, a mainstay of traditional hotel rooms, has given way to a lighter, more colorful version — made by women from Indian slums using upcycled waste fabrics from saris.

“All our amenities are zero plastic, we only have reusable water bottles, and we have large soap dispensers instead of the tiny plastic ones. So, we try and avoid waste as much as possible,” she adds.

Supporting local communities is close to the couple’s hearts as they look to help break the poverty gap by empowering vulnerable women and children, in particular. To date, the company’s philanthropy is providing 250 children in New Zealand with food each school day and supporting the distribution and improved nutrition of 100,000 meals in India — improving food security for up to 13,000 children. And the products stocked in its hotel rooms have helped to double the income of 30 Indian women.

“With our products, guests know what Naumi is about — that we are a brand that believes in sustainability. To create social impact, our products are made by women from low-income communities in developing countries; and our guests have an option to buy these products.”

The duo is also encouraging, upskilling and improving livelihoods for women through bursaries and internships.

“We’re giving employment to people that wouldn't naturally get it; we’re showcasing their products in our hotel — and they receive the revenue through our charity partners. When a woman is employed, it increases the household income of any family and she gets to make better choices for her children, for her parents and for herself,” Arshiya adds.

So, what does the future hold for Naumi? Well, once the 62-room Wellington hotel is up and running, Gaurang will continue his search for suitable disused buildings to join his portfolio. The ambition is to add “two or three” hotels per year.

And he hopes customers will want to come and stay with Naumi — not only because of the firm’s purpose-led ethos and business model, but also because its hotels are amazing places to hang out.

“COVID changed things a lot. It has given everybody a heightened sensitivity to the environment and taking care of spaces. People are definitely much more aware.”