Nikoi Island: Sustainable Haven

Nikoi Island offers tranquil equatorial coral reefs, white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, a rainforest and an astonishing variety of sea and land wildlife to its lucky visitors. Even more attractive it runs as sustainably as possible, with no vehicles, aircon, TV or imported building materials where possible. Best of all it’s a mere two-plus hours from the bustling centre of Singapore. By James Teo.

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Singapore, 6 May 2019. Nikoi Island, situated 8km off Bintan Island in Indonesia, came from the vision of a group of friends led by Australian expat Andrew Dixon, who shared a passion for the outdoors, nature, good food and wine. Disenchanted with the usual holiday accommodation within easy reach of Singapore – either flea-ridden shacks or opulently garish five-star hotels – they decided to try to make their own vision reality.

The group and long-time inhabitant of nearby Bintan Island, Peter Timmer, decided to look for something different. They found it.

“It was hard to believe (this) piece of paradise could remain untouched” - Andrew Dixon

“It was hard to believe (this) piece of paradise could remain untouched” - Andrew Dixon

“We hired a tiny boat for the day, and saw Nikoi in the distance and couldn’t resist the temptation to explore it,” said Dixon in a recent interview. On their first trip there, they were astonished by Nikoi’s pristine beaches, reefs, rock formations and rainforest. “It was hard to believe a piece of paradise could remain uninhabited and untouched a mere 80km from Singapore,” he added. The bonus was there were no inhabitants - only signs of past occupants and that the island had been farmed for coconuts.

Today, Nikoi offers cultural sensitivity, vernacular design and simple luxuries unheard of elsewhere in the region. The design of the buildings blends local materials and large chunks of driftwood to create graceful chalets that intertwine with the natural environment. And the original peace and tranquillity is jealously guarded.

Once the group had successfully purchased the hidden jewel, Timmer started work on the construction of resort buildings in January 2005. His unique designs include using a double vaulted roof that promotes airflow and removes any need for air-conditioning. Handcrafted from driftwood with vernacular ‘alang alang’ grass roofs, the one, two and three bedroom beach houses on stilts all offer upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms and balconies to maximise sea views and catch cooling sea breezes. The 5ha site means Nikoi can cope with up to 60 visitors at any one time – groups reportedly love its intimate yet isolated ambience which appeals to families wanting a special weekend escape as well as couples seeking romance, tranquillity and seclusion.

The area around Nikoi is part of the Sunda shelf, hence the seabed is relatively shallow. The strong tidal flows encourage the growth of soft coral that attracts many schools of fish and giant pelagic like sharks or mantas as well as turtles, stingrays, seahorses, cuttlefish, batfish, octopus, sweet lips and unusual species of starfish.

“An important aspect of Nikoi’s approach to responsible tourism has been to ensure that we not only help to protect the environment, but where possible to restore it,” says the island management. “From the outset, building and operating Nikoi along strict sustainable principles has been at the forefront of plans for the island.”

In pursuit of this goal, Nikoi was built with local materials, labour and services and is also operated by local staff. The staff are majority local people, not imported expats. The food and supplies are almost all sourced locally, through local markets and small traders and avoiding the middle man where possible. This benefits the local community and guests alike with the provision of local, fresh non-processed organic produce.

Local staff are used everywhere. Courtesy Nikoi.

Local staff are used everywhere. Courtesy Nikoi.

And the resort tries to recycle, reuse or upcycle everything, adds Dixon. “We use second hand machinery wherever possible rather than buy new unnecessarily. All recyclable waste (glass, aluminium and paper) is returned to Bintan where it is sold or given to local collectors,” he says. “Food waste is composted where possible. Sewerage waste is treated in aerobic and anaerobic septic systems.“

All of the Nikoi staff apart from a GM and Marine Conservationist are Indonesian. Indeed, many started working with Nikoi during construction and have gone on to learn new skills to work in front of house roles. This has seen local islanders trained as baristas; rock climbing, sailing, windsurfing and tennis instructors; scuba divers, cooks; first aiders and oenologists. As a result, this approach has meant many important new trades and skills have been transferred to Nikoi’s contractors and staff. Also, say the managers, Nikoi has very high staff retention.

Solar is used for lighting and heating power supply. Courtesy Nikoi.

Solar is used for lighting and heating power supply. Courtesy Nikoi.

Construction of all buildings saw minimal use of cement, plastic, paint, glass and other man made materials. All of the furniture and the carpentry on Nikoi has been completed on site, much of it from collected driftwood. Wherever practical the wood is left unfinished or oiled with traditional oils and waxes. Solar hot water systems provide hot water and low consumption LED lighting is used in all buildings.

But Nikoi isn’t just a luxury getaway for the benefit of the wealthy Singapore escapist crowd; far from it. The resort says it is committed to sustainability through a holistic balance of 4Cs: Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce.

The community aspect is underpinned by the establishment of The Island Foundation (TIF). TIF works with the local community on Bintan and neighbouring islands to help the local people improve their situation and potential, through education and the provision of opportunity. Initially the focus of the Foundation’s efforts was the creation of libraries, but his has grown to become an International Charitable Organisation registered in Singapore, operating out of 8 Learning Centres, from which it delivers an education program with the aim of transforming education for the local Riau island communities. 

Today, hundreds of local children have been registered for English language and IT programs, and older villagers have been helped to develop original artisanal products which can be sold to produce outside income from tourists that visit the area.