As Aqua Expeditions extends our exclusive collaboration combining a four-night Aqua Blu nautical exploration of Komodo National Park culminating with three magical nights in eco-luxury resort NIHI Sumba, we sit down with NIHI’s CEO and Partner James McBride to find out how NIHI Sumba’s success has become a yardstick of sustainable and responsible luxury in the hospitality world.
The title of ‘Independent Hotelier of the World’ looks good on James McBride, Partner and CEO of NIHI. Yet to hear him speak about NIHI, the luxury hotel brand he shares with veteran retailer and investor Chris Burch, it is less about the accolades than it is about the experience.
Charting a meteoric rise from his early days in a hotel school in Johannesburg, to opening over 20 hotels around the world for Ritz Carlton, he has worked with some of the most recognizable names in the hospitality – Ritz Carlton LLC, The Grosvenor House, The Carlyle Hotel/Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, YTL before finally taking the plunge with his own version and vision of what true luxury means. But how exactly did a far-flung island in the middle of nowhere come to be known as the epitome of luxury?
To be fair, McBride did not imagine the level of success that NIHI Sumba has garnered. He had been searching for a feeling, a sense of peace that can only be found in a space like his home landscape of Africa, or in extremely remote places. It is the paradox of being grounded to the roots, yet also of freedom, in line with Burch’s wish for a place to share with his children, and the opportunity to exercise hospitality-centric humanitarian efforts. The latter is now evidenced in The Sumba Foundation’s work in eradicating malaria, as well as providing water supply and education to the island’s community.
NIHI Sumba’s cornerstone is its ‘Edge of Wildness’ philosophy which plays on its very remote location while connecting with the spiritual and philanthropic nature of its experience. In an age of connectivity yet social distancing, this has come to resonate even more because of NIHI’s power of space. It is this power that connects to the true soul of Sumba’s unspoiled nature that still provides the security of one’s personal space, allowing for the choice of interconnectedness with the rest of the world and fellow guests.
A Natural Fit
Combining an exclusive Aqua Blu voyage with iconic NIHI hospitality taps into this very spirit of untamed and authentic experiences, showcasing the wonders of Indonesia beyond Bali. This incredibly special partnership offers a holistic guest experience that merges the most unique adventures on land and sea with the highest levels of luxury, service, and customization – whether it is hiking Padar island’s rugged landscape for iconic sunrise views over Flores, sunset swims with Sumba’s horses, discovering Moyo island’s teeming wildlife and secret waterfall, diving among manta rays in the world-famous Gili Lawah, or paddleboarding down Wanukaka river. It is more than merely a vacation, but a glimpse into a bygone era, centuries of rituals, with unlimited freedom to explore.
Both brands share a commitment to protect the natural environments and support local communities in which they operate. Aboard Aqua Blu, Aqua Expeditions advocates wildlife and marine conservation and education with The Manta Trust, as well as by building upon sustainable operations, using eco-friendly products onboard, technological advancements in waste management, and rethinking F&B supply chains. Aqua also helps support the local economy by employing staff from the community, contributing to social projects which enriches the guest experience and allows a deeper understanding of the local culture and their challenges.
McBride’s own idea of a perfect day at NIHI Sumba underlines the freedom and vibrancy the island provides. “It is waking up and hiking into the spa safari, having a breakfast cooked on the fire at NihiOka Tree House. It is visiting the waterfall in the afternoon, engaging with the Sumbanese people when on their daily activities, a sunset walk on the beach, and then relaxing next to the fire again and dancing on the bar – it is about fun, engaging with the other guests, meeting new people, and sharing new experiences.”
He states his surprise at the cult success of NIHI Sumba and its role as a luxury hospitality yardstick because luxury means so many things to different people. At NIHI luxury is defined by quality time; by experiencing a location and a community that can inspire to better oneself; to enjoy the opportunity to be philanthropic and participate in something bigger than the self. “We are obviously overwhelmed, most grateful, and humbled for our success of which we put down to the beauty of Sumba and the Sumbanese people. Besides, it was what the world was looking for at that time and we certainly wanted to be extraordinary otherwise we would not have done it. It is always special when it happens though we still have a lot of work to do. We learn every day and continue learning about our customers’ needs and behavior and success is all about evolution and we constantly must involve.”
Evolution is a common theme when speaking with McBride, with the human experience as the key. Throughout his years in the industry, he has been called extraordinarily creative and incredibly detailed, with his work being the subject of a Harvard Business School case study and many other courses. McBride remains humble, offering his take on it as boiling down to simplicity and creativity, as well as the beauty of the idea’s execution.
Expect the Unexpected
Within this lies the element of the unexpected. One such example is the NihiOka Spa Safari, a journey of exploration that is tailored to indulge each one of the senses. The day begins just after sunrise with a 90-minute optional trek through rolling hills, expansive rice fields, and a traditional Sumbanese village before arriving at a cantilevered platform over a private natural cove where breakfast is served, after which guests are led to their private cliffside bale for a swim and array of spa treatments. But it is the ‘wishing hand’ – a breathtaking lookout point in the shape of a hand, where guests are invited to pause, take in the dramatic ocean views and make a wish which makes it an unforgettable stop on the trek to NihiOka Spa.
“I was trying to add the unexpected to the experiences: the unexpected is NihiOka Spa Safari; the unexpected is the wishing hand – it is when guests will embark on a journey and totally be surprised because it is nothing they have experienced before. It is not because of physical structure: it is because of creativity; it is because of simplicity. If you look at the wishing hand, it is one of the simplest things that we have but it brings extraordinary joy. NihiOka Spa Safari is fundamentally a breakdown of what all spas try and create in the world and we can do it because we are blessed with a lot of real estate. However, you must execute the vision and execution is everything. It is the simplicity and the beauty of that execution that makes a difference and I think, in reflecting on putting a room at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in 1999 during the Asian financial crisis, it has all been about risk-taking and creativity. The risk-taking is a big part of it because if you do not try, you will never know and fortunately a lot of the things we have tried have been successful.”
Less is More
It is true that when one visits an island as magical as Sumba, less is certainly more. The resort offers only 33 villas across 200 hectares, but there are over 400 employees, 95 percent of which are local Sumbanese, who represent the beating heart of the experience. The resort itself was designed to be respectfully immersive in the Sumbanese culture and location’s geography. All the villas mirror the way the local Sumbanese houses are built in structure, features, and materials; their names coming from local jewels or trees with important healing properties.
“They are chic, beautiful in proportion and size, the spacious bathrooms designed with the concept of bringing the outdoors into an otherwise private space. The experiences were created to expose our guests to the beauty of Sumba without being intrusive. Everything is very luxurious, but not opulent and completely appropriate for what they need to be,” explains McBride.
Indeed, it is this ‘appropriateness’ that underscores NIHI’s core vision of sharing and supporting the authenticity of Sumbanese beauty, culture, and traditions. “It is all about Sumba, the Sumbanese people, their history, and traditions,” emphasizes McBride. “I make the point of seeing the elderly head of the tribes every time I am at NIHI, chewing some betel nuts with them, playing with the children. I am very privileged to listen to their amazing stories which inspire me and the team to trust our Sumbanese staff will share their daily habits and traditions with our guests. The resort itself is in its architecture, textiles, while the rituals enactments enforce the support to the local cultural traditions.”
It is fair to say that none who have visited NIHI Sumba ever leave without being impacted by the local community, often referred to by guests as their ‘Sumba Family’. McBride says of the connection, “There is always so much joy when our guests are reunited with their Sumbanese friends. Some of our guests have developed a remarkably close relationship and the regular guests are certainly returning to rekindle that friendship every year. There are so many stories of how our guests have been profoundly impacted by the Sumbanese people. Magical.”
McBride himself is not immune to the charms of the Sumbanese, revealing how he is constantly reminded of what makes them so special. “When I was in lockdown there for three months, I came to further learn the humility of the people, their gratefulness for what they were receiving which brought me to explore a new meaning of humility, appreciating what really matters in life. A big reminder not to take things for granted.”
Spirit of Sumba
But there is a different part of the Sumbanese population that has put NIHI Sumba on the map. It would be hard-pressed to find any account of the NIHI experience without a mention of its most famous element and important commodity – horses. If the Sumbanese are the heart and soul of NIHI Sumba, then the horses of Sumba are surely its spirit. As an aficionado of horse-riding and polo-playing, it was almost immediate for McBride to match the beauty and wildness of NIHI with the beauty and wildness of the horses, who are integral to the island’s culture.
It all started during the construction phase at NIHI, when he met Carol Sharpe, wife to Greg Coventry, who was overseeing the project. James and Chris had acquired a horse from one of their Sumba properties, whom Carol offered to look after. From there, they started buying and rescuing more and more ponies with Carol creating Sandalwood, NIHI’s equine centre. She trained the horses and Sumbanese staff so well that NIHI ended up hosting four British Polo Day events, going on to develop the incredibly powerful equine connectivity and swimming with horses experience. As some of the most shared images on NIHI’s Instagram, which boasts over 265,000 followers, the rest, as they say, is history.
Not all resorts can boast of such evocative experiences, but there is a lesson to be learnt in the way NIHI has created a compelling success story based on sustainability and responsible tourism. “The most important element is to sustain Sumba’s people by employing them, developing their skills, and allowing them in turn to support and improve their families lives,” expresses McBride. NIHI runs several other responsible initiatives, such as established commerce with local, plastic free environment, reverse osmosis, use of local materials/resources, energy conservation efforts. There are now several example in other areas of hospitality establishing these practices in a more consistent way. McBride believes that this will be the only way for a successful business and for the future of worldwide environmental conservation efforts. “A great example for us is the ‘Sumba Hospitality Foundation’, whom we work closely with. Founded by Inge De Lathauwer, it has been an infusion of young, bright, beautiful Sumbanese people.”
NIHI’s own philanthropic arm Sumba Foundation— founded by Claude Graves — has done an incredible job in improving the lives of the communities it supports. Through the extraordinary contributions of Chris Burch, all administrative costs of the Sumba Foundation have been covered. Since 2000, the foundation has been facilitating access to clean water, creating educational programs, and lessening the effects of malaria. Guests at NIHI play an active role by participating in the daily activities of the Sumba Foundation team, going to the clinics, to the schools, donating useful items, and supporting financially.
It is a blueprint he hopes to bring to future projects. Currently deep in the planning for NIHI Santo Thomas Costa Rica, a labor of love several years in the making, McBride hopes to make a significant announcement this year. “It is going to be a huge development on 1000 hectares with surfing, waterfalls and horses and polo and just 2.5 hours from Miami-an extraordinary opportunity! We are also working on multiple locations in Indonesia for expansion into Labuan Bajo on Anambas Islands, as well as a second hotel in Sumba.”
Take the path less traveled together with Aqua Blu x NIHI Sumba to experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in the remote and rugged vistas of East Indonesia. Depart from Bali aboard an Aqua Blu private charter and spend a four-night nautical exploration of the famed Komodo National Park as you sail east in understated elegance towards Sumba. Then unwind for three magical nights in five eco-luxury villas of NIHI Sumba resort, where morning dips with the island’s swimming horses are legendary, signature spa experiences abound, and the world’s most coveted private wave calls itself home.