Meet Melita Koulmandas, Sustainable Travel Pioneer and CEO of Song Saa Private Island



We highlight a Game Changer who inspires, educates and celebrates individuality, beauty and style. This month, meet Melita Koulmandas, a sustainable travel pioneer and CEO and founder of Song Saa Private Island, off the coast of Cambodia.

What was it about Cambodia and Song Saa in particular that you were so drawn to?

I moved to Cambodia in 2004. I have a very adventurous spirit and I love visiting remote destinations, and I was captured by the essence of Cambodia in the people, the energy and the vibrancy. But back then Cambodia was very much still waking up after the Khmer Rouge, and it is a country, even to this day, that’s in healing. 70 percent of the population were under the age of 30 back then, so it had this really young, dynamic spirit. There was so much positivity, which was something that I think that was in contradiction to what probably people felt about the country at that time.

I had just spent two weeks circumnavigating the Koh Rong archipelago, and it was pristine and the water was crystal clear. We’d stop outside of the beaches and park overnight and sleep on the fishing boat, and monkeys would come down to the water’s edge. It was just an extraordinary experience.

Why does it matter for people to experience Cambodia?

I think that Cambodia is an incredibly special place, and though it sits between its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam and Laos—three countries that have very long histories and are well defined in terms of tourism—Cambodia is still working out who it is. So anyone who visits Cambodia always walks away with a sense that they have had a real, human connection with it. It doesn’t matter if they’re visiting the temples of Angkor Wat or going through Phnom Penh or coming down to the coast—there’s always this unique experience of real connection that you get when you come to Cambodia. Cambodia has its own essence, its own sense of place, and its own history.

How is Song Saa’s approach to sustainability and community programmes unique compared to developments of a similar nature?

Because we started off with building community projects, with no vision at that point to open a hotel, we have designed and created a hotel experience for our guests where that is woven in from Day One, as opposed to designing and opening a hotel and making that fit into the hotel. which is very much what
regenerative tourism development design is all about. So we look at the living system and how we can operate within that and help to enhance these systems. The work that we do is through the nonprofit Song Saa Foundation, which is its own entity. If the hotel shut down tomorrow, the foundation would continue to operate, so the programmes that we work with aren’t there because it makes the hotel feel good. They’re there because that is what we need, so everything is community-driven.

Would you say responsibility and luxury are, by their very nature, in opposition? Can they coexist?

I believe they can coexist. To start with, I think we have to understand what the definition of luxury is in this context, and it’s really evolved in the past few years. We don’t use the word “luxury” and haven’t for a while, we talk about high-end or responsible tourism. Coming into a country like Cambodia, even if that travelling is at a high-end level, by just connecting to the people and the culture, it brings empathy and
awareness that they take home with them. Where the high-end traveller can really bring a lot of change is that they really want to understand the history and the place where they’re at, and they then often donate to the programmes that we have, so there’s that transference of awareness and support.

What are your thoughts on the changing landscape of sustainability-minded tourism in recent years, especially in Southeast Asia, and consumer expectations and how they’ve evolved?

I think they’ve evolved enormously. I think there is a greater awareness for most people, and that there is a real shift away from the tourists of 20 or 30 years ago. People now identify as travellers, and they want to have that experience and connection. Traditionally, back then people used to stay in the big hotels,
where they would step into and then they would be transported back into a cocoon. And now people want to feel, connect, learn and grow, and that’s incredibly special.

This article was first seen on Grazia.Sg

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