REALITY CHECK: Owning a resort on a tropical island….

I have always dreamed of travelling the world for a few years in search of the perfect beach on which to build a small ‘resort’ with maybe ten traditional bamboo bungalows. Now that we are actually following that dream, I use every opportunity to investigate how practical it would be to actually own a resort.

Staying in one place on a tropical island for three weeks provided us with a good insight into what life is really like on an island. There are some realities which one needs to deal with which are probably not apparent to the paying tourist visiting a resort. When you are virtually a staff member at a resort you have a unique opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of what it takes to keep a resort running smoothly:

  1. Virtually ALL fresh produce has to be bought on the mainland and then transported by ferry to the island. This involves the owner or manager making a full day round trip by vehicle and ferry to buy the items. The purchased items must be transported on a separate cargo ferry which arrives the following day, when someone needs to spend another half-day waiting at the port to claim the goods. Often parts of the order are missing or have been left behind on the mainland for whatever reason.
  2. Most resorts experience ongoing termite infestations, which result in constant repairs to woodwork being required at substantial cost. Because of heavy rain and storms during cyclone season wooden walkways and piers rot away or are damaged or destroyed and need constant maintenance.
  3. In order to guarantee a regular and reliable supply of water, resorts have to spend a small fortune drilling sometimes hundreds of meters into the mountainside to reach an underground water source which is then pumped often long distances to their property. Pumps can break down, filters get clogged, pipes burst…ongoing maintenance is required here as well.
  4. The electricity supply on islands is prone to sudden cuts that can damage electrical equipment. Few resorts invest in back-up generators, which leaves guests sweating in their bungalows and fridges and freezers with meat and stock defrosting.
  5. Staffing a resort is beset with challenges. Very few islanders speak anything other than the local dialect and have a very basic education. As such they are not generally employable as front of house or restaurant staff as they speak little or no English. This lack f English seems to be the most talked about issue when one chats to resort managers. They general want to pay local staff around 5000 – 6000B/month ($150 – $ 200) – and for that salary it is virtually impossible to find a sought after English-speaking waiter or receptionist. As a result of the poor communication between guests and staff there are often costly misunderstandings when ordering meals, daytrips and onward transport.
  6. Local staff, because they are poorly, paid tend to work at a laidback island pace, so the gardens of some resorts always look overgrown, maintenance is always lagging and guest expectations are not met. If you are paying $ 50 – $ 100 for a bungalow you expect a certain level of cleanliness and maintenance or you become an unhappy customer.
  7. The advent of sites such as Trip Advisor and have placed all accommodation establishments under increasing critical scrutiny. Unhappy customers who do not have their complaints dealt with quickly and efficiently can now vent their frustrations by writing negative reviews online which can be very damaging to business for resorts which ere. Once posted these reviews cannot generally be removed and stay up for 24 months.
  8. Foreign-owned or managed resorts are often the result of complicated private arrangements made between local landowners and the foreigner, as foreigners can usually not own land in most island nations. This places the foreigner in a very precarious legal position if any disputes arise with the landowner. After speaking to several foreign business owners on islands it appears that disputes are quite common, with foreigners often losing their resort or restaurant. Islanders also commonly don’t seem to get on well with foreign owners, and can sometimes be obstructive when supplying services to their resort or business.

So our stay on Koh Kood and our contact with various resort owners has made one thing very clear to us…owning a resort or a business on a tropical island is not for the feint-hearted. It is fraught with potential problems and challenges. It would make more sense to simply manage a resort than own one, and then move on when the problems become insurmountable 🙂

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Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.