Impact Tourism Handbook Case Study:

Six Senses

Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas is one of the world’s leading operators of luxury hotels, resorts, and spas, managing 18 hotels and resorts across 14 countries, plus 37 spas under the brand names Six Senses, Evason, Six Senses Spas, and Raison d’Etre. There are a further 18 hotels and resorts signed into its development pipeline. In February 2019, Six Senses became part of the IHG® (InterContinental Hotels Group) family of hotel brands. Six Senses properties share a leadership commitment to community, sustainability, wellness, and design, infused with a touch of quirkiness. Whether an exquisite island resort, mountain retreat, or urban hotel, the enduring purpose is to help people reconnect with themselves, others, and the world around them. Six Senses is at the forefront of the sustainable tourism curve, with corporate sustainability guidelines consisting of 70 standards, and a target to eliminate single use plastic from operations by 2022. Six Senses Spas offer a wide range of holistic wellness, rejuvenation, and beauty treatments administered under the guidance of expert therapists in all resorts as well as at 16 additional standalone spas. The high-tech and high-touch approach guides guests on their personal path to well-being, taking them as deep as they want to go.

When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?

From its very beginnings in 1995, Six Senses has been committed to sustainability, to the environment, and to the community. In fact, Six Senses is widely recognized as having established the initial benchmarks for the hospitality industry, showing that a leisure lifestyle could be successfully embraced by the very top tier of resorts, and actually enhance the experience by showing respect to nature and embracing local culture. Through careful consideration of the effects that operating systems, materials, and purchasing policies have on the environment, we are continually developing new initiatives and procedures to minimize our ecological impact and maximize our contribution to local communities.

Six Senses Laamu opened in 2011 and leads the way in sustainable tourism best practices in the Maldives. Since its inception the resort has worked to conserve energy, reuse water for secondary applications and to recycle waste materials onsite. Responsible purchasing means that only eco-friendly chemicals are procured for use in the operations, while food and beverage products should be produced onsite or sourced locally, and wherever possible, packaging be kept to an absolute minimum, or be reusable. Additionally, 54 percent of our staff is from the local islands— providing income to roughly 272 Maldivian households.

Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.

All Six Senses properties have a Sustainability Fund. This is 0.5 percent of total revenues and any guest donations, which is allocated towards projects that benefit local communities or ecosystems. This fund provides for all of Six Senses Laamu’s marine conservation, community development, and education work.

Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) is the team of marine biologists at Six Senses Laamu consisting of staff from the resort and its three NGO partners: Blue Marine Foundation, Manta Trust, and Olive Ridley Project. MUI inspires action through education, research, and community development, with the vision of a local and global community of marine stewards that will create a culture of positive action for our oceans in Laamu and beyond.

The Manta Trust is a UK-registered charity that coordinates global mobulid research and conservation efforts. Their mission is to conserve mobulid rays and their habitats, through research, education and collaboration. Since 2014, the Manta Trust have been working in Laamu to study the local manta ray population and to educate guests and the local community about the importance (and vulnerability) of manta rays in the Maldives.

Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) exists to combat overfishing and the destruction of biodiversity – arguably the largest problem facing the world’s oceans – by delivering practical conservation solutions, including the creation of large-scale marine reserves. Since 2016, the team has been addressing key knowledge gaps in the Maldivian grouper fishery and working with the community towards better fisheries management and improving the resilience of Laamu’s reefs.

Olive Ridley Project is on a mission to remove ghost nets (lost or discarded fishing gear) from the ocean; to rescue and rehabilitate injured sea turtles, reduce and reuse marine debris, and educate the world about the dangers of ghost nets and the perilous situation of sea turtles. Since April 2018, a sea turtle biologist has been stationed at Six Senses Laamu to study the local turtle population, monitor turtle nests on the island, and collect data on ghost nets found in and around the atoll.

There is a perception in the Maldives that seagrass and tourism cannot coexist. Purely for aesthetic reasons, this vital habitat is actively removed from resort islands. This is despite its valuable role as a carbon sink, food source, nursery habitat, sediment stabilizer, and nutrient filter that protects and maintains surrounding coral reefs. Recognizing the value of this habitat, in July 2017, Six Senses Laamu made a pledge to protect its 50,000 m2 (five hectares) of seagrass meadows. The feedback we have received from guests, who now more frequently spot feeding turtles from their villas or snorkel with eagle rays, has been overwhelmingly positive. The #ProtectMaldivesSeagrass campaign was launched on March 1, 2019 and successfully convinced 28% of resorts in the Maldives to protect more than 910,000m2 of seagrass, that’s more than 90 football pitches. The campaign was also officially endorsed by the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, proving that seagrass and tourism can in fact coexist, and leading the way for a coalition of environmentally-minded resorts in the Maldives to raise the bar for the tourism industry.

Six Senses Laamu's tourism offering and seagrass beds coexist

Laamafaru Festival is Six Senses Laamu’s annual marine festival, which began as Laamu Turtle Festival in 2016. The aim of the festival was to raise awareness about sea turtles and bring Laamu’s residents together to pledge Turtles in Laamu – Safe and Protected. We realized the need to raise awareness about the conservation of entire marine ecosystems (mangroves, seagrass, coral reefs), the services they provide, and all of the marine life that depends on them, in order to safeguard the Maldives from the negative effects of climate change. In 2019, we broadened our scope and rebranded the fourth annual festival to Laamafaru Festival, or Laamu’s Reefs Festival, with the theme Our Ocean – Safe and Protected. This community event has grown from the first ever atoll-wide turtle festival with 600 attendees in 2016 to over 1,500 from across all 11 islands in Laamu Atoll.

Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?

Positive impact tourism has definitely helped our business. Guests choose to come to Six Senses Laamu because they can be sure of our core principles of sustainability, wellness, and artisanal experiences. Many guests are repeaters of other Six Senses properties, which illustrates the loyalty to a brand that matches the growing consumer awareness of environmental and social issues. People want to support a business that is responsible in operations and one where they can feel like they are a part of the positive work being done.

Vetting Process

How do you select projects?

Sustainability funds are allocated towards projects that benefit local communities or ecosystems. Projects are selected based on whether they are in-line with Six Senses Laamu’s main objectives: Marine Conservation, Drinking Water, Plastic-Free, Waste Management, Health/Sanitation, Education, and Community Development. We are unfortunately unable to partake in sponsorship opportunities outside of the sustainability parameters, such as sporting events, contest prizes, etc. Six Senses Laamu’s Sustainability Manager and Education & Community Outreach Manager work closely with local organizations to seek out potential projects. We also have a Sustainability Fund Proposal Form with which anyone in Laamu Atoll can use to apply for funding. The form allows for the application to share details of the project idea or plan including involved parties, background of the issue, outputs/deliverables, beneficiaries, timeline, and amount of funds requested. Proposals are considered by the Sustainability team and approved/rejected upon the team’s discretion, with the General Manager having the final say to approve the release of funds.

What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?

An MOU is signed between the resort and the relevant parties involved in the project, detailing the obligations of each. Reporting of impacts, ongoing awareness sessions or training, and other follow ups are usually required of the applicant, and Six Senses Laamu’s Education & Community Outreach Manager is the point contact for accountability.

Employee Engagement

How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?

All hosts (our employees) are required to watch the movie Pay It Forward in which a student came up with a school project: if one person does a good deed for three people for nothing in return, and those three people did three good deeds for three others, and so on, the world would be a better place. Pay It Forward activities at Six Senses Laamu are opportunities for hosts to volunteer in the local community on company time. Each month, our Education & Community Outreach Manager seeks out individuals, organizations, or events in Laamu Atoll with which hosts can get involved and lend a helping hand. Some past examples include making bricks to pave a school, repainting walls around an island, and manning booths at the annual Laamafaru Festival.

What have been staff reactions?

Hosts have pride in the work that Six Senses Laamu does related to sustainability and community development. They sport their event t-shirts proudly, share photos on social media, and promote the resort to their friends and family as the best place to work in the Maldives. The Laamaseelu Masveriya resort reef fishermen program is a fishing and reporting code of conduct signed by local fishermen, many past resort staff who know that a business relationship with Six Senses Laamu will be positive for them, even after direct employment. The code of conduct includes minimum size limits, the release of certain species and not fishing within the voluntary protected areas. In return, the fishermen gain benefits from the resort, such as equipment and good prices. The resort wins awards, provides a Mission Wellness calendar of monthly activities (these are directed towards host wellness), and creates an overall positive work environment.

Have you provided staff training to support your impact tourism program?

All new hosts undergo orientation training, in which they receive an induction to all of the company brand philosophies and resort initiatives. This includes a presentation on sustainability and a tour of the resort operations, and an introduction to all marine biology initiatives including our three partner NGO’s.

Funding Model

How are funds raised from travelers?

0.5 percent of total resort revenues + 50 percent of water sales in restaurants + 100 percent of soft toy sales in the mini bar and boutique go into our Sustainability Fund, which must be spent on projects that benefit local communities or ecosystems.

How do you solicit donations?

Upon checkout, guests have the option to add a donation onto their final bill, either into the general Sustainability Fund, or they can write in a specific project they would like to support.

Are donations tax deductible?

Yes, all three charities are registered in the United Kingdom.

How are funds distributed?

Our Sustainability Fund is predominantly spent on marine conservation or water-focused projects, as Six Senses has agreed on environmental health and protection as of the greatest importance. We are unfortunately unable to partake in sponsorship opportunities outside of the sustainability parameters, such as sporting events, contest prizes, etc. The funds are limited to projects in Laamu Atoll that support community development, education, and healthcare in Laamu Atoll. Funds are distributed by the resort’s finance team directly to the beneficiary.

To date, how much has been raised?

USD 681,019.85 over five years.

Visitor Engagement

Do travelers visit the project sites? Why or why not?

Many guests use the areas we are working to protect in our marine protected area. Guests enjoy diving, snorkeling, fishing, and going on picnics in these areas. Guests can also go for island excursions, either full or half-day island hopping throughout Laamu Atoll, or just an evening excursion to a neighboring local island. They can learn about the natural and cultural heritage of Laamu from our Education & Community Outreach Manager or local boat captains and crews, while also seeing firsthand some of the projects that they are supporting by staying at Six Senses. Examples include a 400-year-old mosque we are working with the Ministry of Arts, Culture, & Heritage to restore, a school where we conduct our Hello Hallu education program and snorkeling lessons with students, and a mangrove we are working to protect and increase ecotourism by way of a kayak excursion.

Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?

Many guests used to come to the resort and ask if there was something they could bring to donate to local communities. We decided that it was worth it to ask guests to bring items that will help further our goals of marine conservation and plastic-free. Upon confirmation, guests are sent Packing Tips to advise on efficient and sustainable things to pack and not pack for their trip. They are encouraged to bring specific items, such as reusable water bottles, reusable bags, goggles, snorkeling equipment, or marine books in English to donate to a local school. Guests can choose whether they just handover the items to our team during their stay, or if they would like to visit a school to donate them to the students themselves.

We normally give these items as prizes for participation in events (such as beach clean-ups) or distribute them to children participating in our extra curricula classes. Items are mostly snorkeling equipment or educational books and would not create a dependency.

School visits are arranged as such that it would not create any disturbance to classes, and guests are given the opportunity to see a local school during a local island tour, whether they have items to donate or not. Many guests go on the local island excursion to get a glimpse of a local village and bring items during that trip.

How is the impact tourism promoted or marketed to guests?

Sustainability is marketed as a core pillar of the Six Senses brand philosophy, so it is incorporated into all aspects of sales and marketing. The work of Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) is frequently highlighted on social media, and MUI also has its only social media platforms, annual report, and website in the works; the Six Senses website has its own Sustainability tab detailing our main projects; the in-villa compendium includes The Good Stuff which lays out all of the resort’s sustainability initiatives, activities, and how guests can get involved; our monthly Blue Green Laamu newsletter is sent to all travel partners and media outlets to keep them up to date on our research, education, and community outreach; and all hosts are trained to speak comfortably about the resort’s sustainability efforts, so all can promote to guests.

What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?

Educational opportunities: Junior Marine Biology Program, citizen science research dives with partner NGOs and Deep Blue Divers dive center, afternoon activities and evening presentations in the ice cream parlor on various marine topics with MUI, and a sustainability channel on the villa TV.

Community Perspectives

In 2016, Six Senses Laamu initiated the Eku Eky Program, meaning together in Dhivehi, with the goal of supporting local island councils, schools, women’s committees, and police departments in taking ownership of sustainable development projects in the atoll. This is a reciprocal program, ensuring that the resorts sustainability projects align with community needs and builds a positive working relationship throughout Laamu. It does so by providing access to financial support through Six Senses Laamu’s Sustainability Fund, and assistance in grant writing and project management. The meetings bring together representatives from the atoll and island councils, women’s development committees, schools, and local NGOs, representing the voices of Laamu’s 13,000 residents. These meetings are a chance for the resort to educate the participants on the issues we think are most important and share the work we are going to try to solve them. Participants also bring their own ideas, challenges, and sustainability fund proposals for new development projects. Such topics include making Laamu Atoll plastic-free and establishing a network of marine protected areas. The feedback from the representatives from Laamu’s 11 island councils and 13 schools was that the resort was only benefitting the closest islands, so the team planned community outreach visits in all 11 islands and 13 schools in 2017 to deliver marine and environmental education programs for schoolchildren, fishermen, and community members.

The team recognized the lack of practical application the students had regarding the marine topics they were learning about, so in 2018, Blue Marine Foundation donated locally-relevant marine books to all of the schools, and the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) team helped take over 300 students snorkeling as part of the Ministry of Education’s Farukoe Program. The two goals of this program were for every student to explore their reef by swimming/snorkeling, and for every school to be plastic-free. These align with Six Senses’ goals surrounding marine conservation and to be plastic-free by 2022, so the resort and the Laamu Atoll Council donated water filters to all 21 schools and preschools in the atoll, all 5 police stations, 1 university campus, 1 council office, and 30 households, totaling 63 filters donated to date, providing clean, plastic-free drinking water to 4,384 people, and avoiding an estimated 1.6 million single-use plastic water bottles each year. We also facilitated the donation of 30 sets of snorkeling equipment over a two-year period to all 13 schools in Laamu, funded by our partner, Blueyou, to ensure that students are able to explore their backyard coral reefs on their own whenever they want.

Lessons Learned

Why do you feel your impact tourism program has been so successful? Why do you feel it is important for the tourism industry to not only promote a product but to provide environmental and community support?

Because consumers are increasingly looking for what businesses are doing beyond just running their business; Are they putting in effort to be more environmentally friendly? Are they contributing to community development? Are they working with conservation organizations for species or wildlife protection? Are they preserving cultural heritage? Are they giving back a portion of their revenues? Are they growing their own food? A growing number of consumers, especially millennials, are seeking experiences that make a low impact on the environment and a high impact on the people they encounter. Six Senses’ brand concept is successful in this regard because people do not want to feel guilty about going on holiday, but they want to feel that their stay at Six Senses Laamu does a bit of good for the world, and for them to better their own lives.

What challenges has your company faced in developing a successful program?

The model in the Maldives is for a resort to adopt the closest local island to them and assist with sponsorships of football tournaments and jerseys. We have tried to change this mindset from funding one-off events that don’t really contribute anything to making the island better, and more towards projects that are sustainable with a specific outcome. Another challenge is that Six Senses Laamu is the only resort in Laamu Atoll, so 11 local islands look to us for support and financial assistance. Although we cannot fund every project or go to every community event, the team tries to spread the love so that all islands feel the benefit of Six Senses being here. All 11 islands and 13 schools attend the annual Laamafaru Festival, receive marine and environmental education programs, are eligible for sustainability funding, and are invited to quarterly Eku Eky meetings.

What would your advice be to another company that is hoping to establish a successful impact tourism program?

Start small and find reliable partnerships. We are not experts in everything, so we form relationships with those that have expertise and work together with them to build on each other’s strengths and create the best outcome possible. The NGOs we work with (Manta Trust, Olive Ridley Project, and Blue Marine Foundation) are experts in manta rays, turtles, and fisheries/MPAs, respectively. Together with the Six Senses Laamu marine biologists, the MUI team is gathering evidence for why Laamu should be protected by a network of marine protected areas. However, we cannot accomplish this alone. We also work closely with countless community organizations to ensure the buy-in is there, as well as numerous government organizations to assist with the policy side of things: the EPA, relevant ministries, and Male-based NGOs.

Additional Information

For more information contact: Marteyne van Well, General Manager: marteyne@sixsenses.com
Useful Websites:


This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.