Envi Lodges, a UAE-based operator of luxury eco-pods, aims to appeal to eco-conscious travellers who want to enjoy a holiday getaway immersed in nature and meaningfully connect with local communities while minimising their environmental footprint.

The start-up's co-founders, Noelle Homsy and Chris Nader, started the business in September 2021, when they realised that people's travel habits changed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of escaping the mundane routine of daily life to stay at luxury hotels in exotic locations, or the usual tourist haunts, many are increasingly looking for new experiences and to learn about the countries they are visiting.

During her travels in South-East Asia as a graduate student, Ms Homsy saw how “eco-lodges are very well integrated in the communities and the environment, they aren’t just parachuted hotels in the middle of nature”.

“I felt we can have this solution where tourism and real communities can be blended nicely together, rather than the segregation between tourists spending money and the not-so-fortunate locals,” she says.

The co-founders' goal was to fill a gap in the market for high-end accommodation that minimises the environmental impact of travellers' trips.

This is based on the company's seven pillars of sustainability, including conserving wildlife, using resources mindfully and supporting local communities, according to Ms Homsy.

Envi Lodges has also been certified by Beyond Green – an alliance of eco-friendly hotels, resorts, and lodges – that has vetted the brand's sustainability practices.

Beyond Green vets members, which undergo an on-site evaluation every two years, based on more than 50 sustainability indicators, according to its website.

These include green practises at the property, protection of natural and cultural heritage and a commitment to the social and economic well-being of locals.

“Chris and I had a bigger purpose, which is to drive the hospitality and tourism industry in the Middle East in the right direction to become more sustainable and to encourage responsible tourism,” she says.

“Saudi Arabia is at forefront of regenerative tourism but, at the time, we saw there was this need and we wanted to be a part of it as individuals and as a company.”

The travel and tourism sector is highly dependent on nature, and the climate crisis threatens not only vital resources, but also the survival of some of Earth’s most prized travel destinations, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Between 2010 and 2019, absolute greenhouse gas emissions from the sector have risen at an average rate of 2.5 per cent a year, which is around 8.1 per cent of global emissions, according to data from The Environmental Impact of Global Tourism report by the WTTC and Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Tourism.

“It is an immense challenge, and one that both our sector and global policymakers must take seriously,” it said.

However, the link between the sector’s growth and its carbon footprint has been loosened during that same period. Between 2010 and 2019, the sector's gross domestic product grew at an average of 4.3 per cent annually, while emissions grew at 2.5 per cent, the report said.

Envi Lodges has signed agreements to manage and operate projects in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Zanzibar and Costa Rica that are scheduled to open in 2024 and 2025, according to its website.

In October, the company partnered with Oman’s Ministry of Defence Pension Fund to develop a sustainable mountain lodge on Al Jabel Al Akhdar, marking its first foray in the sultanate.

When it opens in 2025, Envi Al Jabel Al Akhdar will feature 40 luxury expedition tents that overlook the Hajar Mountain range and are designed by Tenthouse Structure, a South African architect of camping tents.

Watch: Giant painting in Omani desert to promote sustainable future

Through its market research, the start-up has identified three types of target customers based on their travel mindsets, Ms Homsy says.

Adventure seekers who crave the adrenalin rush of activities from zip-lining to hiking are the first type. The second are spiritual seekers who want wellness experiences. The third are explorers who seek to learn about local cultures, take cooking classes, explore the art scene or engage in agritourism.

While the company's projects are still under development, initial studies about demand are promising, Ms Homsy says.

“The market for eco-lodges is booming around world. Some say it’s the future of leisure tourism,” she says.

Investors, both individuals and family offices, are also keen on “impact investments”, or green projects, that not only have strong financial returns but also a “higher purpose” such as sustainability goals.

“These investors do their research, so this means that demand is high and they are in it for the long term,” she says.

Asked whether the Israel-Gaza war has impacted investment appetite for the region, Ms Homsy says that while stability is needed to drive up tourism numbers, hospitality projects have long-term management agreements of about 20 to 30 years.

“We haven’t seen any pullback from investors, this hasn't affected our talks,” she says.

Envi Lodges is in negotiations for several new agreements to enter markets in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Latin America, Ms Homsy says.

“They're not signed yet but we are in the final stages. We might be signing one or two more before the end of the year,” she says.

To fuel its growth, the start-up is seeking a third round of fund-raising, Ms Homsy says, declining to reveal the amount. It has previously raised $2 million.

The company has also signed partnerships for developers and funding managers to finance the amount needed to build projects for Envi Lodges to operate.

In that scope, it is facilitating funding from strategic partners such as public institutions and government entities to develop a portfolio of lodges in various markets like France and Saudi Arabia, according to Ms Homsy.

More than $150 million will be raised in the coming year or two for these projects, according to the co-founder.

“We aim to become a global brand in the next five years and have a project on every continent,” Ms Homsy says.

Q&A with Envi Lodges co-founder Noelle Homsy

Why is setting up a social impact business important to you?

Amid the challenges happening in the world, it brings me a sense of relief to contribute positively through my business. Additionally, I aspire to create something that will have a beneficial impact on my daughter’s generation and something that will make her proud.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?

Besides the hard skills related to registering a company, raising funds and setting budgets, I’ve gained some very valuable soft skills. I've learnt to be more adaptable and flexible, striking a balance between defending my vision and embracing the practicalities of reality. Developing strong listening skills has become a priority, recognising that valuable ideas can originate from unexpected sources. I've honed my communication skills, understanding the importance of tailoring messages to different audiences. Perhaps most significantly, I've mastered the art of juggling between my two “babies”: Envi and my daughter, Iris.

What is it like operating a business in a post-Covid world?

Covid has transformed the way we work, making us more efficient and comfortable with substituting lengthy physical meetings with quick calls. We've also become more adept at collaborating with an international remote team spread across different continents and time zones, mastering the skill of working not only remotely but asynchronously. For Envi, the timing of our launch couldn’t have been better, as people are now more conscious of the environmental impact and have begun altering their travel decisions accordingly.

How does do you differ from other sustainable hospitality offerings?

We are not seeking to reinvent the wheel; our emphasis is on granting guests access to breathtaking, undiscovered destinations. Our plan involves regenerating lands that have been damaged, giving them new life, and crafting transformational and educational experiences for our guests. Our overarching purpose is to contribute to making responsible tourism the norm.

What changes in hospitality should guests expect in the next decade?

As guests increasingly prioritise specific values and needs, they can expect the hospitality industry to attentively respond and adapt. Whether it's personalised services, transformative experiences, sustainability practices, or the integration of technological advancements, the hospitality industry is heading in a positive and progressive direction.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Every element aligned seamlessly, just like a perfectly completed jigsaw puzzle – from partnering with the ideal co-founder and assembling the right team to timing the launch, bringing on strategic investors, and carefully selecting the projects we undertake. I wouldn't alter a thing.

What is your next big dream to make happen?

It was a dream a few years ago but it’s about to become a reality; I’m so excited about our first Envi lodge opening.

Where do you see yourself, and your business, in five years?

Our strategic road map involves extending our portfolio to other continents, including Europe, Africa, and Latin America. I am optimistic that we can realise our growth objectives while preserving the exceptional start-up culture that currently thrives at our corporate office in the UAE.

What is your main competition and your competitive advantage?

In the relatively limited landscape of luxury experiential eco-lodges, any brand or operator contributing to the growth of this market is seen as an ally for us. As long as we share the common goal of driving change in the hospitality industry and promoting responsible tourism, we welcome competition that aligns with our larger purpose.

Did you set up the business at the right time?

The timing was impeccable. Envi was launched precisely when the investment community began showing increased interest in impact investment, coinciding with a period when guests actively seek brands like ours to align with.

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