Shinta Mani Wild shot to global acclaim when it opened back in 2018 and is a culmination of Bill’s life passions – adventure, nature, conservation, sustainability and Cambodia. An explorer-class, luxury tented camp for just 30 guests, it is designed to merge into the natural environment with the lowest possible impact on its surroundings. Bill created it to protect one of South East Asia’s greatest and most fragile bio-diversity jewels from logging and poaching.
And, while ‘sustainable travel’ is a buzzword, Bill is extremely invested in redefining what it means. He penned a white paper earlier this year – entitled Sensible Sustainable Solutions – directed at the global hotel industry, calling on hotel operators, owners, architects and designers to use their power in reaching those who love getting out into the world, for the betterment of our planet. It outlines 20 eye-opening suggestions to help fight climate change.
“I’m through with the greenwashing. It’s time we do something real. We must shoulder the responsibility in education, clean water, alternative energy and wildlife protection. It is important to educate everyone in the industry, as well as travellers, about stewardship of our planet. And now, since the pandemic, it is more vital than ever, as we have the opportunity to reset the status quo.”
There’s clearly a dichotomy between asking people to fly across the world and Bill’s passion when he talks about our planet. But, after over a decade in the industry, I have learnt that the social benefits of travel in broadening horizons and as a force for good can outweigh the negative, physical impacts. And how better to highlight the plight of our planet than for people to see what we’re doing to it and why we need to protect it?
“The corridor of rainforest I bought in Cambodia is the size of Central Park,” explains Bill. “If I hadn’t bought it, it would be a titanium mine now, with all trees felled and its diverse wildlife poached to extinction. I hope that when people come to visit, they will appreciate and discuss how we can use hospitality to conserve areas that others would exploit.”
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Bill is applying this philosophy to his most ambitious project yet, WorldWild. Pundits are calling it a human zoo, a sensationalist moniker that greatly undersells the concept. On a 2,000-acre duck farm in South China, Bill is spearheading a Jurassic Park-style animal sanctuary with no walls, just rivers, mountains, forests and ‘ha-has’ – an innovation that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape. Wildlife will thrive, as there won’t be any predators and there’s enough land to be able to run the space like an African safari, allowing huge herds of animals to migrate as they would in the wild.
Eco-trains will run round the sanctuary, offering eight whistlestops in three different ‘worlds’ – Asia, Australasia and Africa – each featuring wildlife ‘endemic’ to its manufactured wonderland. The ratio of land for wildlife to human is 95:5. There will be luxury hotels too – 2,000 rooms, in fact – from Waldorf Astoria, to Four Seasons and, of course, a Shinta Mani – each looking into the sanctuary, with salt licks and special lighting to draw the animals to come into view without even knowing they’re being watched. The inspiration for the properties is taken from the world’s most mysterious destinations – Bhutan as an example – and, from my sneak peek of the Sensible Sustainable Solutions-driven plans, even Coruscant of Star Wars fame. The project is an architect’s wet dream, yet it’s not the design that Bill is most excited about.
“Firstly, we get to rescue animals living in appalling conditions in Chinese roadside zoos,” he explains, “and also those imported for breeding and exotic gastronomy. That already makes it all worthwhile.”
I ask why he’s so invested in playing Noah.
He laughs: “It’s not just the animals I want to save. It’s the impressionable Chinese children that I want to reach. I have personally seen the devastation that poaching brings in Cambodia and a lot of it ends up on the dining tables of the wealthy Chinese. So, I have a personal interest to educate as many people as possible on the fallacies of the perceived goodness of eating wildlife. While it’s illegal, it still happens because it’s embedded in culture. I have seen first-hand in Cambodia how conservation can change the minds of governments and locals alike into becoming passionate about protecting their precious eco-systems. I’m in it for the long game.”
I reflect on the fact that Bill came up with all of this in what he calls the ‘fastest’ of times. So, I can only imagine what’s in store after the pandemic passes, with more time on his hands.
The months leading up to our meeting have been far from easy for the travel industry. I’m an eternal optimist, but sometimes it’s hard to see a path forward, especially when there’s still such uncertainty. I ask Bill what advice he can offer. In true Bensley fashion, he surprises me by breaking into song.
“Always look on the bright side of life,” he chirps enthusiastically to the famous Monty Python ditty. “I mean that. While it’s easy to focus on the hardship, see the opportunities instead. This is the time to use your power – as someone with influence in travel – in whatever way you can, to do good.”
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Photography courtesy of Bill Bensley