Property

Meaningful Song


When Australian natives Rory and Melita Hunter told friends and family they were going to open an ethical luxury resort near Koh Rong in Cambodia over a decade ago, most suggested they were slightly delusional. Fast-forward to 2019 and Song Saa Private Island is heading into its seventh successful year in operation and the Hunters are planning dramatic expansion onto the Siem Reap side of the water. The Song Saa Reserve will feature major conservation areas, hotels and eventually private villas, and prove business and ethics do indeed go together. The Song Saa Collective is “a business and a foundation working together to drive change,” explains CEO and co-founder Rory Hunter. “A dual structure with a single vision works really well.”


The Greater Good

Since it opened in 2012, Song Saa Private Island has been a regular on top ten lists of the world’s best resort destinations, and the Hunters have very quickly had an impact on the local community, though Rory will argue against the concept of liberal guilt playing a part in the Hunters’ decision to get involved with depressed Cambodia. “We’re not doing it to save people, we’re doing it to make money. This is a business,” he says. “But if you can use the power of business to do good, what a great way to make a living.” Design director Melita agrees, stating very simply the question back in 2005 was, “how can we do business in a better way?”

With consumers, hotel groups and property buyers all actively working to be more sustainable, equitable and have less negative impact on their locations, Song Saa went the extra mile by corporate standards. The couple grew attached to Cambodia after their first visit in 1985, but choosing to become developers wasn’t on the cards. “Cambodia chose us,” states Melita. “That might sound like a cliché but it’s true. It was very organic.” A trip in 2005 ended with a fisherman describing his inability to feed his family due to overfishing and a property purchase. “He offered to sell us his island. We had no plans for anything and it didn’t feel like paradise,” she says. Eventually, the resort spanning two small islands over seven hectares was created with substantial CSR built into the project’s DNA. The community contributions currently include a 400-square-kilometre marine reserve (the largest in Southeast Asia), medical missions, the first ever ultrasounds for local women and a primary school as just a few examples. Anyone in the market for a villa with a conscience need look no further.


The success of the first resort inspired the expansion. “We really wanted to scale [the island] out. So, five years ago, we created the separate [Song Saa Foundation] and that allowed us to access donor funding, bilateral aid, guest donations and to be an independent entity,” says Rory. The offshoot is the forthcoming Song Saa Reserve, located a few minutes from Banteay Srei in Siem Reap, which the Hunters see as primed to become a destination of its own. Tourist arrivals are expected to grow to over three million by 2020, with a new airport in the pipeline able to accommodate up to 10 million passengers each year.


Ready for the Future

The US$250 million Reserve is ambitious, and will feature up to seven hotels and a series of private villas built on best practices such as a zero-carbon footprint, renewable energy use and land regeneration. At 230 hectares—almost double the size of Hyde Park—with a lake in the centre and 50% conservation area, the Reserve is a major step up. “The idea is to create an alternative tourism hub to Siem Reap, one that is ethics-led with the same ethos as on the island, on a bigger scale,” explains Rory. “It’s not just a luxury gated community that’s only for the affluent. It’s more like Ubud, with total diversity, tourism offerings and a common thread.” Song Saa Reserve is beginning development with institutional investors, the conservation space and core infrastructure, but the Hunters expect to have news about private homes in 2019.


Unlike the Private Island properties based on a traditional resort ownership model, the Reserve villas will be completely privately held. The change was inspired by the current villa market, which Rory sees as more accessible than in past years— and in Cambodia much more affordable. According to CBRE, prices in Phnom Penh are among the lowest in the region, with luxury flats averaging US$300 per square foot—approximately HK$2,300.

“People that want more than just a home; they want a dreamy, boutique-type place and you can do that nowadays. The idea that it had to be managed by a hotel isn’t as important now. There are all sorts of distribution channels through which to monetise your asset on your own, and I think people want the freedom to do their own design and have direct ownership.”


Melita describes the likely design to be inspired by the land and the place, the way Private Island drew on the nearby fishing community’s corrugated iron and recycled timber. The Reserve will be more rainforest inflected and reflect the local heritage, and will be low density, with plenty of setbacks for added privacy and no disruptive massive structures. “A lot of Cambodian design draws flavours from Apsara dancers, traditional carvings and Vann Molyvann’s Khmer architecture. There are a lot of textures and elements in Cambodia that can be drawn on and we try to bring them all through and use artisans that still hand craft their sculptures and weavings in traditional ways,” adds Melita.

Prices for private villas and schedules are to be determined. For more details and status updates, refer to songsaareserve.com or cbre.com.kh