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A resort that's beyond 'a project for profit'
AUSTRALIAN billionaire Lang Walker made his estimated US$2.3 billion fortune by developing some of Sydney's most iconic sites such as Finger Wharf and King Street Wharf.
But one of the few things those projects share with his latest endeavour, a private island resort in Fiji, is a nine-figure price tag.
"This is the only project I've ever really fallen in love with," said the 72-year-old. It's also the first one he hasn't seen as a business decision or money-maker.
Instead, Kokomo Private Island Fiji is a passion project, pure and simple. With just 21 villas on the site of an abandoned, half-built Aman resort, all with access to the world's fourth-largest coral reef, Kokomo is meant as an oasis for Mr Walker's family that he can also share with the world.
It was so personal, in fact, that he eventually multiplied his original US$10 million budget by at least 10 times - a spend that's rare for a resort so small.
Even before the hotel soft-opened last year, it was "beyond a 'project for profit'," Mr Walker told Bloomberg. "I'm told I can't go over there too much because every time I have a new idea, it costs money."
But Mr Walker is developing the resort with the same eye toward sustainability and innovation he's used on his company's latest initiative, Melbourne's US$2.5 billion Collins Square.
With new food and beverage offerings, a hilltop gym, a spa expansion, and a hydroponic nursery coming to Kokomo this year, he's evolving the property in hopes that it will join a shortlist of the world's best resorts.
"I've done many wild and different things, but never an island, so there was a cheeky I-wonder-what-it's-like feeling," said Mr Walker.
The relatively remote island of Yaukuve Levu, in Fiji's rural southern Kadavu island group, was ideal: it has four pristine beaches, there are virtually no other hospitality venues nearby, and guests have easy access to one of the world's most epic dive sites, the Great Astrolabe Reef.
"In 10 minutes you're diving in a massive drop-off among fan corals," he noted.
Besides the 21 sprawling, thatched-roof villas, Mr Walker envisaged butler service, a child-care centre, and a massive organic garden.
His goal: to create an intergenerational getaway with a minimal carbon footprint.
"I thought, This'll be pretty easy - maybe 18 months I can have it up and running. Maybe a budget of US$10 million," he added, laughing.
But creating a luxury resort on a far-flung island had some serious initial impact: it called for a seaplane, a helicopter, two barges, and a fleet of recreational boats to cater to his US$7,500-a-night guests.
He also added five residences to the original plan, each with three to six bedrooms; spent lavishly on local materials like cinnamon wood; and splurged on unseen details that streamline back-of-house operations.
By the time Kokomo welcomed its first guests six years later, Mr Walker had invested at least US$100 million.
Kokomo's design amalgamates the best parts of Mr Walker's favourite resorts around the world. Lush landscaping and privacy walls were taken from nearby, the restaurants' casual vibe from Nikki Beach St Barth.
The villas have outdoor showers, private infinity pools, massive decks, and Veuve Clicquot-stocked minibars.
But the goal is to make this luxury you can feel good about. The list of sustainability features spans an on-island water filtration system, greywater system, and sewage treatment plant.
There's also a four-hectare tiered organic garden, free-range chicken coop, beehives, and soon a flock of ducks-for farm-to-table Peking duck at the Asian restaurant, Walker d'Plank.
This strategy serves multiple ends, said Mr Walker, adding that it is "far more economical" than importing frozen things.
Want to get involved? A coral gardening and restoration project allows guests to harvest and propagate healthy super-coral fragments - one way Mr Walker is ensuring that the pristine marine environment continues to look and feel untouched.
He was prepared to execute an eco-sensitive vision, but cultural sensitivity wasn't on his radar: Yaukuve island is uninhabited.
Still, chiefs from neighbouring islands expected a say in Kokomo's business plan. Over several kava ceremonies - a tradition that involves sharing stories over sips of bitter pepper tea - Mr Walker took note of the local needs, from employment to education and economic stimuli.
In return, he promised to support the islands' schools, train Fijians to work at the resort, and set up bank accounts for anyone in need.
Time will tell how well Kokomo and the community can integrate, but Mr Walker is off to a promising start.
He's helped rebuild a school that was damaged by cyclone Winston and is supported sports programmes in the villages. But employment is where he's made the most progress.
"In this part of Fiji, there's been no tourism of any note, and employment opportunities are lacking," he pointed out. "I figured it was good to get that going."
Now, 94 per cent of Kokomo's staff come from Fiji, with 65 of the 238 staffers hailing from the two closest islands.
Local staff are just one way the resort feels distinctly Fijian - they greet guests at the helipad and jetty and infuse the day-to-day experience with genuine warmth, even if they are still learning the ropes of running a luxury resort.
Instead of attending cheesy luaus and tiki parties, guests can go hiking to secret waterfalls with local guides or try their hand at spear fishing wahoo or mahi-mahi.
Everything that's caught gets prepared at the white-tablecloth, open-air Beach Shack restaurant.
Crowd-pleasing staples such as wood-fired pizza are available by the pool, and at the waterside Walker d'Plank, self-trained Fijian chef Caroline Oakley designs each meal on the spot rather than handing out menus.
As much as Kokomo is a lazy, indulgent place for guests - its name is shared with Mr Walker's three superyachts - the resort will keep its owner busy for quite some time.
First, he has to break even on the project, which he says he can do even if he manages to just keep the resort at just 50 per cent occupancy year-round and sell a few of the luxury residences, whose prices will start at about US$15 million when they go on the market in 2020.
"I don't think I'm ever going to get rich on owning an island in Fiji," he joked. But he's not worried about that. "The minute you start putting money ahead of excellence, it doesn't work," he explained. "The money side of things follows from all the things you do that add up to excellence." BLOOMBERG