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Value Judgements

Billionaire heir George Muthoot George is seeking to build on his status as a pioneer in small footprint, sustainable tourism.

George Muthoot

“I think I first played with the idea of hotels when I was about 12,” says George Muthoot George. “My father wanted me to study economics at some Ivy League university. But, behind his back, I went to hospitality school. That wasn’t something that seemed to fit with his ideas of the family business. He asked what I wanted to be a waiter for.”

Certainly, things could have been very different. A scion of the Muthoot family (a household name in India, thanks to its 19 generations of business interests, first in spices and timber, more recently in micro-financing, healthcare and education; and the fact that it employs some 40,000 people), Muthoot could, in fact, have done very little. He could have coasted on the huge wealth of the family trust. This was put on a legal, constitutional footing just two years ago, precisely so the money trickles down rather than floods. But nonetheless it’s a sizeable trickle.

“I was certainly conscious of the family’s wealth when I was growing up, mostly because people tend to remind you. And, no question, I could have sat back and done nothing and been very comfortable,” he concedes. “And yet nobody in the family has done that. We’ve all been brought up with the idea that we don’t deserve luxury until we’ve made a social contribution. And that, unless we really need something, don’t buy it. My father still wears old suits and uses a $1 pen. We’re not a family that does fancy cars and palatial homes, though we could afford it. I’m no tree hugger but, really, a Ferrari, pumping out yet more CO2? You know, it’s easy to get lost in easy money.”

The Pearl Xandari, a sustainable resort

Instead, Muthoot started his career cleaning toilets and making beds (“the hospitality industry wasn’t as glamorous as I’d imagined it would be”), working his way up in hospitality before, he says, almost with embarrassment, taking advantage of the family funds to launch a new division of its business activities: the Xandari resort brand. There are now five boutique resorts, across India, Africa and Central America, with Cancun in the pipeline. The first, however, opened on 9/11. “We spent a long time swatting flies,” he laughs. “And this on top of the fact that we had an eco-proposition at a time when most people with money still wanted ‘real’ luxury rather than experiential travel.”

Xandari, however, would become a pioneer in small footprint, sustainable tourism, with each resort working with and building the economy of the local community and its cottage industries; to, in fact, create a local entrepreneurial class through the market the resort provides. “That’s not such a new idea now, but it’s nonetheless crucial,” Muthoot stresses. “The local way of life has been destroyed in many places as it tries to ride the tourism wave — just look at Goa now. But hospitality should be a platform for sharing ideas between a global community and a local community. It’s not about takeover but conservation of local traditions and values.

Local fishermen supply Xandari's resorts

“‘Sustainability’ is a word that gets used in the hospitality world by plenty of people who just don’t mean it,” he adds. “But there’s a shift in luxury travel that’s happening now. It’s having to re-align itself because there are plenty of people who have done all of that traditional luxury thing and they’re asking: ‘what now?’ The suites and the spas and the service, that’s all fine, but hospitality has to be something more. They want immersion.”

Yes, none of Xandari’s resorts allow single-use plastics, with even bottled water being phased out. But then some 80 percent of each resort’s vegetable requirements are also grown within the grounds. Resorts have established wildlife conservation programmes (from turtles in Kerala to slights in Costa Rica) that local government cannot afford. Resort dining places the emphasis on local cuisine, in one instance bringing in members of a tribal village to prepare it.

Muthoot is aware that such talk is all too open to the accusation of greenwashing. But he adds that many on the Xandari board were opposed to the group getting into hospitality and were convinced only if Muthoot could show that it could be done in a progressive way. “There’s the money to have 100 resorts within the next 20 years if we wanted. We could open a swanky hotel in the middle of London,” he says. “But none of that is what it’s about. The board is probably softer on me for being a family member — I get discounted rates, so to speak — but I still answer to them. My grandfather always said that squandering money is easy. Squander your values and you’re in trouble.”

Community support is key at Xandari Resorts, says George Muthoot. 

Muthoot jokes that, while the family has always refused to invest in tobacco or alcohol, he recently opened a Xandari micro-brewery “and, so far, they’ve turned a blind eye to that”. Perhaps the next generation deserves a little leeway. But not too much. Muthoot has three children: all boys under six, none of them, breaking a family tradition that goes back 800 years, named George. He's already conscious of the need to give some steer their futures.

“Right now, my eldest wants to be a palaeontologist. And my family has no interests in palaeontology. But you have to ingrain in them the idea that things don’t come easily; if they want an ice cream, they have to earn it. It’s simple stuff but all the more important given our circumstances,” says Muthoot. “Yes, we have a well-written family constitution now but that can still break down. Money can ruin you.”