Hotel Insider talks with Ihsan Naseer CEO of Raisecrown Group, a company that’s embarking on a project the likes of which the Maldives hasn’t seen. To say that the project is ambitious is a bit like saying the hydrogen bomb is destructive.
If successful, it could open a radical new chapter of the Maldives, not only of the nation as a nonpareil destination but it has social, economic, environmental and educational ramifications.
Hotel Insider: We understand you’re undertaking a very ambitious project in Hulhumale: Project ORB which includes Rasbavana THE ORB, THE ORB Land, The Crescent, the latter which also houses an aquarium. Let’s talk about THE ORB first. It’s the project’s centrepiece, a spherical, football-shaped structure built on the lagoon. What can you tell our audience about it?
Ihsan Naseer: The intention behind THE ORB is to give the Maldives a facelift. It’s about a total makeover, a full rebranding of the country. It’s not just about putting the Maldives on the map but making the Maldives the unrivalled, unparalleled and the most sophisticated destination in the world. Rasbavana means the grand globe in Dhivehi. It is our image of the perfect globe.
Two years back, I sat down with a former senior official of MMPRC with regards to a promotional campaign of the Maldives for another project. He flatly said that ‘the brand ‘Maldives’ is about the art of doing nothing. It’s where a guest comes and spends a week on the beach reading a book, without worry and gets bored thereafter because there’s nothing else to do.’ I said ‘yes but now we need to do something’ [laughs]. If someone wants to spend millions on a shopping spree, they probably won’t consider the Maldives. We have nature’s gifts, the beaches, the lagoons, but we don’t have the facilities to complement them. We’re still engaged on a very, very primitive level economically, we’re just using nature’s raw ingredients.
Honestly speaking, the remark saddened me deeply. It saddened me the most because it is true. For me, it was a very strange reality check and I made it my mission to develop something truly extraordinary for the Maldives. Something that complements the astonishing beauty of this paradise on Earth. That’s when I started working on Project ORB and we’ve exhausted the past two years on just that.
THE ORB is about sophistication, it’s about incorporating the beauty of the Maldives with the height of technology and innovation. It’s about the evolution of the brand that crafted for ages ‘the art of doing nothing’ to become the global think tank or the intellectual capital of the world. For us, this project will be what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or Burj Khalifa is to Dubai.
Hotel Insider: That’s dreaming big, all right. And where did you draw inspiration for this? Cornwall’s Eden Project came to mind when we thought about THE ORB at first as we weren’t provided a visual. Plus, THE ORB’s football inspiration expresses an intimate connection with the people, football being the country’s favourite sport.
Ihsan Naseer: Yes, it’s a nod towards football, inspired by the nation’s passion for the sport. The project was to be a guerrilla advertisement initially, the creation of the world’s largest football to be precise. We wanted to have a giant helium football hovering over the land. And to do that for a few days was going to cost us millions of dollars. Then we thought we’d build such a structure on a lagoon nearby, make it sort of semi-permanent for two or three years and have tourists come, take selfies and hopefully make it viral. It would mean a lot of exposure for the Maldives. It would have some sort of momentum, add to the Maldives’ image. Having that structure pre-fabricated was going to cost us millions of dollars, too.
So, from that point onwards, it evolved into something else – we thought: what if we make this the permanent face of the Maldives? What if we do a full rebranding of the Maldives through it? I mean, the idea of spherical structure is ancient but nobody has done it at this scale and what better place to do it than here? Then we underwent a massive R&D process and devoted all our time and exhausted all our energies on developing what would become the face of the Maldives. We approached the top architects in the world and other global partners and they absolutely fell in love with it. It was the textbook definition of love-at-first-sight. The reason why we considered football is because we want a lot more to be done for the sport here. Our vision to develop football is what led us to do this and with Project ORB, we will develop football and other sports much, much further.
Hotel Insider: As for The Crescent, part of it is going to lie on the seabed, and that’s going to hold hotel rooms. We’re going through a major underwater phase now in hospitality, Conrad’s got their underwater room, plus a few new resorts, like Hurawalhi and You & Me, have underwater restaurants. What’s going to set the rooms at Crescent apart?
Ihsan Naseer: It will be a radical new addition to the entire hotel industry worldwide. The idea is to create a remarkable, once in a lifetime experience – the most expensive and luxurious experience so to speak. The suites will be placed on the seabed. Guests will have access to views and experiences that once belonged only to scuba divers. It will easily be the eighth wonder.
Hotel Insider: These underwater suites, will they be part of a larger hotel complex?
Ihsan Naseer: Yes. I think we’ll have about eight suites on the seabed, offering this very exclusive underwater vista.
Hotel Insider: All right. Once complete, THE ORB will have eight levels, with room for office space, exhibition floors, a shopping centre among others. What kind of businesses do you hope to attract to THE ORB?
Ihsan Naseer: Let me put it this way – if the Oscars were to be held at a venue other than the Kodak theatre, it will definitely be THE ORB. That’s what we’re going to offer the world. A totally unique experience. I don’t think there’d be an experience to rival it. We’re aiming for the height of excellence. We’ll create that through a fusion of the best, and most cutting-edge technology and design plus the limited and exclusive nature of the structure. The ORB would house just one office, one hotel and only one apartment – a very lucky individual could call THE ORB their home. The office space there will be on the top three floors. It will provide the perfect blend of business and pleasure and will completely redefine our understanding of such spaces.
Hotel Insider: We guess that means you’re targeting businesses abroad?
Ihsan Naseer: [laughs] Yes, indeed and more. Along with THE ORB comes a sustainable financial centre and an educational hub, which we’ve dubbed ORB Land. The whole purpose of the project is to attract big business from around the globe and also establish some of the world’s best educational institutes here. We’ve already secured partnerships with the University of California Santa Barbara and Cornell University and many more are engaging with us, as we speak. UCSB will be conducting marine research and Cornell will establish a hospitality faculty here.
The sustainable financial hub would be a catalyst in bridging investments in South Asia and East Africa. At the same time, it will play a very vital role in being a global sustainable financial centre to pioneer ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) investments within the wider region, introducing innovative financial instruments as such green sovereign bonds, blue bonds and so on. This is what we call a ‘Blue Economy’ – a conceptual economic model proposed by the World Bank Group. We’re working with a wide range of UN bodies and other international agencies to make this happen and so far, the support we’ve received is fantastic. The world is desperately waiting for something beautiful like this.
Hotel Insider: We love the idea of the Maldives becoming a sustainable financial hub. And it’s surprising that one of the best destinations in the world, especially one that’s renowned for marine life, doesn’t have a world-class marine research centre or hospitality institute.
Ihsan Naseer: Yes, we plan to change that. The project will house the world’s largest undersea aquarium and a state-of-the-art marine research laboratory- the very best in the world. The fish in the aquarium will be in their natural habitat. They won’t be caged.
Hotel Insider: What about the energy requirements for these structures, do you plan to go with renewables?
Ihsan Naseer: It will be one hundred per cent from renewable means. We can do that now, there are resorts doing this already so why can’t we? It’s an investment but it pays off, economically and environmentally.
In previous business models, the business takes precedence over the environment. That’s how it was done for centuries following the industrial revolution. But now we’re dealing with the fallout of that paradigm. Our model will be a paradigm shift – we know now how much we depend on the environment so we’re going to take every measure to protect it. We’re living in the dawn of a new era.
If this project works out the way we hope, and we’re very confident that it will, it will not only be environmentally sustainable but socially and economically as well. It will benefit the people through the businesses we attract, it will make it easy for our people to get into business. There are lots of good ideas in the Maldives but we don’t have good enough ways to promote them and make them successful.
Hotel Insider: Yeah, we need venture capitalists and incubators and so forth to help young people become successful. There’s nowhere to go with a good idea.
Ihsan Naseer: Yes, what I envision is a Maldives where good ideas get rewarded. We’ll have an excellent banking system with a strong focus on promoting SMEs, one that provides hassle-free financing for start-ups. I’ve always believed that the Maldives is not poor – we’re a rich country, rich not only in natural endowments but also ideas. We just need a nurturing environment for those ideas to gestate and come to fruition and it’s my goal to create one.
Hotel Insider: It seems to us that this project can only be a phenomenal success or a spectacular failure. There’s no middle ground. What gives you the confidence to pursue it?
Ihsan Naseer: [laughs] There are no failures – you learn and try again. Try till you succeed. The dreams of this world and age are great and it is worth every sacrifice. It’s a brave new world with unbridled opportunities. That’s the reality I believe in. I believe it’s important to dream. And if you’re dreaming, why not dream big? When you stop dreaming, that’s failure to me. That’s when you’ve grown old and have your tail between your legs. If I fail, I will learn from it and persevere.
Hotel Insider: Thank you, Ihsan. We wish you every success.