Jose Dominic built frugal and eco-conscious properties, employed locals, served indigenous cuisine, and put the environment first at a time when such ideas were considered unviable in hospitality. Two years after stepping down from the helm of CGH Earth, he speaks to us about his origins and latest innovations. By Sumeet Keswani
Sustainability might be the buzzword today, but when Jose Dominic set off on the path in 1988, few understood him. Back then, the Rajiv Gandhi-led administration wanted to privatise the government-managed facility on Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep. At the time, Dominic’s empire was limited to just one property called Casino Hotel in Willingdon, Kochi. “It was probably because the port connection to Lakshadweep was through Cochin (now Kochi) that we received an invitation, along with all the ‘big boys’ of hospitality,” recalls Dominic, who hopped on board only for the chopper flight to the virgin islands. While the ‘big boys’ dropped figures like `50 crores for the tender, Dominic quoted a few lakhs and three months’ time to “do what an islander would do.” On December 18, 1988, he opened the doors of Bangaram Island Resort, which advertised the unusual absence of TV, telephone, AC, and multicuisine restaurants, and the striking presence of untouched nature. The food was local, and the uniform of the indigenous staff featured their daily wear, lungis. “There was no necessity to be international; we wanted to be very local,” says Dominic. All these radical ideas followed one core principle: The land comes first, then the local community, then the customer.
Not only did the resort go frugal on its amenities, it also priced the rooms at USD180 per night, the highest room tariff in mainland India at the time. “We wanted to change the definition of luxury from ostentation to experience,” he explains. How did customers react? “Don’t change anything,” Dominic recalls hearing from many European visitors. Not every guest was compliant, though. A man once shot a fish in the lagoon with a harpoon gun, even when it was explicitly against the rules. “Our dive instructor broke his gun in two!” Dominic says.
The land always comes first at all of CGH Earth’s (cghearth.com) properties. With the experience gained from the Lakshadweep experiment, Dominic set up Spice Village in Thekkady, Kerala, in 1991, adopting the local architecture that used elephant grass and bamboo. In addition, the hotel figured out a unique sourcing model for its furniture. “In 1991, Cochin Shipyard imported gearboxes and engines from Europe, and auctioned off the wood of the crates that carried these parts. We bought the wood at 50 paisa per kilo and used it to make furniture, ceilings, doors, windows, etc.,” reveals Dominic.
All of CGH Earth’s hotels strive to reduce the use of air conditioning, limiting it to bedrooms. For instance, at Marari Beach, a resort in Alleppey, the roofs of public areas—all 5,574 square metres—have been made of coconut thatch. The only problem: the roofs need to be re-thatched every 15 months. But Dominic sees the bright side: it keeps the entire community employed, keeps their tradition alive, and employs materials that would otherwise be burned. A similar exercise is done with elephant grass at Spice Village, where the old grass is used to make paper—an activity that doubles up as a cool experience for guests!
The lack of air conditioning is now a major advantage for CGH Earth, in the wake of the pandemic and the questions it has raised. But there are other issues to grapple with. “We’ve recently started reopening our hotels. But the community’s reaction has changed,” says Dominic. “At Marari Beach, a foreign-origin guest with permanent residence in the state was taking a stroll when we started getting frantic calls about a ‘foreigner on the beach’. This is an attitudinal challenge—tourists are being seen as carriers.”
Ask him where he wants to travel next, and Dominic offers New Zealand. “There’s a connection between sustainability, democracy, and human rights. A great place to live in is a great place to visit,” he says of his choice.
Dominic can travel all he wants. He stepped down from the position of MD and CEO at CGH Earth after 40 years in 2018. But he didn’t stop innovating. His latest projects involve restoring two houses in the Jew Town neighbourhood of Kochi. The 350-year-old four-bedroom AB Salem House used to belong to a Gandhian Jew, Abraham Barak Salem, who was a freedom fighter. A few steps away is the Ezekiel House, another old Jewish residence that will offer six rooms and a kosher, vegan cafe when finished. Nearby, Dominic has converted an old spice warehouse into a tribal art gallery, Dezika (dezikatribalart.com), with the help of artist T A Satyapal. The ground floor will retail live-edge furniture—coffee tables, tabletops, dining tables and other items made by hand sawing of old trees that fall prey to infrastructure development.
These projects are separate from CGH Earth, and Dominic is now a start-up man at 70. “I see myself as a social entrepreneur today. I don’t have to worry about market share or competitive advantage or profit maximisation anymore. It’s about partnering with communities and reviving traditions,” says the sustainability stalwart.