James McBride: Pioneering Sustainable Luxury at NIHI Sumba


WAWW Editors Hershey Gargash and Elena Leo examine McBride’s transformation of NIHI Sumba into a model of sustainable Luxury.

In the heart of Indonesia’s unspoiled island Sumba, James McBride, CEO of NIHI Sumba, has managed to combine the opulent experiences of his luxurious resort with a profound commitment to sustainability.

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McBride’s professional journey—from his time at Grosvenor House on London’s Park Lane to The Carlyle in New York and then the regional directorship of all Caribbean resorts for Rosewood Hotels—is as unique as NIHI Sumba itself. The resort stands as a testament to McBride’s belief that true luxury transcends material wealth. Here, luxury is about creating harmony with nature, fostering community growth and offering experiences that resonate on a deeper, more personal level.


The journey to NIHI Sumba

In 2012, McBride took a significant step in hotel entrepreneurship, partnering with his long-time associate Christopher Burch to acquire Nihiwatu, a modest surf haven on Indonesia’s Sumba Island. Today, NIHI Sumba is recognised for its commitment to eco-conscious luxury. More than just a resort, it’s a heartfelt project that stands for the preservation of Sumba’s unique culture and heritage, and a steadfast commitment to empowering the island’s communities.

The conception of NIHI Sumba traces back to 2012, when Christopher Burch, captivated by Nihiwatu, invited McBride to offer his expert hotelier perspective. McBride, struck by Sumba’s natural splendour and its stark contrast to Bali, saw the island’s potential. “The untouched natural beauty of the island really struck a chord with me,” he says.

“As a South African, I personally felt at home here, as it felt a bit like my tropical and community-centric homeland, only in Asia. The tribal nature of the Sumbanese people and their unique culture were also so entirely different from what one might experience in Bali, though only an hour’s flight away. A foundation was there, but substantial capital was going to be needed to take Nihiwatu to the next level. We both felt as if we really had found the edge of wildness.”

Investing over $30 million (about £24 million), Burch and McBride transformed Nihiwatu, adding luxurious villas, a spa, stables, a chocolate factory and distinctive dining experiences, all while preserving the island’s authenticity. McBride reflects, “All this was done sensitively and with locally sourced design elements to ensure the entire destination felt authentic and had a strong sense of place. The local timbers and craftsmanship, ikat fabrics, feet in the sand restaurants and vernacular architectural styles are all true to Sumba’s roots.”


McBride and his business partner have since shortened the name to NIHI Sumba, as they will be opening other NIHI Hotels in other “edge of wildness” destinations: places that will live up to or exceed everything they have created on Sumba Island.

Unique Allure of NIHI Sumba

NIHI Sumba’s distinctiveness lies in its approach to luxury. “There is nothing cookie-cutter about NIHI,” McBride says. “Having a single visionary owner, we were free to create something beyond any offerings at other high-end resorts. We think NIHI has laid-back luxury that immediately relaxes guests. It’s a bit off-grid, a bit wild and has a natural beauty that rivals any resort in the world.”

At NIHI, experiences range from the extraordinary Spa Safari ritual to unique adventures like spearfishing and swimming with horses. These activities are not just offerings but transformative experiences that create pinch-me moments for guests.

The resort deeply integrates Sumbanese culture. “We put the heritage, stories, culture, and people of Sumba at the forefront of everything we do,” McBride states. This approach is evident in the architecture and design of NIHI, where Sumbanese elements are intricately woven into every aspect. Visiting local villages, engaging with artisans, and experiencing the unique culture of Sumba leave indelible impressions on guests. The heart of NIHI, as McBride proudly notes, is its Sumbanese staff, whose smiles and pride in their work create unforgettable experiences.


A distinctive feature of NIHI Sumba is its Sandalwood stables, home to a growing family of Sumbanese horses. They graze on a grassy hill, and when it’s time for some exercise or a cool down from the heat, they parade majestically down Nihiwatu Beach. “Watching the Sumbanese horses on their daily run down Nihiwatu beach is part of daily life at NIHI,” says McBride. This natural spectacle, both practical and mesmerising, adds to the unique charm of the resort.

Giving Back: The Sumba Foundation

NIHI Sumba is deeply rooted in community support and environmental stewardship. McBride proudly states, “NIHI is the biggest local employer on Sumba Island. Our first objective is to stay local and to work with the community. We have a local market where Sumbanese people come and sell their wares.” This commitment extends to supporting local vendors and graduates from the Sumba Hospitality Foundation School.

Central to NIHI’s ethos is the Sumba Foundation, initiated by previous owners and embraced fully under McBride and Burch. “The Foundation has only gotten bigger,” McBride notes, attributing its growth to their concerted efforts. Key initiatives include combating malaria, malnutrition and improving access to clean water. During the pandemic, the Foundation played a crucial role in providing essential support to the community.


This philanthropic spirit is not just a part of NIHI’s operations: it’s a core ethos that attracts guests, many of whom seek meaningful experiences for their families. “Many guests want their children to be exposed to something that makes a real difference,” McBride concludes.

Wild Wellness at NIHI Sumba

NIHI’s approach to wellness is anything but conventional. They have reimagined wellness as an adventure, calling it ‘Wild Wellness’. From yoga sessions in a pavilion boasting stunning views to equine therapy with Sumbanese horses, NIHI takes an out-of-the-box approach.

The highlight is the NIHI Spa Safari, where guests choose their mode of arrival—be it a sunrise trek, horseback ride or safari jeep—to reach a haven of relaxation and bespoke treatments. “A day at NIHI’s Spa Safari is filled with countless ‘wow’ moments,” McBride explains. The remote location enhances the sense of escapism, making it a favourite among couples and honeymooners seeking privacy and a unique experience.


“The words we live by are: ‘Be wild. Be free. Be well’,” says McBride, summarising NIHI Sumba’s philosophy and vision of wellness—a harmonious blend of adventure, serenity, and connection with nature.

NIHI’s Blueprint

Discussing future plans, McBride says, “In the early days, the fear of the unknown was the biggest challenge as we were introducing NIHI and Sumba to the world. As NIHI has gained more exposure, it certainly has become easier, but our remoteness can still be challenging. Other than ensuring our locations are stunningly beautiful and a little bit (or a lot!) wild, being able to engage with the local community is one criterion that will always be at the core of NIHI.”

The Sumba Foundation’s role in NIHI Sumba underscores the brand’s commitment to philanthropy, a principle that will be integral to all future NIHI locations. “All our future NIHIs will have a local philanthropic association,” he insists.


Looking ahead, McBride believes luxury resorts must evolve. “Travellers are yearning for authenticity and a strong sense of place, and they want to feel that they are immersing themselves in the place they are visiting,” he says. “Luxury resorts can no longer rest on their laurels and just do things the way the hotel handbook tells them to.”

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