S3, E10: At This Remote Island Resort, Staff Housing Is (Almost) as Luxurious as the Guest Quarters

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, journalist Sally Kohn travels to the Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands, to learn what it’s like to live and work there.

It’s not too late to make plans to see the April solar eclipse! This week on Unpacked, an astronomy and eclipse expert—who travels around the country in his vintage Airstream—shares how eclipses have changed his life, and why we should all try to see one in our lifetime.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. Today, we’re heading to the Maldives to explore the complex world of staff housing in luxury environments.

Many years ago, my sister worked as a sous chef on a cruise ship that would sail around the Hawaiian Islands. This was long before the drama of Below Deck, but I remember being so surprised by the contrast between her living conditions and those of the guests. I think she shared a bunk room with three people, three women. Of course, the guests were paying to be there and she was getting room and board. But still, ever since then, I’ve thought about what goes on behind the scenes of hotels, cruise ships, and luxury resorts. What are the conditions like for people who work there and especially for people who have to live there?

It’s a question that has lingered in the mind of Sally Kohn as well. If that name sounds familiar to you, you may have seen her as a commentator on CNN. Or maybe you’ve read her book The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity. She’s an activist, a writer, and a fantastic speaker with a keen eye for issues around social justice and defusing conflict. She’s written for AFAR several times and is just an all-around wonderful human.

Last year, she emailed to say that she’d heard about a new kind of staff housing on a remote island resort in the Maldives. A kind of staff housing that provides workers with comfort, space, and dignity. Let’s see what she found.

Sally: I’m at the Ritz-Carlton Maldives in the Fari Islands, where it seems like everyone else is on their honeymoon. And let me tell you, I think they do honeymoons pretty well here at the Ritz. But there’s something else the Ritz-Carlton in the Maldives does extremely well, maybe better than any other remote luxury island destination.

Sally [in interview]: Why did you come to the Maldives?

Abby, spa therapist: Um, I don’t know. I don’t even remember. It’s just like one of my friends actually. She’s the one who, who visited first in Maldives and then she said, “OK, Abby, this, this place is beautiful. You should come and try to work here.”

My name is Abby and I am a spa therapist in the Ritz-Carlton spa.

Sally: Abby has worked in the Maldives for 13 years and at all the other resorts she worked at, she lived in the middle of the island. Maybe you’ve never thought about it, but if you go on vacation on a remote island, remote by definition means too far for staff to commute back and forth to anywhere, so generally they get put in staff housing in the middle of the island. Sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not. There’s usually a canteen, maybe a gym, laundromats, and a shared kitchen—but the staff can’t generally, say, go to the beach or go for a walk or play soccer because—well, to be frank, the people who own luxury resorts don’t think people on vacation want to be sunbathing next to the people who work in the spa.

Abby: If you’re in the island, in the same island as the guest, there’s limited spots for you to go. Like, you’re not allowed to go here because it’s only for the guest.

Sally: And that’s a very important point for another podcast: For a resort to feel exclusive does it literally have to be exclusionary? But that’s the reality of how most staff are housed on most luxury island resorts. Except at the Ritz-Carlton Maldives.

Abby: We have our own, our own island just for the staff. So I feel like [there are] a lot of things to do. We have the beach if we wanted to swim and then go to the gym. We have our own cafeteria to read books, have coffee. I can have my own space. Like, I will have my favorite spot in the island where I can, I can do my, my own time. Like I love reading, so I will just have a space for me in the bench in the beach.

Sally: I finally get to meet Aduham. He works in housekeeping. And full disclosure: I made sure to meet him because Aduham was the housekeeper for my suite and I particularly wanted to meet the person making these incredible, ornate palm leaf sculptures on my bed. Aduham is a fan of palm leaf art. He is also a fan of the staff island, which is called Fari Campus.

Aduham: We actually, we have a whole island, right? In campus. After we finished the duty, that whole island is for us. Like, we can do whatever you want. Like I mean if, if I want to go to snorkeling, I can go to snorkeling. If I want to go to swimming, I can go. I don’t have to take permission or anything. Like our own island, we can do whatever we want. That’s the best part of that.

Sally: So there are four “Fari Island” islands owned and developed by Pontiac Land Group— they’re actually man-made islands, another fascinating subject to unpack some other time. But anyway, three of the islands hold resorts: The Ritz-Carlton, the Patina Maldives, and the soon-to-open Capella. And then the fourth island is the staff island, Fari Campus, where the staff from the three resorts live—right now about 1,400 staff in total.

It’s my third day at the Ritz-Carlton and, around lunchtime, I finally take a boat over to see the staff island.

Nadheem: So we will go first to our beach, staff from beach.This is Maldives, the sunny side of life. So we should start always from the beach.

Sally: Nadheem is the Learning & Development Manager at the Fari Campus.

Nadheem: So this is our football pitch, not only football but cricket, you know, every such games we play here.

Sally: The island has a free buffet-style canteen and also a small subsidized restaurant that’s open late, plus a small grocery store, a hair salon, a health clinic, a lounge, a computer room, and a gym, our next spot on the tour.

Naheel: This is 10 times better than what I expected.

Sally [in interview]: What did you expect?

Naheel: Not this! Not this!

Sally: It’s a really nice gym, well-equipped, overlooking the ocean with walls of windows.

Sally [in interview]: If I were staying at a hotel, and it had a gym like this, I’d be overjoyed.

Nadheem: Over there is the area [where] we do yoga and some aerobic classes in the evening, maybe sunset yoga or sunrise yoga.

Sally: The Pontiac Land Group really did something new with the Fari Island Campus. For instance, it’s not just unique that there’s a staff island but that a luxury resort architect was brought in to design it. That’s definitely not the norm.

And though it’s too early to know the impact—the Ritz and Patina just opened in 2021—the Pontiac Land Group is confident that the Fari Campus will lead to happier staff, which ultimately means easier hiring and retention and overall better hospitality for guests.

We check out one of the rooms, Nadheem’s room in fact. So this part is similar to how other properties do worker housing—the size of your room, and how many people you share it with, is determined by your job. If you work in housekeeping or the spa, you probably have a “four share,” meaning you have three roommates and you’re in bunk beds. If you’re a manager like Nadheem, you have a single. Depending on your level here, there’s even housekeeping—and your sheets are changed once or even twice a week.

Nadheem’s room is modern and bright. There’s a double bed and a sofa, a desk, and a big ceiling fan.

Sally [in interview]: OK, so the mini fridge.

Nadheem: TV.

Sally [in interview]: TV you had to bring or they bring?

Nadheem: No, it’s provided from here.

Sally: Also, every room apparently comes with the biggest water bottle I’ve ever seen.

Sally [in interview]: What’s this? What’s with this water bottle?

Nadheem: This is a Fari Campus water bottle. So every room, all the resident has one.

Sally: Oh, OK.

Samhi: They want us to be hydrated.

Sally: That’s a lot of water.

Nadheem: A lot of water, yeah. So what I do, I fill it from the pantry and bring it, I boil it, then I drink.

Sally: I join Nadheem and a group of workers in the canteen for lunch.

Worker: The feeling that you will leave your work behind there and you will come to be a better version of yourself when you are on island is, I think, very, very unique feeling we all get when we are living in our staff island, Fari Campus.

Another worker: Having a separate island like this gives us more freedom to do more activities to—where there’s no restrictions, you know, to walk around the island. So you feel that, you know, how do you say: that freedom.

Sally: The lunch at the staff island cantina was good but later, I had dinner with some of the staff from the Patina, who also live on the staff island. We ate at the Patina’s Patagonian steakhouse and I ate a very, very nice steak. And just so we’re clear, the cantina was nice, but the steakhouse was extraordinary. And yeah, hotel staff can enjoy the amenities at the resorts—they can book dinner at a hotel restaurant, a massage in the spa, or a night in an overwater bungalow at a 50 percent discount. There are regular boats between the staff island and the other resort islands—plus regular boats back to the mainland.

Fatima: My name is Fatima. I am the events and curations coordinator. I started working at Patina in early 2021, way before we opened. I was actually one of the first line level staff to come from the island.

They are very much into the work-life balance concept here. And it’s just a 10- to 15-minute boat ride away from the place that we work and the place we have our accommodation. And, uh, it’s perfect! It has everything. And it’s very clean, it’s very new. You get the privacy and you even get to go to Mali every day. There’s a boat arranged for you three times a day. So we can just go back and forth to see our parents and family anytime we want.

Sally: Let’s not paint everything too rosy. Maldivian tourism is a $500 billion–plus industry, but you still have staff making relative pennies compared to the thousands of dollars a day being spent by guests. As of 2021, tourism accounted for roughly a quarter of the Maldivian economy and one third of government revenue. Yes, that means many in the Maldives have a stable source of income. But there’s also a price to pay. Many have to work away from their families for large chunks of time. Nadheem, the learning and development manager, has a 5 year old and 10 year old who live on his home island in the Maldives.

Nadheem: Normally the mattresses they have over there on the bed will be over there. So I will be over here. But I just feel this way because I bring my family and so it’s easy for us to have this setup. We have single accommodation so we can bring our family and they can live with us for 90 days.

Sally: Nadheem’s walls are pretty blank, except for a tiny little cluster of tiny little handwritten notes, which were clearly written by tiny little hands.

Sally [in interview]: I could tell from the—

Nadheem: —some of the notes—

Sally: I figured that wasn’t your handwriting.

Nadheem: They leave me notes, you know. When I come from work I see their notes. They have drawings—you can see, this not what I use. They use this.

Sally: So they live at home, but they come to visit?

Nadheem: During school holidays they come and they are coming this month on the 22nd as well.

Sally: And you go when you have your, your leave. That must be hard.

Nadheem: It is what it is, right? And most of the locals who live in the resorts, this is our life.

Sally: During my stay at the Ritz-Carlton, I met a young man from the Philippines who was incredibly excited to be working there, his first job in the Maldives, because now he could finally be near his mother who works at a different resort on a different island. She’d worked in the Maldives for most of his life.

So does the Fari Campus model cure all of the complexities of island resorts? No. The good news is, the Maldives has strong minimum wage laws and Ritz workers get generous vacation days—over a month off per year—but still, while I was there, I heard about a family that, if I’m doing the math right, spent more in a weekend than a Ritz housekeeper makes in a year. Travel, whether it’s in the Maldives or Manhattan or anywhere in between, is often about those who have being served by those who have less. And yet, at least in the way they’re innovating with their staff housing, the Fari Islands and their owners are maybe, hopefully, making things a little more just. Or at least feel more just—and that’s more important too. Here’s Abby again, from the spa.

Abby: I feel that if you’re in the island, in the same island as the guest, there’s limited spots for you to go. But if you have your own staff island, you can go whatever. Like, you can swim. You can snorkel. Like I feel like I am the guest in the campus like that.

Aislyn: That was Sally Kohn. And that was the Ritz-Carlton Maldives Fari Islands. We’ll link to the resort’s website in the show notes and we’ll also link to Sally’s social media handles and the other stories she’s written for AFAR. We’ll see you next week.

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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.