These Sea Creatures Are Another Big Reason to Go to the Maldives

As tourists flock in increasing numbers to this island paradise, a conservation project based at one of its top resorts is protecting the country’s most celebrated residents.

I was surveying the impossibly white sand and Technicolor-turquoise Indian Ocean outside my beach villa at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru–a dazzling, 44-acre island resort in the country’s remote northern Baa Atoll–when the ring of the mobile phone I’d received at check-in only 20 minutes before shattered my paradisiacal revelry.

“The team just spotted them,” said a friendly voice from reception. “Please head to the pier as soon as possible if you’d like to join.”

I pulled on my swimsuit and hopped on my monogrammed cruiser bike, peddling to the dock along the sprawling resort’s sandy lanes in the shadow of towering coconut palms and emerald jungle foliage. Soon a small group of guests and I were aboard a speedboat, snorkel gear in hand, as we whizzed toward Hanifaru Bay, one of the world’s most important feeding sites for reef manta rays.

We jumped into the cool, crystalline water, following our guide with eyes trained below the surface. Suddenly, a dozen reef mantas emerged from the sun-streaked blue depths as if from another universe, drifting toward us slowly through the shifting currents. Known collectively (along with oceanic manta rays and devil rays) as mobulids, reef mantas are some of the world’s most enigmatic creatures, with a decidedly imposing anatomy–their wingspan can reach over 13 feet–that contrasts starkly with their consummately gentle nature. As they must keep water flowing over their gills in order to breathe, manta rays are born into an existence of perpetual motion; in an average 50-year lifetime, they travel tens of thousands of miles feeding on zooplankton, some of the smallest animals in the sea.

Gentle Giants

The intellect and inquisitiveness of manta rays, which have the largest brain of all fish, makes for truly mesmerizing encounters with these benevolent behemoths. Floating facedown a few feet below the ocean’s surface, I tried to stay stock-still as one swam directly toward me as if playing a game of chicken, its colossal, winglike pectoral fins flapping hypnotically. When some six feet away, my curious new friend subtly changed course, dipping a few feet below me as I stared down at its back in sheer awe. To observe reef mantas in this pristine habitat is to watch an underwater ballet choreographed by nature, these achingly graceful “birds of the sea” gliding and somersaulting through the cerulean depths to a soundtrack of silence.

Guy Stevens, Manta Trust

At about 5,000 rays and counting, the Maldivian reef manta population is the largest-known on earth by a measurable margin. The fact that a wealth of scientific data about them exists at all owes almost entirely to the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), the flagship research mission of the Manta Trust, a U.K.-based charity dedicated to the global conservation of these charismatic creatures.

Founded in 2005 and headquartered in the Marine Discovery Centre at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, the MMRP collects data about the country’s manta population, their movements, and how the environment, tourism, and human interactions affect them. It’s the brainchild of Manta Trust CEO and founder Guy Stevens, who is working diligently with his team to protect these singular animals as the tourist influx to this idyllic island nation continues to grow.

Stevens first encountered the Maldivian reef mantas when he was hired as a marine biologist and dive guide on the Four Seasons Explorer, the brand’s Maldivian luxury liveaboard yacht, in 2003.

“I was captivated,” says Stevens, a British marine biologist and now one of the world’s foremost experts on the species. Eager to learn more, he searched online for basic information about mantas–such as their life-span and how often they reproduce–to virtually no avail. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I can start a research project on them,'” he recalls.

Four Seasons Resort Maldives

In 2005, Stevens approached Armando Kraenzlin, currently regional vice president of Four Seasons Maldives who was then general manager of Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa, to gauge Kraenzlin’s interest in supporting a prospective project. Kraenzlin told him that Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, then under construction, would have an on-site marine research center that could serve as command central for Stevens’s research. Shortly thereafter, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project was born.

“Four Seasons Maldives has been our biggest supporter since the beginning,” Stevens says. “Without them, we would never have been able to launch the project.”

A Shifting Landscape Amid New Challenges

Since its inception, the MMRP has identified some 4,700 reef manta rays (via the unique spot patterns on their undersides) from 60,000 photo-identification sightings. Besides creating a research-backed code of conduct and multimedia toolkit to educate tourists and operators about how to swim with manta rays, the MMRP’s notable list of achievements, including the designation of the Baa Atoll as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2011–the only one in the 1,200-island nation–and the inclusion of all manta and devil rays in the Appendices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (the Bonn Convention) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The MMRP’s efforts have also led to the designation of Hanifaru Bay and Anga Faru as two of 42 marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Maldives. Hanifaru Bay–whose unique shape concentrates planktonic food, thus attracting large numbers of manta rays and whale sharks–has become something of a model for sustainable manta tourism in the country. Once overrun by boats full of snorkelers and divers–“it was an absolute zoo,” says Stevens–the bay is now strictly monitored by rangers, funded through a fee visitors pay to access the MPA, which is often handled directly by the resorts. Hanifaru’s management policy has banned diving entirely and limits the number of tourist boats on-site to five at a time, with a maximum of 80 tourists in the water simultaneously.

With tourism momentum in the Maldives showing no signs of abating–1.5 million visitors are expected this year, compared with 1 million in 2013–the MMRP’s next lofty goal is to work with the Maldivian government to implement government-sanctioned legislation, similar to the plan in place at Hanifaru, that would apply to all 300-plus manta aggregation sites across the country’s 26 atolls. Presently, the majority of these sites–which include 73 “cleaning stations,” prominent spots along the reef where mantas gather to have parasites removed from their bodies by small fish called cleaner wrasses–remain completely unregulated. As a result, divers congregate at these viewing hotspots to observe the action and take photos, often scaring off the mantas and damaging coral reefs in the process.

“These places are where tourism pressures are at their greatest,” Stevens says. “We need to take a carrot-and-stick approach that rewards conscientious operators with certifications and other ways to promote themselves and penalizes those that behave badly.”

A large colony of orange sun coral (Tubastraea faulkneri) on an outcrop surrounded by reef fish. North Mal? Atoll, Maldives. Adam Broadbent

Given that manta tourism already generates over $8.1 million in direct revenue for the Maldivian economy–which is 80% dependent on tourism–the country’s vested interest in protecting this population seems clear. But considering the litany of other challenges facing the developing nation, including climate change (as the world’s lowest-lying country, a majority of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands may be underwater within decades) and coral reef bleaching (which has severely damaged the majority of its reefs since 2014), Stevens acknowledges that it’s likely to be a slow process.

“We have a good relationship with the Ministry of Environment, and I’m hopeful that something will happen in the next few years,” Stevens says. “But I don’t expect miracles either.”

In the meantime, guests at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru can interact with these gentle giants during manta season, which spans from June through early November, via a range of singular activities including Manta Ray Scientist for a Day and its Manta on Call service. For the latter, you’ll receive a dedicated “manta phone” (as I did), get a call whenever the MMRP team alerts resort staff to a sighting nearby, and then have 30 minutes to head to the dock and be whisked off to swim among them.

A beach villa at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru in the Maldives. Four Seasons Resort Maldives

In September, Four Seasons will also launch Manta Trust Expeditions aboard the Four Seasons Explorer, its three-deck, 22-person catamaran, which is the Maldives’ fastest and most luxurious floating resort. Accompanied by Stevens and other MMRP team members, you’ll partake in every aspect of the manta research experience, including taking ID photos and recording vital environmental information.

The MMRP staff now number 15 in the Maldives and have expanded into other atolls through their work with a handful of other high-end resorts, including Six Senses Laamu in Laamu Atoll. “We only want to work with operators that are genuinely invested in helping the environment,” Stevens says. In addition, the Manta Trust is currently collaborating on 25 affiliate projects in countries including Mexico, Brazil, and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the wealth of unprecedented data the MMRP has collected informs the mantas’ ongoing protection, both in the Maldives and other far-flung corners of the world.

“If you don’t know how many individuals comprise a population, or how often they’re able to reproduce, you can’t determine the impact of the threats they face,” Stevens explains. “This data allows us to answer key life history questions that are vital to the management and conservation of the entire species.”

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Meet a Tea Sommelier: She’ll Tell You You’re Most Likely Drinking Your Tea Wrong

Gabrielle Jammal wants to change the world, one cup of tea at a time.

As a certified tea sommelier–yes, that’s a real job–she runs the afternoon tea program at the Baccarat Hotel in New York City. While delicious beverages and savory scones are part of the menu, her mission is to inspire guests to better understand tea.

“It has such a warm and fuzzy feeling for so many people,” says Jammal. “Everyone in the world drinks tea–men, women, children, people of different ages and walks of life. It gets me so excited.”

Gabrielle Jammal Andrew OM Art Photography LLC

Tea does seem to transcend boundaries. It holds a special place in cultures around the world, from Great Britain to Japan. But in the United States, it’s still largely underappreciated. While afternoon tea has become a social gathering, especially at luxury hotels like the Baccarat, many guests still don’t understand the tradition. A common sight at any afternoon tea these days is a three-tiered server of petits fours and cucumber sandwiches, a phone cued up to Instagram, and guests unconsciously dumping cream and sugar into a teapot; there is little regard for the subtleties of the brewed beverage.

Some of that’s changing, Jammal admits, thanks to tea’s touted health benefits and foray into mainstream wellness. When it comes to actually drinking tea, though, there’s so much more to it than a packet of Lipton. As a tea sommelier, Jammal makes sure you know that.

For starters, Jammal treats her tea list like a wine list. If she showcases tea like alcohol, she says, people are motivated to think about it in the same way. “It helps people understand that tea has complexity of flavor,” she explains. The list is carefully curated to include traditional styles and regions, but it doesn’t stop there. It also includes herbal infusions–“herbal tea” is a misnomer since it’s not made from the tea plant–and newer styles from well-known regions. For example, India has recently started making white teas, historically crafted in China, as well as processing certain flushes of Darjeeling (a flush is a growing season) in more experimental fashions. You can find both on her menu. She likes to collaborate with small producers and local companies, like In Pursuit of Tea, a business based in Watertown, Mass., that sources teas from farmers around the world and sticks to natural ingredients. As many of today’s consumers want to know the faces behind the brands, she appreciates that her tea partners can provide that to the Baccarat guests.

The Prince of Wales menu for afternoon tea service. Baccarat Hotel New York

As much as Jammal can nerd out on trends, hospitality is still at the core of being a tea sommelier. Not only does the Baccarat Hotel offer elaborate services named for the brand’s famed clients–the Tsar Nicholas II caviar tea for tea with a bottle of Krug Grande Cuv?e Champagne will set you back $600, while the King Louis XV French-inspired spread is a more modest $65–but Jammal also recently introduced a vegan tea menu. It includes vegan versions of standbys like scones and also special nibbles like a white asparagus tart and black truffles on a blini. Her intimate pairing dinners feature tea and alcohol tastings that complement three-course meals–in case you thought tea was only for breakfast. The Baccarat plans to offer a highly authentic Japanese green tea experience, but that’s still in the works. (“The Japanese level of detail takes time to master,” Jammal says. “I want to do it justice.”)

The Grand Salon Baccarat Hotel New York

All of this wouldn’t be possible without her extensive knowledge of everything tea. Jammal started drinking black tea as a young child with her British grandmother. Though treats came in the form of packaged biscuits and simple sandwiches, she still fell for the entire experience. Fast-forward to adulthood, and Jammal found herself in the hospitality industry.

As others focused on mixology and wine sommelier apprenticeships, Jammal was all about tea. She continued her education by working at Teavana Tea Company, studying with producers, and adding a collection of certifications to her name. One in particular, bestowed by the International Tea Masters Association, designated her a tea sommelier. “[At the time] I actually didn’t know that the job title existed,” Jammal says, who is one of only two on the East Coast today. “If you googled ‘tea sommelier,’ nothing came up. I just knew I wanted to share the love of tea, so I took a leap of faith.”

Jammal was familiar with a wine sommelier, and that’s why she approaches her job in much the same way. A lot of what Jammal does is education. At any given service, she tries to stop by every table to discuss tea. She encourages her staff to have a connection with certain teas so they can talk about them. And she constantly debunks myths. One misconception? That all teas should have milk and sugar.

“We, as a culture, have been so used to bad teas that people like to cover up the bad tea flavor with all the additives,” Jammal says of milk, sugar, and honey. “But they can change a profile completely. That is not something people think about.” She advises that guests always try the tea first and contemplate the taste before deciding on alternative ingredients. Jammal often answers questions about antioxidant and caffeine levels in tea, including that decaf does, in fact, have caffeine. While the responses are sometimes complicated, she appreciates that guests ask at all. It proves tea is becoming more approachable, and guests are less intimidated by a list that reaches far beyond Earl Grey.

“We want this awareness,” Jammal says. “One cup of tea can change people’s minds, and that can change your life.”

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Oaxacan Cuisine Looks Poised to Make Its Mark With U.S. Diners

While Mexican food has long been a staple of restaurants in the United States, it has only been in the past few years that more and more non-Mexican diners have stopped lumping the country’s diverse swath of cuisines together as a single genre and started parsing out the details of its distinct regional cultures.

Most notably, Oaxacan cuisine–often considered the heart of Mexico’s culinary culture–has finally entered the American spotlight.

Second-generation restaurateur Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza in L.A. is poised to further highlight the cuisine with this summer’s opening of Mama Rabbit Bar in Las Vegas, while Rodolfo Castellanos, chef of Oaxaca’s Origen, thinks about how the cuisine is seen in the Mexican state’s eponymous capital.

“People knew about mole,” says Lopez of Americans’ impression of Oaxacan food when her dad first opened their restaurant in 1994. “But there wasn’t this conversation about how Oaxaca is root and soul of everything [in] Mexican cuisine.” That is part of the conversation she hopes to spark when Mama Rabbit opens: She sees Las Vegas as a place where she can show off her culture, not just to the diverse city of Los Angeles–which, she’s quick to point out, has long embraced her family’s cuisine–but where people from all over gather.

“It has so much weight in perception of the world,” Lopez says, explaining that as an indigenous female opening a mezcal and tequila bar, she sees an opportunity not only to show there’s more to the drinks than shots, but to “bring the history of where it comes from to the forefront. To have a home there, on the same playing field as chefs renowned around the globe.”

Mama Rabbit is different from Guelaguetza. Not so much a full-scale restaurant, Mama Rabbit will focus squarely on the drinks from Lopez’s home state and will offer only a few light bites. But the same thing that inspired her father to open their restaurant still pushes Lopez today: “It’s about raising the bar on what people should expect from Mexican restaurants and Mexican food.”

When Lopez’s father first came to Los Angeles, she says he noticed a lot of his fellow country people there–as well as a distinct lack of places to find their native food. Lopez and her mother would go to the market in Oaxaca, gather boxes of local essentials–the plate-sized thin, crisp flatbread called tlayudas, chapulines (grasshoppers), and mole paste–and ship them to Tijuana, where her father would drive down and pick them up to sell door to door.

Eventually, this operation grew into the restaurant it is today: a Jonathan Gold-anointed celebration of a rainbow of moles, a fiesta of corn dough in infinite permutations, and an ode to the deep, layered flavors of Oaxaca. In trying to characterize Oaxacan food, Lopez describes each ingredient as “treated individually to emphasize the flavor. Really layering ingredients that are native to Oaxaca … It’s not just about throwing ingredients together.”

Tradition Meets Innovation

But the ingredients, her story shows, were then–and are still–what drives Oaxacan cuisine. “The value is in the products, not the tradition,” says Castellanos. Whether the cooking is done over a live fire or by sous vide, the ingredients keep its roots in Oaxaca. Castellanos’s roots, too, have always stayed in the state. After culinary school, he received a scholarship to cook in Monaco, then cooked in French restaurants, followed by a stint at the French embassy in Mexico City, before ending up at Jardini?re in San Francisco. But Castellanos says he felt the pull of Oaxaca: It had always been his inspiration, and he felt he owed it to the cuisine that had earned him his scholarship to come back and share what he had learned in his home state.

“I wanted to open a restaurant and use Oaxacan ingredients,” Castellanos says of what drove him to open Origen seven years ago. These days, eating local products is a worldwide trend, Castellanos says. “That’s the daily basis of living in Oaxaca … We just have to do whatever we used to do on a daily basis, because that’s what gives us our personality, our tradition, and our stamp.”

As Oaxacan food moves forward, the main factor Castellanos sees bringing change to the cuisine in its homeland is a move toward consciousness about how chefs use products–cutting trees for cooking with charcoal; depleting varieties of foods that are starting to disappear. “We will end up eating all the octopus in the world,” Castellanos says, noting that the price has gone from 90 pesos up to 350 pesos and that he has to get it shipped from far away. (He plans to remove it from the menu soon.)

But Castellanos seems confident that the same traditions that have carried Oaxacan cuisine through history will enable it to survive the inundation of new ideas, new techniques, and any other obstacles. “We didn’t build Monte Alb?n last month,” he says, referring to the nearby ruins. “Everything is always evolving. There will be new things; they will come to Oaxaca. Or they’ll have the Oaxacan touch in other places.”

Castellanos seems to see almost infinite possibilities for the growth of Oaxacan cuisine, the world’s knowledge of it, and interesting new permutations of the traditional ingredients. “But I don’t think we’ll see a mole burger,” he says, laughing. “At least I hope not.”

How China’s Most Popular App Spies on Users for Beijing

Greetings from Hong Kong. Clay Chandler here, filling in for Alan with our weekly Sino-Saturday edition of CEO Daily.

I’ve written a lot about the wonders of WeChat, the multi-functional “super app” operated by China’s Tencent Holdings. I’m not alone in considering WeChat one of the world’s most innovative digital platforms. Launched in 2011 as a messaging service similar to WhatsApp, WeChat has emerged as China’s dominant messaging app and rapidly morphed into an all-in-one platform for social networking, mobile payment, money transfers, ride hailing, food delivery and much, much more.

In February of this year, Tencent announced that WeChat had amassed more than 1 billion monthly active users. As CEO Daily readers who have visited China recently will know, WeChat (or Weixin, ??, as it is known in Chinese) has become an indispensable part of everyday life in modern China. It’s been called China’s “one app to rule them all.”

But WeChat has a creepy dark side–one explained simply and clearly by a recent blog post from BBC Beijing correspondent Stephen McDonnell. Earlier this month, McDonnell travelled to Hong Kong to cover a candlelight vigil marking 30 years since the People’s Liberation Army was ordered to open fire on student protesters in Tiananmen Square. The event drew a record crowd this year, with some estimates ranging as high as 180,000 people. McDonnell took photos of the event with his mobile phone and posted some on his WeChat Moments account.

McDonnell reports being quickly locked out of WeChat. When he tried to log back in he received the following message: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been temporarily blocked…”

McDonnell waited a day for his WeChat privileges to be restored. When he next tried to log in, he was instructed to tick an “agree and unblock” box confessing that the reason he had been blocked was for “spreading malicious rumors.” He agreed, and was then instructed to hold his phone up, take a photo of his face, and read a series of numbers around in Mandarin. After his face and voice had been successfully captured, he received a big green tick confirming that his request to regain access to WeChat had been approved.

A recent study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen’s Lab found WeChat is not only capable of filtering keywords and but can detect and block images deemed sensitive without users’ knowledge. The prospect that WeChat can not only recognize such images but then force users to add themselves to a database of suspicious users is a terrifying one–and not only for journalists. I know many senior IT executives at large financial institutions in Hong Kong who adamantly refuse to download WeChat even though (or perhaps because) they travel regularly for work on China’s mainland.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

Innovation and Tech

Superfast 5G. China’s three state-owned mobile network operators – China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile – were issued licenses to roll out 5G services this week, way ahead of schedule. Observers had expected the licenses to be issued later this year. It seems plans have been brought forward as a show of strength to the U.S. China’s leader in 5G equipment, the embattled Huawei Technologies, says it’s “fully prepared” for the rollout. Financial Times

Chinese Buffett. Justin Sun, a 28-year-old cryptocurrency entrepreneur from China, placed the winning bid in Glide’s annual charity auction of a lunch date with Warren Buffett. Sun, who runs crypto exchange Tronix, or TRON, paid $4.6 million for a powwow with the Sage of Omaha. Sun says he wants to change Buffett’s mind about the value of cryptocurrency, which Buffett has called “rat poison squared.” Sun is not the first Chinese entrepreneur to buy a date with Buffett but his bid has set a new record. Bloomberg

Samsung slims. Samsung is cutting jobs and production at its last remaining plant in China as the smartphone giant is priced out of the market by local competitors. Samsung’s market share has declined from 20% in 2013 to just 1% now. Samsung has shifted production to Vietnam and India. However, the South Korean tech firm is still developing a semiconductor plant in China’s Xi’an province, pledging over $14 billion to phase two of its development in May. Caixin

Economy and Trade

Friends like these. Xi Jinping concluded a three-day state visit to Russia by attending the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). In a speech, Xi called President Trump his friend and said neither China nor the U.S. want to see a “complete break” of relations. But while Xi sees Trump as a friend, the Chinese President called Vladimir Putin his “best friend.” At the same forum, Putin stuck up for his BFF and accused the U.S. of “unbridled economic egoism.” CNBC

Signed, sealed, misdelivered. China is investigating whether FedEx Corp violated the rights of its clients after Huawei reported that several packages sent through the global logistics firm had been diverted to the U.S. FedEx says the packages – some of which contained legal documents – were “misrouted in error.” Reuters

Hitting the brakes. China’s market regulator fined Ford Motor’s joint venture with Chongqing Changan Automobile $23.55 million for violating anti-monopoly laws. The regulator claims Ford Changan set a minimum resale price for its vehicles in 2013, violating local laws. Of course, some analysts view the fine as a “warning shot” from Beijing – a hint to Washington of what U.S. companies can expect as the trade war drags on. Reuters

Politics and Policy

Traveler, beware. China’s ministries are warning citizens against going to the U.S. The education ministry advised students planning to study in the U.S. that visa rejections are rising – implying students might not want to waste time applying – while the Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a travel alert warning would-be tourists of “frequent” shootings, robberies and theft in the U.S. Quartz

Taiwan tanks. The U.S. reportedly plans to sell over $2 billion of arms to Taiwan, mostly in the form of tanks as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state but maintains a pact to equip the island for defence. The U.S. is Taiwan’s primary military supplier and periodically makes new weapons deals, but the latest sale comes as U.S.-China relations are at a new low. Reuters

Justifying Tiananmen. This week marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre. Censorship efforts kick into overdrive each year around June 4. Peculiarly, at a security summit in Singapore, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe actually answered a question on Tiananmen. Wei said that the government’s actions in 1989 were “correct” and have been justified by China’s economic growth in the decades since. South China Morning Post

 

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Eamon Barrett. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.

Move Over, Tuscany: Puglia Is Italy’s New Hotspot for Luxury and Wellness Retreats

Puglia hasn’t always been on the global list of luxury travel destinations. But change is coming, thanks to visionary hotel investors and passionate local entrepreneurs.

Restored farmhouses known as masserie dot the region. These lush properties boast gourmet restaurants, wellness retreat facilities, day spas, and villa-like suites–some with private swimming pools. A short distance south of densely populated Bari and north of Brindisi, you’ll find a concentration of towns each uniquely diverse, nestled in the slopes of the Itria and Murgia valleys.

In the center sits Savelletri di Fasano, an unassuming town of 600 and home to the region’s most exclusive resorts. It has become an epicenter of hotel investment, namely for the Rocco Forte and San Domenico hotel groups.

Borgo Egnazia Jacob Sjoman

Old Traditions, New Luxury

Here, Borgo Egnazia was a pioneer in the area in 2011, hitting it big with the Hollywood crowd first in 2012 for the wedding of singer Justin Timberlake and actress Jessica Biel, and again in 2017, when Madonna danced the night away doing the traditional local folk dance, the pizzica. Nestled amongst millennia-old olive groves, Borgo Egnazia isn’t technically a masseria, but with its spaces, lines, and sand-colored stone it is a microcosm of a traditional Apulian village.

Aldo Melpignano, owner and managing director of Italy’s San Domenico Hotels group, says the resort’s philosophy is more about guests’ well-being than luxury: “We never use the word ‘luxury,’ even if we design and offer high-end experiences for our guests. For us, true luxury means to offer something based on love and care at the fullest, designing meaningful experiences deeply rooted in our land and traditions.”

Open year round, the property boasts 183 rooms, casette (mini houses), and villas; six restaurants; private beach clubs; swimming pools; and soon-to-be-expanded spa Vair, touted as one of the best in the country.

Masseria Torre Maizza

In May, Masseria Torre Maizza became the latest high-end resort in the area. Combining an ode to local heritage with contemporary luxury, the original 16th-century farmhouse has come to life with 40 impeccably designed rooms and suites, a gourmet restaurant, rooftop bar, and swimming pool set among the perfectly manicured gardens.

Why expand Rocco Forte, a British luxury hotel group, into Puglia? General manager Franco Girasoli says Puglia has an intriguing culture, beautiful landscapes, and a rich culinary tradition. “It was a strategic move,” explains Girasoli. “Masseria Maizza is emblematic of the guiding principles of the Rocco Forte group: It combines local heritage, contemporary luxury, and tailor-made services.” Group founder Sir Rocco Forte adds, “Our model of luxury has a strong and undeniably Italian soul, is outward looking and draws on the values of culture and design this country was built on.”

Hot Hamlets

Ostuni, nicknamed the “white town” because of the concentration of whitewashed buildings, is also famous for its medieval gates and cathedrals. Enjoy an exquisite meal in a cave at the Osteria del Tempo Perso, where, as the name suggests, it’s as if time stood still.

Perfect to get lost in for a few hours is the town of Locorotondo, another collection of stark white buildings pleasantly void of tourist groups, with glimpses of local life at every turn; elderly Italian women congregate on plastic chairs by their front doors as the intoxicating perfume of orecchiette flows through kitchen windows.

Borgo Egnazia

Alberobello, with its unique Smurf-like dry-stone trulli dwellings, is Unesco protected. Shops and restaurants have terraces ideal for admiring unique rooftops. Don’t miss a typical Apulian lunch at the family-run restaurant La Cantina with never-ending antipasti (starters): a feast of local products from burrata to cured pork delicacies. Follow with the signature orecchiette washed down with local wine.

On the coastline is the fishing village turned hip seaside resort town of Monopoli and the spectacular Polignano a Mare, with views snaking around the cliffs and where town native Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” lyrics decorate the walls. At the entrance to the old town gates, queues build at Il Supermago del Gelo, a bar known for the best gelato in town since 1935. But people flock here for the caff? speciale: a shot of coffee, fresh cream, lemon rind, and signature amaretto.

The Next Entrepreneurs

A food supplier to many of the luxury masserie and resorts in the area, including Masseria Torre Maizza, Salumificio Santoro is the brainchild of Giuseppe Santoro and Piero Caramia, both butchers for over 40 years. Now Santoro’s three children are starting to take the reins at this salumi production house. Daughters Angela and Micaela, especially, stand out as trailblazers for a new generation in a significantly male-dominated industry.

Sisters of Salumeria Santoro Salumeria Santoro

“We were raised working with men, and challenging their skeptical view of us became our daily norm,” Angela Santoro says. “We learned on the job by getting our hands dirty, and in doing so, we gained their respect and admiration.”

Angela says Puglia’s rise in tourism means travelers have discovered it offers much more than the famous Salento beach area. “Puglia is also about the rural Itria Valley, tradition, and gastronomy,” she explains. “Many successful entrepreneurs have been able to capitalize on this, developing world-class resorts.”

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Better Communication Tools Can Radically Improve Workplaces—If Managers Can Convince Workers to Speak Up

When it comes to communication between front-line workers and their headquarters and managers, there seems to be a misunderstanding.

A recent Workplace by Facebook survey found that, while 90% of managers say their frontline workers feel empowered to share ideas with them, just 45% of those employees echoed that sentiment. And while 83% of managers are confident that they give employees a voice within their business, more than half of their reports (54%) say they feel voiceless.

Finding ways to connect these goals and facilitate better communication has benefits for each segment, as well as the company as a whole.

The cost of disconnection

Frontline workers can often provide a wealth of information about operations, efficiency, customer feedback, and other critical metrics, says Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace by Facebook, a collaboration tool created by the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant. The failure to establish communication channels that deliver such valuable data to leadership means that the company loses ideas, improvements, and feedback that could streamline operations and possibly save money or direct investments.

The costs could also come in the form of turnover–a key concern in today’s tight labor market. Codorniou says frontline workers want to better understand the company as well as its goals, values and priorities, while feeling that their work is meaningful. The Workplace survey found that 21% of them will consider quitting of no one is listening to them.

Codorniou adds that the disconnect shown in the survey may be, in part, because managers are overly optimistic about whether their teams are communicating regularly. He sees more managers understanding that good ideas and talent can come from anywhere.

Opening the communication lines

DaVita, a Denver-based dialysis and renal care company with roughly 57,000 employees across almost 3,000 locations in 10 countries, recognized how critical feedback from its disparate workers was roughly 20 years ago. The company was struggling and, as part of its turnaround efforts, then-CEO Kent Thiry, who retired in April 2019, knew he was going to have to harness the input of all employees–something that would be tough to do with traditional management methods, says DaVita’s chief people officer Eric Severson.

In fact, the solution to better communication across companies is a mix of culture, engagement, and technology. Employees need to feel psychologically safe to share information–and feel empowered and engaged enough to do so, says organizational expert and consultant Karen Jaw-Madson, author of Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences at Work. “If they’re in an environment that discourages being able to share, then there’s a ticking time clock,” she says. Employees will leave a job if their input isn’t valued.

Amelia Dunlop, Deloitte Digital’s Boston-based U.S. head of customer strategy and applied design, agrees. Employees can tell when senior leaders want their input or not. Inauthentic efforts and lip service to valuing employees isn’t going to work. Senior leaders need to make collecting frontline feedback a priority and then act on the information, when warranted. “Employees can tell when their communications are authentic or not,” she says.

Tech that can help

In addition to culture, fostering communication is also an information technology (IT) challenge. Tools like Workplace, Slack, and Asana let companies create targeted or company-wide communication channels, share information and feedback, take polls, and engage in other communication formats. Codorniou says one of his clients saw a 6% boost in retention after deploying Workplace, which was attributed to improved engagement.

For DaVita, the solution started with letting employees know that their feedback was important, then implementing a series of in-person and technology tools. Some of the tools are common: Every six to eight weeks, DaVita holds a “Voice of the Village” conference call for all teammates, where executives use a “town hall” format to share updates, answer questions, and tell patient and teammate stories. Each quarter, employees answer an electronic survey that allows them to provide candid, anonymous feedback about everything from the benefits that are important to them to overall cultural issues. And each year, roughly 4,000 employees attend an annual meeting.

Other solutions are a little more experimental. Idea Hub is an online platform where employees can suggest changes or improvements. Tools like WorkJam let frontline employees and leaders communicate directly. Anyone with the app on their phone gets notifications and information shows up in a feed through the app. Talk to Spot is an artificial intelligence-powered tool that lets employees report violations of company policy inappropriate behavior, or other infractions.

The results of these tools have been remarkable, Severson says. Feedback from Idea Hub has led to changes in location design and improvements that have resulted in more efficient workplaces and energy savings at DaVita. Survey results have led to changes in DaVita’s benefits, such as a 401(k) match and enhanced childcare benefits. The company has seen the number of cases with which employee re-engage rise 60% since integrating Talk to Spot versus its hotline. That increase in follow-up leads to more employees feeling heard and feeling like their concerns were addressed, adds Severson.

Managing all of this technology can be time-consuming for team members, Severson admits. And Jaw-Madson says that implementing the right technology that addresses key concerns and doesn’t exacerbate them is also important. Further, anonymous reporting platforms like Whisper and Blind can create an environment that publicizes what’s wrong in the workplace, while their anonymity makes issues difficult to confirm and address. Those factors can make a bad situation worse, she adds.

But when a company is serious about empowering its workforce and helping employees connect with others in the workplace, the tools they need often become clear and play a supporting role, Dunlop says. “Finding the tools that actually are useful and additive to your practice can be helpful, but the tool is not a solution,” says Jaw-Madson. “It has to be the engagement of the leaders and willingness to use the outcomes of the tools.”

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