Originally published earlier this month as a blog for Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and Lapa Rios Ecolodge, this recent interview with my friend Hitesh provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a unique travel professional who has written a compelling new book (which he refers to not as a “coffee table” book but as a “chai table” book), perfect for a holiday gift for anyone of any age who loves to read about the sustainable designs of exotic, eco-friendly lodgings and see state-of-the-art photography of amazing architectural spaces from all over the world! Order Authentic Ecolodges here.
“Nestled between the Pacific and one of Central America’s last remaining lowland rain forests, Lapa Rios is a true tropical paradise, graced with a dazzling array of biodiversity and dramatic scenery. A Minnesota couple, Karen and John Lewis, purchased the land in 1991 with the intention of proving a point: that a rain forest left standing is more profitable than one cut down… Committed to the idea that the land could be sustainable in both economic and ecologic terms, the Lewises constructed Lapa Rios around the rain forest (instead of the other way around)… It is one of only three properties in the whole of Costa Rica that has earned the highest possible ranking—five green leaves—under the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST).”
Thus begins the Lapa Rios section of Hitesh Mehta’s new book, ‘Authentic Ecolodges,’ published in September and launched worldwide earlier this month with an array of book signings and other events scheduled for the next few months on several continents. Hitesh Mehta, world-renowned landscape architect, environmental planner and architect, is one of the world’s leading authorities, practitioners, and researchers when it comes to ecolodge planning and design from both the architectural and landscape architectural perspectives. Through his design work with indigenous communities, Mehta has developed a portfolio of projects in Madagascar, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo, Turks and Caicos, Galapagos, Gabon, Fiji, Bahamas, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico and the United States. His latest accomplishment, a one-of-a-kind experiential book, is the product of a 2 ½ year, 46-country, six-continent journey to document and illustrate what truly makes an ecolodge an ecolodge.
Frances: You are obviously overjoyed to have reached the milestone of having your amazingly beautiful and immensely educational book finally published by Harper Collins. Tell us more about your vision for the book and why you undertook such a vast and awe-inspiring project.
Frances: You have been involved in ecotourism for a very long time, since the beginning really. What new trends do you see influencing decision makers and stakeholders in ecolodge development?
Hitesh: One new direction is the idea of community owned and operated ecolodges. This concept started in Kenya but now has spread all over the world. These are projects which are entirely owned and operated by the local communities, such as Maasai and Native Americans in the Bolivian Amazon. A second interesting trend is that more and more ecotourism enterprises are adding “wellness centers” to their program of offerings. Yet another is the expansion into higher quality lodges. The upgrading of facilities is a response to the growing upper middle-class ‘experience seekers’ and ‘metro-spirituals’ market.
Frances: Why did you choose to study ecotourism and why do you love it?
Frances: This touches on the concept you have talked to me about before, that of ecopsychology. Could you explain this for our readers?
Hitesh: In very simple terms, ecopsychology connects psychology and ecology. The basic idea of ecopsychology is that while the human mind is shaped by the modern social and technological world, it can be readily inspired and comforted by the wider natural world, because that is the arena in which it originally evolved. The political and practical implications are to show humans ways of healing alienation and to build a sane society and a sustainable culture. Mental health or unhealth cannot be understood simply in the narrow context of only intrapsychic phenomena or social relations. One also has to include the relationship of humans to other species and ecosystems. The destruction of ecosystems means that something in humans also dies. Humans, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, are part of this web and linked intrinsically with all species of nature. If they destroy nature, they will eventually destroy themselves.
Hitesh: Being located in one of Costa Rica’s most biodiverse areas comes with a list of environmental responsibilities—namely protecting the area and its inhabitants. Lapa Rios works with the Nature Conservancy and Cederena to ensure that protective measures are in place. On any given day, guests can watch an impressive range of animals—troops of howler monkeys, long-nosed coatimundis, three-toed sloths, and over 320 species of birds, like scarlet macaws and toucans frolicking in their natural habitat—all of which is visible from one of the lodge’s sixteen open-air bungalows. During construction, not one native tree was cut down to yield the five-acre compound. Lapa Rios is one of the Osa Peninsula’s largest employers: 90 percent of its sixty employees are from the local community. This is all in the book – and to learn the rest, you have to read it!
Frances: What can we as professionals in the hospitality and tourism industry do to help spread the word about ‘Authentic Ecolodges’?
Hitesh: Since no man can be an island, I look for your support to hand over this book as a gift to as many people as you feel will benefit. This will also make your holiday season stress-free as you won’t need to worry about what gifts to give! The more books you buy, the more we will all collectively be able to make a difference on this planet!
Upcoming book signings with Hitesh:
Seattle: Tuesday, November 16, 7 p.m. Third Place Ravenna Bookstore, 6504 20th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115
Canada: Wednesday, November 17, 11:30 a.m. Tourism Victoria, 4th Floor, Bastion Square, Victoria, BC
Los Angeles: Friday, November 19, 7 p.m. Borders Westwood, 1360 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90024
Irving: Sunday November 21, 4 p.m. Element Hotel, 3550 W. IH 635, Irving, Texas 75063
South Africa: Saturday, Dec. 4, 3 p.m. Book Dealers of Gallo Manor, Lower Level, Morning Glen Shopping Center, Corner of Bowling Road and Kelvin Drive, Gallo Manor, phone (o11) 656.7026
Africa: Saturday, December 11, 4 p.m. Text Book Centre, Sarit Centre, Westlands, Nairobi, KENYA
More about Hitesh Mehta
A professional photographer and Hall of Fame cricket player from Kenya, Hitesh Mehta was named one of the “25 Most Powerful People in Adventure” by Men’s Journal. He is an adjunct professor at several universities in southern Florida, sits on the board of The International Ecotourism Society, is a member of the advisory board of BIOSFERA (Brazilian Environmental Society), is a founding member of The Ecotourism Society of Kenya, and has been the international advisor for the Japan Ecolodge Association. He has also been a judge and on-site inspector for the Tourism for Tomorrow awards, World Legacy Awards on Heritage Tourism and Ecotourism (National Geographic/Conservation International) and Ecotourism Awards (Conde Nast Traveler).
If you have enjoyed this interview, some of the topics touched on are discussed more in depth in another interview with Hitesh by Meg Pier, here.