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Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep hhi_map_lg

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug 01_alphabetsoup

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

How can tourism be responsible? Let’s ask Ged.

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I expend a great deal of energy supporting and promoting various forms of responsible travel, including types of tourism known as “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism.” And so I often encounter the legitimate question: How can tourism be sustainable at all? Doesn’t it, by its very nature, contribute to the planet’s demise? You bring hoards of people into pristine natural areas, altering indigenous cultures, running roughshod over endangered species’ habitats, and releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere with all the flights and other nasty forms of transportation.

Touché. True, if we all wanted to do the most sustainable thing possible, we’d each stay put, on our own plot of land, grow our own food, create our own homes, draw on natural resources for energy and building materials, manufacture our own supplies, and NOT travel, or at least not go very far from our respective communities. However, few of us in this day and age have the skills to go into the wild and live off the grid – much less the disposition to stay in one place. Whether international or regional, travel is how we expand our horizons, how we learn about the world around us. And, as long as we can, as an enterprising species, we are going to do it.

So, then, given human nature, the more practical question becomes: How can those who offer travel experiences ensure they improve the lives of the local people and the ecosystems their trips affect? Fortunately, there are many answers to this question. One of them is to build into the price of the tour funding that will go directly to conservation partners and programs that help the animals and the local people on the ground in the places visited. That is the approach taken by Ged Caddick, who runs Terra Incognita Ecotours. What follows is an interview I did with Ged last month for my Sustainable Travel International column, The STI Inner View.

Nominated for Best Tour Operator in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award, Terra Incognita Ecotours is based in Tampa, Florida, and operates tours to Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania. Gerard “Ged” Caddick founded Terra Incognita Ecotours in 2004 after more than fifteen years of working in expedition travel. Ged worked for Lindblad Expeditions as an expedition leader from 1992 to 2004, and for International Expeditions while living in Belize in the 1980s. He has led trips for the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History as well as many College Alumni groups, the National Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institution. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool, and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. As one can imagine, I had a hard time getting Ged to sit still for this interview as he’s usually on at least three continents each month. We spent a little time together recently when he had just returned from at trip to India setting the foundation for yet another ecotour.

Frances: Where were you in India and what did you see?

Ged: We were in Banhavgarh and Corbett National Parks and had some incredible wildlife experiences. We saw tigers and Asian Elephants on multiple outings, but also the monkeys called Common Langurs, Plum-headed Parakeets, Jungle Cat, Wild Boar, lots of Spotted Deer, Brown Fish Owls, eagles and much more. It was very, very cold in the mornings and hot in the afternoons. We will be offering India in early 2012, probably in February.

Frances: In a nutshell, what is the philosophy behind Terra Incognita Ecotours?

Ged: We are committed to making a difference to our guests and to the places we visit. Our commitment is to provide travelers with opportunities to participate in ecotours that explore the world with a sense of discovery and wonder, and to preserve our environment for future generations. We draw on our legacy of adventure, experience and knowledge to do this. And as we do so, we strive to create ecotours that are as enriching and memorable as they are comfortable and fun.

Frances: How did you decide upon the name Terra Incognita?

Ged: Terra Incognita was chosen as this was the term you saw on the edge of the maps drawn by early explorers to show that the edges of the map were undiscovered, uncharted or unknown land. I love the romance and idea of exploration this invokes.

Frances: How did the experiences and dreams of your formative years foster your leadership skills and shape your interest in travel and animal conservation?

Ged: I grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Liverpool, the oldest of ten children! We had dogs chickens, geese, pigs and various other animals as pets, as well as horses for riding when I was a young teenager. Always being around animals and loving them, I dreamed of being a game park warden in East Africa, Kenya or Tanzania. I even applied for such jobs there as I finished University. I traveled a lot within the UK, to the Lake District every summer with my family and as a teenager all over England, Scotland and Wales, plus a couple of trips to France.

Frances: What was the event that first interested you in environmental conservation?

Ged: During my university days in Liverpool I spent vacations working as a volunteer for the “British Trust for Conservation Volunteers,” doing trail maintenance, cleaning old footpaths, canals and other such tasks.

Frances: Did you have a mentor who directly inspired you in terms of your ultimate career choice in working to protect animals?

Ged: My first job was a zoo-keeper at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, a zoo dedicated to captive breeding and conservation of endangered species. My mentor there was Gerald Durrell, the founder of the zoo.

Frances: How did you first get the inkling you wanted to work in travel or tourism?

Ged: In the mid 1980s, when living in Belize and working at the Belize Zoo, I started doing guiding for International Expeditions as they started tours to Belize. They needed local people who knew the wildlife and culture of Belize. It was then I realized how much I enjoyed sharing my love of conservation and wildlife by showing people natural spaces and species in-the-wild.

Frances: What were the challenges of living in Belize long-term and what did you love about it?

Ged: The biggest challenge to living and working in Belize was the isolation and the fact that simple tasks presented many more logistical challenges; communication, building, even getting supplies takes much more effort there. What I loved was that you could make a difference, that my work at the zoo was helping to change people’s perceptions of wildlife and nature in the country of Belize. You become a big fish in a small pond when working in a small country like Belize; when I was there, the population of the entire country was less than 200,000 people.

Frances: What were the things you most admired about Lindblad Expeditions? What elements of the job did you find challenging? Were there aspects of the travel experience you wanted to emulate when you started your own travel company?

Ged: My time at Lindblad was very enjoyable, and particularly important was the commitment to excellence. Dealing with “difficult” people was always the main challenge! I knew when I started my company it was going to be important that we made a positive impact on the places we visited, that we made a difference, that our presence was a force for good, for improved conservation efforts.

Frances: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards of being a tour operator for you?

Ged: Attracting customers through marketing has been my biggest challenge – and I am still learning. The most rewarding facet of the work is helping the conservation organizations and other partners we work with in each destination.

Frances: Empowering local people is a huge component of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Give an example of seeing local people become empowered as a direct result of your tours.

Ged: On our Rwanda trip last September, many of the group were so moved by their experience they asked what they can do to help the kids we met around the Virunga Lodge where we stayed. Most of these children attend primary or elementary school as that is required by the government. But high school is elective and costs money, so many bright children do not continue their education as they simply cannot afford to. I have been sponsoring three children through high school, covering their fees and uniform costs etc. Well, many in the group wanted to do the same; they asked about each sponsoring a specific child. So on the next trip in December, I personally took over some funds gathered by these clients to sponsor about eight kids through a year of high school. And we’ll continue to do this sort of thing on a yearly basis.

Frances: Can you describe an “aha!” or “wow!” moment where your clients really “got it” in terms of ecotourism?

Ged: Every single time we take people to see the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, people experience an “Aha!” moment, they realize their presence is helping to save the Gorillas. Every single trip, someone is reduced to tears by the moment. I have had similar experiences when we see Pandas in the wild in China.

Frances: And I understand you got to meet someone very special last summer while on a tour to Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Can you tell us about that as a closing anecdote?

Ged: We were so fortunate last July to be in Gombe simultaneous to Jane Goodall being in Gombe, simultaneous to the 50th Anniversary of Jane’s pioneering work in Gombe and simultaneous to the visit of Lara Logan and the 60 Minutes film crew as they interviewed Jane and filmed the Chimps. Indeed several times we found ourselves being filmed by the 60 Minutes crew on the trails as we met Jane, and again as we arrived outside Jane’s house on the shores of Lake Tanganyika when we actually joined Jane for sunset cocktails! So we sat glued to the TV one Sunday night in the fall for the airing of 60 Minutes to see if we made the episode! We did not make the final cut, as not surprisingly the focus was on Jane, her research and the Chimps, not on our small tour party that overlapped so fortuitously with this filming! But we are in a behind-the-scenes clip that you can see at this link (the Jane Goodall segment begins at about the 8:15 mark).

To learn more about Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours, please visit the company’s web site and follow them on Facebook.

8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan IMG_0929

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

Yoga retreat at New Years on an island in Nicaragua, anyone?

24 Nov sust_01

Nicaragua, the next big ecotourism destination

In recent years, as social stability and economic growth have come to Central America, travelers with a taste for the cutting edge are discovering that Nicaragua is one of the undiscovered treasures of the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to this country will find that tours, accommodations, food, activities and transportation are affordably priced. And perhaps an even more important distinction, locals are truly authentic and welcoming. The interactive traveler who likes to be the first to discover a new destination and actively engage with the locals, knowing that their visit to the country is giving back directly to the community, will love Nicaragua. And it is only a two- to three-hour flight from Miami (American), Atlanta (Delta) and Houston (Continental) into the capital city of Managua, and no visas are required.

Nicaragua’s newest eco-resort, Jicaro Island Ecolodge is managed by the award-winning Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and was created to capture the country’s true essence.

Set on a private island, the eco-luxury lodge opened in January 2010 and is located just a short boat ride from the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua’s top tourist town. Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Matthew Falkiner, the lodge offers nine two-level and very private casitas, hand crafted using indigenous wood. There is a floating yoga platform (shown above), gorgeous lounge areas and pool. Meals are created using seasonal, local ingredients, and highlight Nicaraguan recipes and flavors. Jicaro Island offers spectacular views of the Mombacho Volcano across Lake Nicaragua and over 100 different species of birds have been sighted since opening.

Jicaro Island Ecolodge is also quickly gaining a reputation for its yoga and wellness retreats, of which four are scheduled for the very near future in partnership with Big World Small Planet. I recently had the opportunity to interview the leader for the first of these, Peter Sterios, the founder of Manduka, a company providing high-quality yoga mats and other accessories, who will be offering Gravity & Grace: Resistance As Your Inner Teacher December 29, 2010-January 4, 2011.

Interview with yoga instructor Peter Sterios

Peter lives and teaches in San Luis Obispo, CA. His classes reflect over three decades of study and practice in the US and India. A writer and former contributing editor for Yoga Journal, he has been featured in their yoga calendars, Beginners Column, Master Class Column and web site. He has taught at numerous yoga conferences, and continues to conduct workshops and teacher trainings throughout North and Central America, Asia, and Europe. He founded Manduka, a leading eco-yoga products company in 1997. His first yoga DVD “Gravity & Grace” was released in 2007 and recently honored by Yoga Journal’s Richard Rosen as “one of the top 15 yoga videos of all time.”

Frances: When you were young, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

Peter: A pilot.

Frances: What early interests, studies and career choices led you toward your current focus?

Peter: I ended up in architecture school because of an intense fascination with LEGOs from about the age of 4. I liked creating things, building things, and ultimately learning how structure works in buildings and then eventually in bodies as a yoga teacher. It was a roundabout journey though from architecture school to India to study yoga. Once yoga entered my life for real, I sought out teachers and places to study to understand the roots of the practice in an effort to simplify the instruction and make it more accessible to beginners. As a result, I’m now a yoga teacher, a writer, an architect, and a yoga product designer for Manduka which I founded in 1997.

Frances: What types of yoga instruction do you focus on most specifically?

Peter: Yoga for those with healing “opportunities” – people who have a health condition that requires their personal involvement to deal with it successfully.

Frances: What is your philosophy of yoga instruction, in a nutshell?

Peter: Get out of the way of the student’s own experience of the practice so they can uncover the “inner teacher” for themselves.

Frances: Explain your use of “resistance” as an “inner teacher.”

Peter: Resistance is a spot or place in the body that communicates to the mind that more attention is required there. Once you learn the language the body uses to send that message, your practice is just listening to what is needed at that spot.

Frances: What can guests expect from working with you in a luxury eco-retreat setting like Jicaro?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Do you like to work with people who are advanced in practice or new to yoga, or both?

Peter: I prefer to work with anyone with a desire to learn more about themselves, experienced or beginners. Frankly, there isn’t much difference between the two when it comes to learning about the power of the mind to create your own self healing.

Frances: Why are you excited about coming to Nicaragua for the New Year and this retreat adventure?

Peter: Lots of rest, a little sweat, lots of breathing, lots of laughing, and more rest… oh, did I mention amazing food?

Frances: Ha, nice repetition! As a former contributing editor to Yoga Journal, have you always enjoyed writing and communication?

Peter: Yes, but I enjoy it more after the deadlines, when the articles are finished. The writing process for me is always a test, and I struggle with finding the minimum amount of words to get across what I want to say.

Frances: Well, I think you have succeeded in being both succinct and articulate. Thank you for your time!

Peter: Thanks for getting the word out for this retreat. Adrienne at Big World Small Planet has done an amazing thing creating the setting and the opportunity for all of us to have a little adventure this New Year’s. What better way is there to start 2011!

For detailed retreat information and registration, click here.

More Upcoming Retreats at Jicaro Island

January 8 – 14, 2011. Celebration of Nia & Wine with Mona Melms. Nia is an innovative workout integrating 9 movement forms based on dance arts, martial arts and healing arts, inspiring you to find tremendous joy in moving your body…barefoot…in the tropics!

January 29 – February 4, 2011. Real Wellness with Alycea Ungaro. This highly experiential week integrates a diversity of modalities and practices focusing on Alycea Ungaro’s Six Principles of Wellness while studying and enjoying Pilates, nutrition and the surrounding nature.

February 5-11, 2011. livWHOLE with Jennifer Galardi. Many of us have been operating on automatic; eat, work, gym, sleep, rinse, repeat. Jennifer guides each participant to take a look at wellness as a whole instead of the sum of its many parts.

Photos of Jicaro Island Ecolodge by Martin van Doorn, courtesy of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality and StoryTravelers.

Hitesh Mehta and Authentic Ecolodges

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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.

Lapa Rios Ecolodge on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula

 

“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.

Hitesh: There are two main reasons I have done this book: to create both environmental and social awareness amongst people around the world and to celebrate the fantastic and altruistic work of people on the ground – such as craftspersons and lodge owners. As you know, I created my own rating system for ecolodges, which is explained in the book, and I sifted through 24,000 of my own professional photographs to pick just over 300 for this book. The feedback I am getting from people in-the-know is that it is the most all encompassing and holistic book ever created in the hospitality industry. In addition to stunning photos, there are professional illustrations, site plans and text that has substance for the lay person and industry professional alike. And it is printed on environmentally friendly FSC certified paper. Harper Collins is so excited that they want to submit the book for an award!

Frances: In addition to 35 other ecolodges, the book features Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality’s own Lapa Rios. Why do you consider Lapa Rios a model ecolodge?

Hitesh: Lapa Rios was one of few ecolodges in the world that met 10 out of 11 criteria. There are no ecolodges to date which have met ALL the criteria including the ones that I have personally worked on. Lapa Rios is especially strong in the three main criteria: that of protection of the surrounding ecosystem, helping benefit local communities and providing a rich interpretive experience. The one criterion that it does NOT meet is the one where “ecolodges bring in the local communities from day one of the planning and design process.” What gives it its special ambiance is that it has been led by visionaries (Karen and John) for the past 18 years and managed by the top small eco-chain (Cayuga) in the world. The other unique aspect of Lapa Rios that sets it apart from other ecolodges is its commitment to an exit strategy.

 

Habitation with ocean view at Lapa Rios Ecolodge

 

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?

Hitesh: Ecotourism is low-impact, practices non-violence principles and, as a sector of the tourism industry, has played a role in alleviating poverty in several rural parts of the world. It is the one sector of the tourism industry that has the greatest respect for both faunal and floral species as well as the welfare of the local people. Everything in the landscape is inter-connected and dependent on each other. The flowers are dependent on the butterflies and bees, the fruit dependent on the flowers getting pollinated, the birds and monkeys dependent on the fruit, the eagles and leopards dependent on the monkeys etc. Every single species is connected in this web of life. As humans, we are dependent on so many things—not only those that are man-made but those things that come from nature. If the natural web-link is destroyed by humans then our own existence will be in peril. In fact, it already is!

 

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.

Another aerial view of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

Frances: How does Lapa Rios fit into the ecopsychology concept?


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!

Order the book here.

Watch a short video about Authentic Ecolodges

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.

Greetings from Kentucky!

4 Nov IMG_2202

“Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.” ~Emily Dickinson

I am an editor, writer, branding and marketing professional who works almost exclusively in the niche of sustainable travel, supporting tour operators and tour suppliers (such as hoteliers) in finding clients who appreciate their responsible approach to tourism.

I am currently in a professional transition, having recently left a full-time position with a sustainable travel company, Seascape Kayak Tours, and seeking contracts and new adventures that will supplement the part-time social marketing support I bring to Terra Incognita Ecotours and Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.

After living part of the time in Canada and part in Costa Rica, I have relocated for the most part back to my home town of Winchester, Kentucky, to spend more quality time with my mother. I am an only child and she is my only living parent. However, I am first and foremost a traveler, and I am willing to take on jobs that will take me to any part of the world, so long as I am not living there full time. Because most of what I do as a marketing person is virtual, I currently support tourism activities in Belize, Borneo, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Galapagos, India, Madagascar, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Peru, Rwanda and Tanzania — right from my home office in Central Kentucky.

Friends and colleagues have recently encouraged me to (1)Start a blog about your travel work, and (2)Market yourself online. Always ready to embrace the unconventional, I decided to combine these activities into one conglomerate site, here, where I’ll share not only my professional history, but also bits and pieces of my tourism industry involvements that I find particularly fascinating.

I love feedback!

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