Tag Archives: The International Ecotourism Society

Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

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!

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Hitesh Mehta and Authentic Ecolodges

15 Nov

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.