To Discover and Defend

Photography by: Ghislain and Marie David De Lossy/Getty
To Discover and Defend
the real eco-deal
Probably no more than 50 "pure" eco-lodges exist, says David Andersen, an architect and ecotourism planner and designer. Typically, they're small, remote and likely to be found in Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa and Australia.

Travelers who want to do the right thing--but don't want to spend days researching--can consult an ecotour company. Manaca Inc. (manaca.com) in Washington, D.C., for example, inspects and rates lodges according to their operations, conservation efforts, environmental sustainability, community involvement and educational impact.

"Some places offer a few nature hikes to trick travelers into believing that they're eco-lodges," says Manaca founder Andreas Kristinus, a former lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation. "We inspect them to see who is walking the talk. We've turned a number of lodges away after making an in-person assessment."

The Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon is an example of a place that "walks the talk." Built and co-managed by Achuar nationals, it was constructed in accordance with the tribe's concept of architecture--not a single nail was used. The project includes a research facility that serves as a biological field station and data center, an ecological reserve, and a source of medical and educational programs for the native community. The lodge, which accommodates up to 40 visitors, is powered by solar energy; trash is recycled; no artificial illumination exists along boardwalks in consideration of nocturnal animals; and soaps are biodegradable.

Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in Port Antonio, Jamaica, is another model of conservation. "Every enterprise has an obligation to protect the environment and offer tangible benefit to the community," says Barbara Walker, who owns and manages the hotel with Shireen Aga. In addition to promoting local cultural programs, Walker and Aga return containers to suppliers, purchase bulk and locally produced goods, recycle paper, collect rainwater in storage tanks, compost organic waste and donate leftover food to a local pig farmer. Beverages are bought in recyclable bottles, while non-recyclable bottles are given to beekeepers for honey or used to create raised flowerbeds. Solar water heating, low-energy lighting and line drying conserve energy. In addition, Walker and Aga hold seminars on sustainable tourism for neighboring inns.

"Tourism can contribute to the economy and be a leader in conservation and community involvement," says Walker. "Small businesses like ours do not place a large burden on the environment. Bigger is not always best."

the big ones go green
The notion of a large "eco-resort" is, strictly speaking, probably an oxymoron, notes Michael Sweeney, director of the Institute for Ecological Tourism at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. "Most modern resorts manipulate the environment," he says. "Typically, the sites are reconfigured with pools, patios, terraces and [non-native] plants, resulting in contrived or artificial environments. The designs are out of touch with nature, and the experience is controlled, reflecting the view that the earth's resources are for human use."

Still, Weaver believes that some hotels are making an honest effort to become "greener," whether for ethical or bottom-line considerations. "Initiatives like recycling and reuse can be very profitable," he points out. The Fairmont Hotels "Green Partnership" program includes initiatives for waste management, energy-use reduction, water conservation and wildlife protection. As part of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System, some Fairmont golf courses are also wildlife refuges.

Fairmont's Washington, D.C., property gets 6 percent of its electrical power from wind; it has reduced carbon dioxide released into the air by 828,000 pounds--the equivalent of removing 72 cars from the road or planting 112 acres of trees. The hotel is the first in the mid-Atlantic to receive the Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership designation, which is granted to entities that utilize renewable energy sources. The hotel also recycles aluminum, paper and glass; has installed low-flow plumbing; lets employees purchase public transportation passes with pre-tax dollars; and donates recycled bath amenities and gently used bed linens to local nonprofit organizations.

Marriott's ECHO program (for "environmentally conscious hospitality operations") includes a number of conservation and preservation initiatives. At the company's Renaissance Seoul Hotel in South Korea, a wastewater recycling system saves 100 tons of water daily. And the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino has created a sanctuary for endangered native iguanas. "I joke that the iguanas enjoy it so much here that they tell their iguana friends, which is why we now have so many," says Mark Purcell, the hotel's director of facilities.

All this means that conscientious travelers who want to appreciate and learn about an area's flora, fauna and traditions without doing harm have more opportunities than ever. They also can do some good by helping to support local culture and businesses.

"Vacations are not just about hedonism and 'vacating' the mind," Weaver says. "As an ecotourist, you'll get a big gain in personal satisfaction."