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ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE DESIGN OF NATURE LODGES:
MYTHS AND REALITIES

Forward to Jungle Luxe: Indigenous-Style Hotel and Remote Resort Design Around the World, Justin Henderson, Rockport Publishers, 1999.

When Justin asked me to write the forward to this book, I asked him what he wanted me to write about. He said, "Offer the lessons learned about designing and building nature lodges in remote and/or ecologically sensitive sites." Here it is in a nutshell, "Design and build 'em so that they will be easy to fill at profitable prices."

It is very important to design and build nature lodges in the most environmentally sensitive way possible. That said, it is my strong feeling that the whole issue of environmentally sensitive design of Nature Lodges has been exaggerated out of all logical sense of proportion. The amount of non-renewable energy used and pollution caused by the commercial aircraft that transport nature tourists to their destinations dwarfs the largest possible environmental impact of environmentally sensitive design and building practices or the lack thereof as applied to nature lodges.

Futhermore, the basic impact that the lodges make upon the land where they are built is always so great that the role that can be played environmentally sensitive design and building practices is relatively small. Finally, environmentally sensitive design and building practices often have more to do with political correctness than with real gains in not damaging the environment. Much is made of the benefits of replacing non-renewable energy sources with alternatives such as photo-voltaics and deep cycle batteries. Little attention is paid to the problems of disposing of used up batteries, especially in remote areas.

For these reasons it is my belief that environmentally sensitive design and building practices for nature lodges are much more important because of the statement that they make than because of their actual effect on the environment. I have also noticed that with a few exceptions, such as Stanley Selengut's ground-breaking work in sustainable design in Maho Bay and Florida, which has implications that go way beyond the lodging and tourism industry, the statement, good or bad is lost on the guests.

So are nature lodges environmentally neutral or even negative? In most cases on the contrary, but the environmentally positive effects generated by nature lodges in most cases come almost entirely from the resources they generate to protect nature. It is not nearly as important how nature lodges treat the land on which they are actually built as it is that they are built on as little as 2 or 3 acres and provide the resources to protect hundreds and in many case thousands of acres. They do this by generating money and a political constituency both in and out of the destination for protecting the natural areas for which they provide beds and activities. In many cases the most important benefit of nature lodges is providing employment.

Tortuguero has ten lodges ranging in price from $30-$115. They have a total of 263 rooms, 526 beds. There are 60 even cheaper beds for back packers. Two research stations generate an additional 85 beds. The tourism made possible by these 671 beds generate 99% of the legal employment for the approximately 500 hundred people who live in the area. Legal fishing supplies the other 1%. If it were not for tourism, the only way that the people would have to earn a living would be logging, hunting, illegal fishing, and working on one level or another in the drug trade. As it is now illicit activity in the Tortuguero area is relatively low. It is much higher in neighboring areas where tourism plays a lesser role.

The lodges in the Tortuguero Area range from "pretty good" to shameful in the "sustainability" of their practices in design, waste management, energy use, direct contributions to conservation, and community relations. Without diminishing the importance of these things, they pale in significance compared to the fact that there would be no park and little wildlife if the lodges didn't exist, and in order to exist the lodges need to maintain profitable levels of occupancy and prices.

How do you design a lodge that achieves this? Richard Ryel, founder of International Expeditions and present president of The Ecotourism Society puts it best. "Define who the guests are, what they want, and give it to them." Who are they? Higher than average income professionals and retirees with an appreciation for nature or a spouse who has an appreciation for nature.

What do they want? They want the lodge to reflect the place. If they choose to come to the rainforest they will not be impressed by the owners collection of French Impressionists, no matter how good the art. This might seem obvious but there is a hotel adjacent to a National Park in Costa Rica (not featured in this book) whose developers, successful hoteliers from Europe have furnished to with antiques from their homeland, complete with a suit of armor in the Lobby. Needless to say the hotel is struggling despite a great deal of money invested.

They want the hotels to be luxurious in way that fits with nature and the setting, but never decadent. Make the rooms very comfortable. Make the gardens luxurious. They want things to do, both on and off property. One of the most important factors in profitability is the ability to increase length of stay by providing things to do. Wildlife viewing is the obvious one. Locating the lodge in or adjacent to a world class park or reserve is a necessary first step, but it's not enough. It's important to think of activities for spouses who are not as nature oriented as their partners. The most effective way to think of lengthening stay is in terms of hours rather than days. If you can pick up 2 or 3 hours you can get a meal. Add 2 or 3 meals and you get a bed night. Creating public areas and gardens that entice people to spend a few hours just soaking up the atmosphere is a very effective way to spend time and money.

To sum up sustainable environmentally sensitive design and building practices are important for all construction. They are especially for nature lodges. Nevertheless I feel that the academic and non-profit types who are busily trying to figure out how to measure "foot-induced insect deaths per bed-night," are missing the point. The least sustainable kind of nature lodge is a bankrupt one.

Michael Kaye
San Jose, Costa Rica
August, 1999

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