Help in how to design an eco tourism project

Last week, we received an e-mail questionnaire from a  senior interior design student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.  She was interested in some industry feedback in order to work on her  senior studio project where she is required to research a topic of her choice and then utilize that research as the foundation of an evidence-based design approach  to a studio project the following term.  We thought it might be interesting to share some of the thoughts and comments we shared with this student.

What is your personal definition of ecotourism?

For us at Cayuga, ecotourism is travel to natural areas where the balance of the impact on the natural environment and the local community is very positive.   It typically has important cultural elements, conservation initiatives, educational activities and improvements of the local economy as part of the equation.   It is also important that the tourism operations have a sense of place.
Blending into the natural environment is a key part of sustainable design at Lapa Rios Eco Lodge.
















What are some of the challenges you feel the ecotourism industry as a whole is facing?

The definition of ecotourism has been diluted and is misunderstood by a lot of people.   Often massive nature tourism with little benefits to the local community is considered ecotourism by the broad public.   Green washing by mass tourism organizations has also taken away credibility form the industry.   Another challenge is the fact that there are less and less natural habitats available for ecotourism development. This is especially true in coastal areas.   Finally, it is often difficult to compete for clients with massive tourism operations.

How large a role do you feel architecture and interior design play in ecotourism?

It plays a very important role and is the basis for a successful ecotourism project.   But it is not everything.   I have seen great architecture, but there was no passion for the people and the environment in the operation of the hotel or lodge and that does not work.   It is one part of the equation and can make a big difference, but it needs to be supplemented by sustainable operations.
Open air showers. An important element for a luxury/sustainability experience at Latitude 10.

In your experience, which sustainable strategies are the most important, or have the most positive impact, when designing an eco-resort?

In the design process, getting to know the land, its history and its story is key.   Getting to know who lived here and who the neighbors are.   That will create a unique sense of place that will carry throughout the design and the operation.   Of course energy efficiencies in design are very important, i.e. natural lighting and cross ventilations.       It is also very important to create a strong connection with nature.   Eco lodges should be built in harmony with nature and not creating a strong separation between humans and nature as we do in cities or big resorts.

What are some of the most significant challenges you have faced on any sustainable project?

Working in remote areas always creates challenges. Communications, access, adequate labor pool, supplier access, etc.   But all of this can be overcome if the concept is adapted to those conditions.   Also getting the ” buy-in” from neighbors and the local community can be a challenge.   Since we are operating mostly in the luxury eco segment, the availability of skilled labor staring on day one is probably the biggest challenge -especially since we are committed to work with local staff only.
Open air spaces reduce need for air conditioning at the Grano de Oro Restaurant

What certifications or standards, if any, did you seek to achieve with this project?

We have certification for our hotels and lodges by the Costa Rican Government”™s CST certification.   We also have participated in the Long Run Certification provided by the Zeitz Foundation as well as certifications offered by the Rainforest Alliance.   We are currently struggling with the topic of certifications.   Do they really work?   Is it worth it?   How to eliminate the bureaucracy part of things?   How important are they to the consumer.   No answers yet, but lots of questions”¦we are working on ideas for the future.

How do you balance sustainability and luxury in regards to an eco-resort? Do you find it necessary to make compromises between environmental initiatives and creating a luxury product?

This is one of our most discussed topics right now.   We are working hard to find that perfect balance between sustainability and luxury.   We have done research on this and continue to learn.   High quality guest experiences AND sustainability are at the same priority level at Cayuga.   We look to do both and yes, once in a while we need to compromise. We try that the compromise is usually in favor of sustainability and not luxury.   Take seafood.   We try not to serve shrimp and tuna.   But if it is from a certified sustainable source, we will consider.   We don”™t offer plastic water bottles in our hotels and lodges.   We ask guests to bring, buy or lend reusable bottles.   We avoid A/C installation and if it is available to guests, we try to convince them that it is not necessary and try to sleep with the door open and the ceiling fan on.   I could go on and on and on about this topic”¦
No Air Conditioning and Great Views at Jicaro Lodge in Nicaragua










What programs or initiatives, if any, are in place to give back and/or involve the local community?

With our strong commitment to working with locals and buying local, we try to keep the money we generate within the communities where we operate.   Studies that have been done by a renown Latin American Business   School   say we are doing this with great success.   Besides that, we finance or support different projects in the areas where we operate through our Non-Profit Organisation Earth Equilibrium.   The focus on those projects is usually Education and Biodiversity Conservation.

Is there anything else on the topics of ecotourism and/or sustainable hospitality design that you feel is particularly important that you would like to share with me?

If you are interested sustainable hospitality, you need to have passion for it.   It is not easy and can get frustrating at times.   But if you stick to your values, it can be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.   To see local people grow and move ahead as professionals and see endangered species make a comeback in the ecosystems around the hotels and lodges where we operate is”¦ priceless.
Simple but funcional beach design at the Harmony Hotel in Nosara

The Cayuga Collection consists of  ecolodges, resorts, and sustainable hotels  throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. All Cayuga properties specialize in creating the symbiosis of sustainability and luxury, always providing a sense of place by taking into account local culture and customs.  To Cayuga, sustainability is about more than reusing your towel twice and passing on plastic. The luxury hospitality group earned aCondé Nast TravelerWorld Savers award in 2010 and 2012 for its social responsibility, and aTravel + LeisureGlobal Vision award for Environmental Leadership in 2010. Cayuga works with local communities to train and employ local people and improve local living and learning conditions. Each of its properties is involved in conservation and community development, and the company even created a public charity called Equilibrium to further its reach and impact.


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