How Ecolodges Work


Photo courtesy Sani Lodge One of eight private, thatch-roofed cabanas at the community-owned Sani Lodge located in Rio Napo, Ecuador.

Every year, millions of Americans go on vacation. In fact, you may be pondering your next vacation destination right now. Will it be a visit to ­New York, London or Paris? Or, maybe a few weeks at the beach. Instead of simply lying on a beach or hitting the hot spots in some big city, why not take a vacation that is not only fun for you, but one that is good for the environment and others, too. Tourism that respects natural habitats and helps improve the local community is often referred to as "ecotourism" or "responsible tourism" or "sustainable tourism." This type of travel can involve a variety of activities from adventure or nature travel to travel that invites you to participate in community service.

Once you decide that you want to go on an eco-vacation, you will become familiar with the term ecolodge. An ecolodge is simply a hotel or vacation spot that follows the philosophy of ecotourism.

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­In this article, we will examine the ecolodge experience including types of ecolodges you ­can visit, what criteria are necessary to be considered an ecolodge and how to choose an ecolodge for your own vacation. In addition, we will briefly discuss the broader issue of ecotourism.

Ecolodge Principles

According to The Ecotravel Center, a service of the Conservation International Foundation the term ecolodge can be defined as:

An industry label used to identify a nature-dependent tourist lodge that meets the philosophy and principles of ecotourism.

Essentially, an ecolodge will offer you an educational and participatory experience.

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If you are going to stay at an ecolodge, there are several things you can expect from your vacation experience. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a good ecolodge should:

  • Provide comfortable rooms and common areas that reflect the designs and heritage of the local culture
  • Offer a natural setting that has been carefully preserved and contains local plant life
  • Use locally harvested and sustainable and/or recyclable building materials
  • Purchase food from local farmers
  • Use environmentally-friendly energy, water and waste systems
  • Offer opportunities for interaction with local owners, managers, staff and guides

Due to the efforts of organizations like TIES, ecolodges exist in countries all around the globe, such as Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Trinidad, Kenya, Tanzania and Australia. Ecolodges offer accommodations from deluxe rooms to outdoor tents. Many provide excellent opportunities for relaxation, experiencing nature and cultural activities. Remember that instead of a typical vacation, an ecolodge can offer you the opportunity to be a responsible traveler.

Nestled in a lush tropical 30 acre valley surrounded by the Daintree World Heritage Rainforest, the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa was voted Australia's No.1 Spa Retreat for 2004.
Nestled in a lush tropical 30 acre valley surrounded by the Daintree World Heritage Rainforest, the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa was voted Australia's No.1 Spa Retreat for 2004.
Photo courtesy of Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa

The Ecolodge Experience

The Ecolodge Rendez-Vous features sunshowers, composting toilets and solar lights.
The Ecolodge Rendez-Vous features sunshowers, composting toilets and solar lights.
Photo courtesy Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, Saba, Dutch West Indies, Caribbean

Making a choice to visit an ecolodge or engage in any form of ecotourism may take a little more research on your part, but the feeling that your vacation contributed to preserving the world's natural environment should stay with you long after you return home.

You arrive at your chosen destination and approach the place you'll call "home" for the next seven days. Immediately, you're greeted by the local host who takes you on a quick tour of the facility and finally to your room -- a small, one-room cabin amongst the indigenous foliage. The room has been constructed out of a mixture of local and recyclable materials with a minimal impact on the environment. You take note of the oil lamps, solar-powered ceiling fan, composting toilet and the solar powered garden shower just outside your room. During your stay, you dine on meals made with fresh local ingredients. In fact, one day you spend some time working in the garden, gathering vegetables for the evening meal. Each day brings a new and rewarding experience, whether it's hiking, canoeing or studying the various flora and fauna of the ecosystems nearby.

This should be what you experience at an ecolodge. There are all types of ecolodges including those that specialize in adventure travel such as mountain-climbing, backpacking or river expeditions. There are also lodges that specialize in nature- or education-based travel with activities that include learning about surrounding wildlife or regional history from a local guide. You need to make sure that you choose the right destination for your vacation needs.

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The "Blue Tang" cottage at the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous located on the 5 square mile (12.5 square km) island of Saba in the northeast Caribbean.
The "Blue Tang" cottage at the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous located on the 5 square mile (12.5 square km) island of Saba in the northeast Caribbean.
Photo courtesy Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, Saba, Dutch West Indies, Caribbean

Finding an Ecolodge

Before making a decision about visiting an ecolodge, do your research. Find out who owns and operates the lodge, what sustainable measures they follow to maintain a low impact on the environment and what activities are provided to determine whether it would be a good fit for you. For instance, if you want to go to the Amazon in Peru, you can stay at an ecolodge built with local community participation and local materials. On your trip, you may spot a giant otter, macaw or eagle. You can also hike a trail with trained local guides who have learned native plant remedies from the village elders.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, private eco-tents and cottages built with recycled materials offer visitors an environmentally-friendly way to enjoy the Caribbean. Elevated walkways protect the wildlife and visitors can snorkel in protected reefs or watch iguanas from their balcony.

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These are just some of the options for your eco-vacation. A good place to start looking for ecolodge information is the Internet. You'll find many helpful links at the end of this article. Other excellent resources for researching your ecotourism options are your local travel agent and the local public library or bookstore, where you can find books about nature tourism, adventure tourism, sustainable tourism and other forms of eco-travel.

And remember, if you want to stay at a true ecolodge, be prepared to investigate beyond the advertisements and buzz words. If you can, e-mail or phone to inquire about the lodge. Unfortunately there are many places that boast of being eco-friendly, but when it boils down to it, they fall incredibly short of their claims.

Ecotourism

Two visitors enjoy the lush foliage surrounding the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous in Saba.
Two visitors enjoy the lush foliage surrounding the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous in Saba.
Photo courtesy Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, Saba, Dutch West Indies, Caribbean

You might be surprised to know that the travel and tourism industry is the number one industry on Earth. According to a recent article entitled Ecotravel, approximately 700 million people spend a total of $2-3 trillion on their trips, annually. At present, ecotourism represents about 2 percent of that total. But what, exactly, is ecotourism?

Look in magazines, newspapers and online and you're bound to find more than a dozen buzzwords that sound like ecotourism:

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  • sustainable tourism
  • green travel
  • eco-travel
  • responsible tourism
  • adventure travel
  • cultural tourism
  • natural tourism
  • nature-based travel

But, do all these terms refer to the same thing? No, not really. Tourism, itself, can basically be broken into two main categories: conventional mass tourism (CMT), like taking that trip to Disneyland or Las Vegas and alternative tourism (AT) -- the various types of tourism listed above. According to an article by Frank Muller, the wide variety of tourism options that fall under the alternative tourism umbrella share a few common factors: "they are essentially small-scale, low-density, and they attempt to attract a special segment of society, namely tourists with above average incomes and higher education."

OK. So now we know a little about alternative tourism, but that still leaves the question of ecotourism on the table. In her article entitled "Protecting Eden, Setting Green Standards for the Tourism Industry," Martha Honey writes:

While nature tourism and adventure tourism focus on what the tourist is seeking or doing, ecotourism focuses on the impact of this travel on the traveler, the environment, and the people in the host country--and posits that this impact must be positive. As such, ecotourism is closely linked to the concept of sustainable development. Rather than being simply a niche market within tourism or a subset of nature tourism, properly understood, ecotourism is a set of principles and practices for how the public should travel and for how the travel industry should operate.

In the tourism industry, what one person or company calls ecotourism another may call adventure travel or nature-based travel. Whatever the buzzword, it's up to you as a responsible consumer and responsible tourist to ferret out the distinction among the various destinations and travel options you find. Is the environment being cared for? Is there a genuine effort to help the local economies? Are resources being left intact for future generations? Is the local culture being honored and valued and not just photographed? These are the values of ecotourism and in the next section, we will discuss some of the reasons to choose ecotourism.

Choosing Ecotourism

With Wenhai Lake near its front steps and the peaks of Jade Dragon in the background, the community-operated Wenhai Ecolodge is a scenic, peaceful mountain retreat. The converted Naxi courtyard house has been recently renovated and updated with sustainable energy systems.
With Wenhai Lake near its front steps and the peaks of Jade Dragon in the background, the community-operated Wenhai Ecolodge is a scenic, peaceful mountain retreat. The converted Naxi courtyard house has been recently renovated and updated with sustainable energy systems.
Photo courtesy The Wenhai Ecolodge

You may be asking yourself, why should I choose to stay at an ecolodge over a traditional motel or hotel? Why choose ecotourism over a traditional vacation? The answer to these questions can be found within the book, "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?" by Martha Honey.

In her book, Honey describes what she considers the seven main points of ecotourism:

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  • Involves travel to natural destinations
  • Minimizes negative impact on the environment
  • Builds environmental awareness
  • Provides direct funds for conservation
  • Provides funds for the empowerment of local people
  • Respects local culture
  • Supports human rights and democratic movements

If any of these points appeal to you, an ecolodge may be the perfect choice for your next vacation!

Of course, not all ecolodges and eco-tours will meet each of these criteria, but you should look for something that comes close. With true ecotourism, it is possible to have a vacation that is both personally rewarding and good for the community you visit. A good ecolodge can offer you a vacation that, without jeopardizing the local environment, helps contribute to the local community and welfare of the area. After staying at an ecolodge, you can feel proud that you have become a responsible traveler. And that can be just as important as the vacation itself.

For more information on ecolodges, ecotourism and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • The International Ecotourism Society
  • Untamed Path
  • The Ecotravel Center, a service of the Conservation International Foundation
  • Honey, Martha. "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?"
  • Honey, Martha. "Protecting Eden, Setting Green Standards for the Tourism Industry." Environment Magazine Jul/Aug2003, Vol. 45, Issue 6
  • Muller, Frank G. "Ecotourism: An Economic Concept for Ecological Sustainable Tourism." International Journal of Environmental Studies: Sections Apr2000, Vol. 57, Issue 3
  • Gerber, Suzanne. "Ecotravel," The Green Guide