Find out what makes an authentic ecolodge

July 13, 2018



Ar. Adrian Tumang

During a holiday in India, architect Emmanuel Miñana chanced upon a limited slot in a tribal mountain cottage within a spice village in Kerala. At 300-400 USD per room per night, the accommodation wasn’t cheap yet at those prices, the cottages were surprisingly fully booked. Independent travelers like Miñana demand value for their money, preferring to stay in natural settings even if it means paying more. And they are not a minority. There is a growing number of educated and discerning clientele willing to spend top dollars in places that offer a more authentic and holistic commune with nature and culture. This is the concept of ecotourism.

What is Authentic Ecotourism?

Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing niche markets of tourism in the world. It accounts for half of all international tourist arrivals in 2011 and is expected to grow rapidly over the next two decades. As a “megadiversity” country, the Philippines has tremendous potential, ranking 25th worldwide in terms of plant specie abundance and fifth with regard to number of endemic animals. According to the government’s recently completed National Ecotourism Strategy (NES) and Action Plan 2013-2022, the potential market for Philippine ecotourism ranges from 1.2 million to 14.2 million tourists.

Finca Exotica Ecolodge in Costa Rica features thatched cabins in a tropical garden. Image courtesy of Finca Exotica Ecolodge

Despite its growing popularity, ecotourism remains one of the least understood concepts of tourism. It is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as responsible travel to areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. For better understanding, it might be useful to examine not only what ecotourism is, but also what it is not.

According to Hitesh Mehta, a landscape architect recognized by National Geographic as one of five pioneers of sustainable tourism in the world, ecotourism is often confused with nature tourism. Nature tourism means all tourism dependent on natural resources. This rather simplistic definition is easily distorted to the detriment of nature itself. Technically, driving a smoke-belching tourist bus to a natural park can be considered nature tourism. So can recreational hunting and fishing. Or riding motorbikes and airboats that disturb surrounding wildlife. All of which defeat the idea of ecological conservation.

Ecotourism, therefore, is non-consumptive and non-extractive. Furthermore, it should not cause behavioral impacts on or affect the emotional well-being of wildlife and other non-human species in the area. There is a significant body of published literature confirming that animals suffer life-long psychological impacts from death of family members due to hunting.

According to Metha, the Lapa Rios Ecolodge is one of the few in the world that met 10 out of the 11 principles of authentic ecolodges. So far, no ecolodge has met all criteria. Image courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

What is an Authentic Ecolodge?

Ecotourism poses exciting prospects as well as challenges for the architecture industry as it calls for a specialized and inclusive approach in planning and design to provide guests with lodging facilities that integrate well with fragile ecosystems. This is precisely the concept of the Ecolodge.

“The ecolodge is the heart of ecotourism,” says former tourism secretary Mina Gabor, one of the organizers of the recently concluded Ecolodge Planning Workshop and Design Charette with Mehta as the speaker. An ecolodge is a 5 to 75-room low-impact, nature-based, financially sustainable accommodation facility that helps protect sensitive neighboring areas; involves and helps benefit local communities; offers tourists an interpretative and participatory experience; provides a spiritual communion with nature and culture; and is planned, designed, constructed and operates in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner. By this definition, there is clearly more to an ecolodge than just lodging.

READ MORE: PH’s first eco-friendly airport in Bohol almost complete, opening soon

Using peg construction, not a single nail was used in the Buddhist-Temple-inspired main lodge of the Three Camel Lodge. Featuring traditional Mongolian “gers” or felt-covered tents, it was named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the World’s Best Ecolodges of 2013. Image courtesy of Three Camel Lodge

Basically, part of the guests’ fees goes to the conservation fund and the improvement projects of the local community. At the grassroots level, ecolodges also provide local employment and deliver a competitive advantage for small enterprises wanting to venture into the tourism business.

Interpretative Experience

But what really sets the ecolodge apart from traditional hotels, aside from the environmental and local community benefits, is the high-level of interpretation it offers. Interpretation is an educational activity that aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information (Tilden, 1977).

Interpretative experience is the main product of ecotourism and the ecolodge enhances this. Says Mehta: “Tourism is one of the best ways to educate the public about ecology.” By providing physical spaces and activities that promote responsible tourism, ecolodges educate travelers, including the ecolodge staff themselves, on the relevance of environmental conservation in property development.

Participatory Planning

However, ecotourism planning is a distinct specialty that usually falls outside the training of an architect. It requires a bottom-up approach where the involvement of allied professionals like landscape architects, community leaders, and other stakeholders from the earliest stages of the project development process is crucial. There is tremendous amount of knowledge that these people can bring to the table to help the architect understand the local landscape and culture. As Mehta reasons, “you cannot protect what you cannot understand.”

Take the Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador, for example. The developer partnered with the native Achuar tribe to build an ecolodge on the land owned by Achuar Indians. The tribe’s knowledge of the site was instrumental in drafting the official maps used as the basis for the site plan. In 2011, the ecolodge was turned over to the Achuar people who are now operating the business on their own.

READ MORE: Notes from a metaphysical site analysis

Protecting the existing native forest, the Kawanari Ecolodge in between the tree trunks ensures that guests will have a connection with nature and that the buildings will be in harmony with the environment. Image courtesy of Hitesh Mehta

Setting before Structure

An authentic ecolodge is more about the setting than it is about the structure itself. It derives its value from the biodiversity that thrives in the area that is not threatened by over-development and crowding. Maintaining such biodiversity also means integrating with the surrounding landscape and avoiding the introduction of exotic plant species which affects ecological balance.

This is why Mehta advocates that planning for ecolodges begin first and foremost with a metaphysical analysis of the site. Where the concept of holism engages the five senses, metaphysical site analysis involves six—sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste and feeling. This allows the designers a few days to “feel” the site and be “one” with the site before conducting the more objective process of physical site analysis and data collection.

On day three of the ecolodge planning workshop, Mehta had the participants experience the metaphysical exercise for themselves, bringing them to a garden property in the hills of Antipolo, for which they would be tasked to design an eco-friendly resort and event space. Everyone who went through the exercise said that it brought an added dimension to the design process that was to come. (Excerpts from the participants’ metaphysical site analyses).

Continuity of the Vernacular

The architecture and construction of ecolodges uses locally sourced materials and labor, and adheres to the concept of continuity of the vernacular. This should not be construed as propagating replications. On the contrary, as seen in the examples presented by Mehta during the workshop, the International Ecotourism Society rejects designs that are homogeneous, derivative and arbitrary. Since it was mentioned that the ecolodge is more about the site than the structure, then it just follows that the structure itself should be anchored on the local aesthetic language, blend with the physical and cultural context of the site, and contribute in developing a sense of place for the site.

Moreover, continuity of the vernacular goes beyond the skin. It encompasses the use of passive design strategies characteristic of vernacular architecture. That means using eco-friendly materials and sustainable construction methodologies to build spaces that are sensitive to climate, and comfortable even without mechanical ventilation. But more than that, ecolodges must also observe proper water and waste management as most of them are located away from sources of water or within delicate bodies of water.

The Endemico Hotel n Baja California offers twenty luxury cabins with private terraces that offer stunning views of the Valle de Guadalupe. Image courtesy of Design Hotels

Not Just a Building

By now it may be gleaned that an ecolodge is not just a building but also an economic model. It introduces a new and alternative economy in natural areas to take the place of possible unsustainable enterprises like logging or mining. But could ecolodges generate revenue and add value to businesses? Yes, according to Mehta. The market for ecolodges caters primarily to college graduates between 35-54 years old (the age is dropping now), and willing to spend more than traditional tourists but at the same time are more demanding. And they comprise over 82% of the ecotourism demographics! Moreover, while the concept of ecolodges is geared towards the environment and community, these highly educated tourists enjoy the spillover effects of getting closer to the area’s biodiversity, and interacting with local communities.

Though skeptics often argue that the initial investment in building ecolodges cost more than that of conventional hotels, recent studies show that if green building strategies are incorporated from concept to operation—as they should be—then an ecolodge would actually generate significant savings in the long term due to efficient performance.

Come to think of it, traditional hotels are banking on the surrounding natural environment to attract guests and customers. However, through unsustainable practices, these establishments soon destroy the very environment that tourists—their clients—have travelled long distances to enjoy. The economic question, therefore, is not whether we can afford to do ecolodges but, rather, whether we can afford not to.

The Rainforest Ecolodge is the first in Sri Lanka and fifth in the world to be awarded with LEED Platinum for Sustainable Tourism.

Ecolodge as a Commitment

Quoting the International Ecolodge Guidelines, a book he co-authored and edited, Hitesh Mehta said, “I wish every single building was an ecolodge or was designed or planned like an ecolodge because it’s such a holistic and win-win approach in design. You’re thinking about nature, you’re thinking about local people, and you’re thinking about your clients—everything!”

The concept of the ecolodge is relatively new in the Philippines and much remains to be done to promote this ideology. “We are not yet measuring our success milestones. We are still developing awareness,” says Gabor. If that’s the case, then the recent Ecolodge Planning Workshop and Design Charette is a major headway.

Asked about their takeaways, a group of participants eloquently said: “The ecolodge is a commitment, a decision, and a mindset for all.” Statements like this all the more motivate Hitesh Mehta to continue this advocacy despite the gargantuan tasks ahead of him. “I’m here on this planet. I want to be useful. I want to make a difference. I want to be the change that Gandhi said I want to see in the world.” 

This article was originally published in BluPrint Volume 3 2015. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

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