Q & A with Mallika Naguran: What is an Eco-resort really?

With the rise in environmental awareness, many people adopt a more responsible way of living. It changes the way people eat, commute, build and many other aspect in daily life. These new ways of consuming present businesses with a lot of new opportunities and also its challenges. Tourism and hospitality industry players are also fast to jump on the band wagon to bank on the green market. Eco-tourism becomes a hip way of holidaying. Staying in an eco-resort is trendy. As can be seen in the other businesses, green-washing is also rampant in this industry. Self-declared green claims are aplenty and are accepted unwittingly. We all have seen for example a resort housed in an energy guzzler monstrous concrete structure can suddenly claim that they are ‘green’ by encouraging their guests not to change towels every day.

GAF talks to Mallika Naguran, the founder of Gaia Discovery to address the question. Gaia Discovery is an online publication designed to give people around the world an insight into sustainable development, responsible tourism and heritage in Asia. Its coverage spans from eco-tourism destinations, sustainable design and buildings, technology and innovation to biodiversity, marine life and festivals.

GAF: You have been around the region visiting many eco –resorts or eco-hotels. In your opinion, what is really an eco-resort?

Mallika: Since founding Gaia Discovery in 2008, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of opportunities to visit wonderful eco-tourism destinations mostly in Southeast Asia for editorial reviews and consultancy. A few hotels and resorts have been eye-openers in the way they embrace eco-tourism principles! There is much discussion on what eco-tourism is and how that relates to responsible or sustainable tourism. There are also varied opinions over what an “eco-resort” should be; in fact the interpretation of “eco-resort” can be vast, depending on who you are and what your expectations might be. A greenie might imagine an eco-resort to operate on a zero carbon basis, but that, in my opinion, is taking on a rather purist approach. There’s always the danger of expecting the “eco-resort” to the ultimate shining beacon of hope in the helpless sea of tourism pagans. Reality is, it takes time to be a respectable eco-resort, as often, there is a steep learning curve ahead, and there has to be buy in from all levels, from the management to staff on the ground.  No one eco-resort can be easily replicated, either. There are no “eco-tourism” storyboards that can be copied plainly, as each setting is unique.

Before defining what an eco-resort should be, let’s first look at what constitutes eco-tourism. The International Ecotourism Society or TIES has a spot on definition of ecotourism, which is: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (TIES, 1990).  In my opinion, eco-tourism should minimize negative impacts while creating positive impacts of the environment, for example through conservation and restoration. Eco-tourism should also seek to enrich the quality of life of communities that contribute to the operations and success of the eco-resort concerned. For instance, culture is often what draws tourists to a particular destination, so hotels and resorts must take it upon themselves to uphold local culture and heritage by getting involved in conservation and interpretative activities. They should be careful not to let the onslaught of tourism and the tirade of property development erode cultural assets and values, let alone displace people.

“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel” says TIES. It is not easy for a commercial entity to unite these three aspects of eco-tourism, but with the right motivation, good and long-term guidance from a sustainability consultant and a clear business philosophy, it can be achieved. Sustainable travel alone needs much discussion, but it essentially involves mapping out a better tomorrow for staff, communities, the natural environment, the built environment (heritage buildings) and the cultural landscape. An important aspect of sustainable tourism is to be an effective bridge between guests or the traveller and host communities or countries. Cultural, social, political and environmental sensitivities of host countries should be appreciated and made understood in as many ways. Some creativity injected to bring those across will produce positive experiences and memorable impressions for guests.

VCO Community Capacity Building Borneo Eco Tours (image credit: Mal)

VCO Community Capacity Building Borneo Eco Tours (image credit: BEST)

A great example of an ecotourism player is Borneo Eco Tours in Sabah where their modest lodges are nestled unobtrusively within secondary rainforests that are habitats to orang utans, proboscis monkeys, birds. Sukau Rainforest Lodge in Sandakan uses some of its profits to establish a foundation, the Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society, to help build the capacity of communities by starting up cottage industries, helping to strengthen their health and education as well. The eco-lodge practices wonderful interpretative activities as well.  For example, guests will chance upon a bundle of postcards of in their guestroom upon arrival and learn more about local wildlife while walking on the boardwalk surrounding the lodge.

Sukau Lodge Room

Sukau Lodge Room (image credit: Mal)

GAF: What is the common misconception about eco-resort?

Mallika: There’s no clear definition of an ‘eco-resort’, unfortunately. Most of the time, eco-resorts are based within natural settings. And that’s all to it. There are hardly any sustainable elements apart from energy or water saving features and fittings. A number of guests are fooled into thinking that such minimal acts are sufficient enough to qualify for an ‘eco-resort’ label, and often this label is unashamedly self-declared. If you observe, the so called “eco-resort” can be contributing to a lot of carbon emissions, waste and pollution, and even denying local people opportunities to skill up or become stakeholders in the ecotourism business.

Another narrow view of eco-resort is that it should be made of local materials like wood or bamboo, save water and energy, and practise recycling. I’d encourage these so called “eco-resorts” to rename themselves as “nature resorts”. Thus, an eco-resort should do more. It should also provide financial viability, directly and indirectly, toward conservation. So their business operations should seek to promote not destroy pristine forests, wildlife, biodiversity, culture, livelihoods and so on. The eco-resort should also be people-focused. It should place great importance to the welfare of staff, staff’s children and the communities surrounding the resort. Building capacities for health, education, skills is important too.

I’d also like to cite well known architect Hitesh Mehta’s principles that differentiate an “eco-lodge” from a “nature lodge”, and a few of them are: nature conservation, minimal impact on the environment during construction, sustainable water acquisition, careful handling and disposal of solid waste, use environmentally friendly sewage treatment systems, involving local community in the early stages of planning, and so on.  He emphasizes careful use of design by heeding local contours, contexts and cultures, even colours, following closely vernacular designs. The use of traditional building technology and materials can be combined with modern counterparts for greater sustainability. I agree with him that more can be done in meeting energy needs through passive design and renewable energy sources. Solar powered water heaters aren’t difficult to install, and the cost of photovoltaic material has fallen tremendously, yet few resorts and hotels invest in these.

GAF: Do you often encounter an ‘eco-resort’ that does not live up to its claim?

Mallika: There are those that profess to be practising eco-tourism or sustainable tourism but they fall short of important principles. Having a pretty view of nature while doing little things here and there to save energy and water do not qualify an eco-resort label. That would be, in my opinion, a nature resort that seeks to reduce its own utility bills! An eco-resort that serves imported meat and unsustainable seafood should re-look at their sources and supply chain. Getting fresh produce from nearby grocers preferably from cottage industries go a longer way in supporting local businesses and communities. Interpretative activities could involve having guided tours to local markets. Every resort and hotel could consult WWF, Conservation International or Marine Stewardship Council for an idea of what kind of seafood to serve that doesn’t already deplete the oceans’ fishery stock or pollute the waterways due to fish farm activities.

GAF: What motivate most people to run an eco-resort based on your observation?

Mallika: I’ve met great people who are also interesting individuals who are passionate about making a positive difference while profiting from tourism. Profits aren’t bad, they are in fact very good and much needed for eco-resorts to flex their muscles in promoting conservation and improving the social welfare of staffs and local communities. Proprietors of eco-resorts also find joy when they hear their guests regaling about the hornbills spotted, baby orang-utans nurtured or manta rays seen in the deep blue. They know that their responsible business model has worked.

I do know a number of proprietors that operate responsibly but do not call their resorts an eco-resort or green resort. They are in it because they believe in and aren’t after labels. Amarela Hotel in the Philippines is one such resort. An amazing resort, which in my opinion is an exemplary eco-resort, is Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa. It demonstrates a number of innovative solutions that work to reduce impacts effectively, including recycling grey water using aquatic plants in a manmade stream.

GAF: How do eco-resorts strike a balance between their efforts to minimize environmental impact and ensuring guests’ comforts?

Mallika: It may come as a surprise, but one doesn’t need to stay in a luxury eco-resort to experience all the creature comforts without contributing towards environmental degradation. Even simple eco-resorts can be luxurious, especially boutique resorts. The approach here should be people oriented and quality focused rather than mass appeal. Think of the safari camps in Africa that are essentially tents in the wilderness but pitch themselves as luxury stays, and they often are such. It’s the service that counts and effective interpretation of the natural environment to guests. A fine example is Shompole  situated in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya with its nine villa and one private house property nestled in the private wildlife conservancy. There aren’t any doors or windows but an open concept built with privacy in mind to allow oneness with nature, and an infinity pool completes this luxurious idea of a vacation.  Shompole incidentally is a project that is partly-owned and operated by the local Maasai clan.

Aesthetically pleasing and quality building materials, furniture and hardware can be sourced locally. Bamboo for instance is a versatile local material that is renewable too. Crosswaters Ecolodge in Guangdong Province of China (pictured) is a breathtaking example of how beautiful bamboo can be used as part of vernacular design.

Integrating bamboo in the resort design (image credit: Mal)

Integrating bamboo in the lodge design (image credit:HM Design)

Guests can be treated to sumptuous meals that are sustainably grown, harvested and caught (considering that fishery is in crisis), so no need for expensive imported ingredients that pollute the air during freight and pollute the land elsewhere. Eco-resorts that avoid air conditioning often use passive design features like high ceilings, louvers for ventilation & use of ponds or water bodies to cool the air, in addition to rotating electric fans.

Actually, running an eco-resort can be a highly rewarding experience in terms of creating wonderful experiences for the traveller through creative planning, low impact methods, local materials and creative design. All it takes is passion for the environment and determination not to operate “business as usual”.

About Mallika Naguran:

image credit: Mal

image credit: Mal

Mallika Naguran, based in Singapore, is the founder of Gaia Discovery and publisher of The Gaia Guide. She has a keen in interest in social-environmental issues, providing research and editorial services on sustainable development and responsible tourism. Mallika holds an MSc in Environmental Management and acts as an advisor to environmental organisations and businesses. She travels widely to appease her wanderlust, sometimes in the deep blue too.

mal AT gaiadiscovery DOT com

About the author

Devisanthi Tunas is the co-founder of www.greenasiaforce.com, an online platform which promotes sustainability awareness and green building solutions in tropical context. She is a Singapore based architect.