TWO SHADES OF GREEN
When actor Leonardo DiCaprio debuts his ecofriendly resort on an island off the coast of Belize in
2018, it’ll be a project more than 12 years in the making.
That long schedule is one of the hallmarks—and risks—of ecotourism, a global trend in which
travelers vacation at sustainably designed developments where they can marvel at pristine and
often fragile natural habitats.
The world’s protected land areas receive about 8 billion visits per year, according to a 2015 study
in the journal PLOS Biology. By 2021, ecotourism will represent 25 percent of the global travel market, predicts The International Ecotourism Society.
But delivering such ecofriendly travel destinations requires project owners to find a delicate
balance among financial, social and environmental goals. “Whatever you do should enhance the
environment, not take away from it,” says Hitesh Mehta, president of the global design firm HM
Design, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. That can be surprisingly difficult to do. “If you build a sus-
tainable lodge in a wildlife refuge that disrupts a migration path, or a property in a rain forest that
requires removing trees, you take away from the land.”
Then there are practical considerations, like whether the local community wants to become a
tourist destination and how to measure environmental and finan-
cial impacts. Despite these challenges, governments are backing
ecotourism projects. Vietnam has begun a VND19 trillion project
to transform its Vu Yen Island into a tourist destination by 2020.
In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh recently announced plans to
develop an ecotourism project in each of its 23 districts, while the
state of Himachal has proposed 56 ecotourism projects.
Outsiders vs. Locals
Delivering ecotourist projects’ planned environmental benefits
isn’t always easy. One of the biggest obstacles are project owners
who like the idea of ecotourism but start to lose interest when they
have to make tough decisions to balance cost against environmental goals. “Often, the people who want to make a difference are not
the ones with the money,” Mr. Mehta says. That means they have
to partner with public and private stakeholders who may have different agendas for the project.
He recalls working on the Kwanari Ecolodge in Dominica, West
Indies. The original project plan called for 100 percent solar power.
But when investors saw the price tag, they nixed the idea. Mr.
Mehta ended up designing the site with grid power and a solar
system backup, and the plan is to have a full solar system for phase
two of the project. “As a designer, you know some things will get
taken out of the plan,” he says. “You always need to balance finan-
cial issues with environmental and social goals.”
However, he notes that the most important stakeholders in
an ecotourism project aren’t the outsiders—nongovernmental
organizations, investors, government agencies or project own-
ers. They are local communities, he says. “The locals have to be
Source: The International
Renderings of the resort,
above, and one of 48
private houses planned
for an island owned by
actor Leonardo DiCaprio