Treading Carefully With Eco Resorts

Green developments have caught the attention of the real estate industry. These developments conserve energy, reduce utility bills and send a message to the public that the developers and owners are …

Green developments have caught the attention of the real estate industry. These developments conserve energy, reduce utility bills and send a message to the public that the developers and owners are socially responsible. Most of the projects that are advertised to the public are custom-made homes, architecturally stimulating office buildings and retail outlets that emphasize their sustainable designs. Many people are not accustomed to seeing eco-friendly structures as part of their vacation, but that has changed lately as the green movement has moved into even the most remote locations. What has emerged is ecotourism—a new way to experience and appreciate the places where we vacation.

According to the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” To be considered as an eco resort ,an establishment must take considerable measures to conserve the land, its resources and its culture. This often means exercising extra caution when clearing brush and leveling land, reducing the resort’s waste and energy consumption, using recycled and eco-friendly building materials whenever possible and supporting the local economy by hiring its residents and utilizing their commodities.

Though these conditions may not evoke the most relaxing atmosphere to some people, it’s clear that they do for a significant part of the tourist market. According to TIES’ study of global ecotourism, more than two-thirds of American and Australian travelers, and 90 percent of British travelers believed that it is a hotel’s responsibility to actively protect its surrounding environment and support its local community. Approximately 70 percent of these three travel groups also said that they would pay up to $150 more for a two-week vacation if the hotel had a “responsible environmental attitude.”

Judging from these numbers, it’s clear that ecological considerations are here to stay. In fact, despite a general slowdown in the construction, tourism and hospitality industries, numerous eco resorts are still underway. The Distinguished International Hotel Group is working with the government of Dominica to develop an eco resort that will contain a mixture of villas, tree houses and cottages. Star Island resort, which stands for Sustainable Terrain and Resources, is anticipated to be completely carbon-neutral. Famed British industrialist Richard Branson purchased Mosquito Island in the British Virgin Islands, with plans to turn it into a premier ecotourism destination. In Vietnam, the $20-million eco-tourism complex that will contain hotels, a sports complex, restaurants and a park, is underway and expected to be completed in late 2010. Cacao Pearl, the world’s first non-profit, luxury eco resort community is being constructed on the northern tip of the Palawan Biosphere Reserve in the Philippines.

Many of these developments still have lots and units available to interested investors. Some, such as Star Island, are offering numerous benefits to early investors that include discounts on estate prices and marina slips, and complimentary green design consultations. Others, like Cacao Pearl, are giving priority to investors who are truly interested in the project’s environmental benefits, not just its financial benefits. However, Joel Cere, CEO of Cacao Resorts, noted that the financial benefits of eco resorts should not be ignored. “We offer the luxury of private-island ownership for $240,000,” he said. “Investors will benefit from capital growth and net yields ranging from 12 percent to 17 percent in one of the few regions offering exceptional opportunity for growth.”

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The promise of low-cost island properties that are easy on the ecology, the local community and your wallet is enticing, but there are many things to consider before jumping into an eco resort investment—first and foremost being the type of resort you’re looking for.

Some developments take ecotourism to the extreme, consisting of simple huts without electricity and other basic or luxury amenities. These resorts can often provide the most authentic—some might call it rustic—eco-experience, but can leave guests wanting a hot shower, clean sheets and an exotic cocktail. Others are comparable to five-star resorts and come complete with spas, turndown services and guided tours. Though these amenities can be great, travelers yearning for a unique ecotourism vacation may be disappointed to discover how “mainstream” the resort is.

Another thing to consider is that not all resorts that utilize the green or eco labels in their marketing campaigns are actually as environmentally friendly as they claim. For example, some “green” resorts will rely on generators that run on diesel fuel to power their air conditioners, automatically wash and change the linens daily, bus workers into the facility from faraway towns and import ingredients rather than buying locally.

However, Cere isn’t too worried about these faux eco resorts competing with the real thing. “When eco and green issues become more mainstream, and the consumer appreciation of green criteria becomes more sophisticated, our strict adherence to ethical and ecologically responsible construction and operations will differentiate the Cacao Pearl from other resorts,” he said. “Resorts that use ‘eco’ as a marketing badge will come under increased scrutiny as the temporary economic slowdown forces travelers to be more discerning when selecting their destinations.”

Part of the problem when it comes to resorts using the green label is that there is no official organization that certifies the resorts that claim to specialize in ecotourism.

TIES, in conjunction with the Rainforest Alliance, is attempting to introduce a universally accepted certification program that would account for regional, cultural and environmental variances. Though this system is not yet in place, as it must meet with the approval of numerous organizations in order to attain global acceptance, there are still ways you can determine whether an eco resort opportunity is actually as green or eco-friendly as it claims to be.

Playing detective

The best way to evaluate a resort’s commitment to the environment and community is by asking questions and doing some research. “The acid test is to look into existing resort companies’ annual reports to see who is really getting a fair share of profits and how ‘green’ the operations really are [by examining] their suppliers, operations and work practices,” Cere said.

If you’re interested in investing in a new project, there are a few key design elements that should be discussed. Ask whether the project is utilizing local labor pools and reusable or recyclable materials. Understand what measures are being taken to preserve and protect the land, its flora and its fauna. Finally, discuss how energy, water and waste will be handled during and after the construction phase. Energy consumption can be reduced, water can be reused and waste can be diverted.

You will also want to research how accessible the local community will be to the resort. For example, many eco developers forego gating the property because they find that it creates a separation between the resort and the community. Others put local residents into customer service roles that keep the community interacting with its visitors. This gives visitors instant access to an expert on local culture and can bring a sense of pride to the employees.

The resort should also be located near a natural eco system, which allows travelers to experience the land firsthand without disturbing it too much. One great way to achieve this goal is by installing zip lines. They require no energy and guide travelers through the land with minimal disruption to its eco system.

As the world continues to evolve and become more self-aware, it seems that the green movement may be here to stay. Investing in an eco resort could be the perfect way to get in on the ground-floor of the hottest new trend in travel, just make sure that both you and the other principals involved understand what ecotourism truly entails.

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