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Eco-tourism: where less is more

By Aparna Datta

To get to the Devbagh Beach Resort at Karwar, you have to take a three-kilometer boat-ride. Check into you room: a log hut on stilts with a thatched roof…

At the B.R. Hills Wildlife Adventure Resort at K.Gudi you have a choice: furnished tents or huts on stilts lit only by hurricane lamps, or the Maharaja’s bungalow with electricity…

Camp out on the banks of the River Cauvery at the Cauvery Fishing Camp at Bheemeshwari. Go angling for mahseer – snare a 100 pounder, get yourself photographed, and promptly release the game fish back into the river…

Welcome to the world of the eco-tourist. Individualistic and independent, they seek experiences literally off the beaten track. A new breed of traveler keen on visiting remote getaways that offer an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to conservation of the eco-system while respecting the integrity of host communities. This is alternative tourism – far removed from Club Med or the Dubai Shopping Festival.

It’s a growing trend, and implies a paradigm shift in the tourism industry. Catering to this new customer requires taking a fresh look at the design and the amenities provided at such resorts.

The hospitality industry has always referred to hotels and resorts as properties. The image that comes to mind is that of chrome and glass, spacious lobbies, mood lighting, extensive landscaping. The accent is on constructed space, and imposing facades.

At resorts subscribing to the new mantra of Eco-tourism, the concept is just the opposite. The accommodation is designed to blend with the environment, making use of locally available building materials. In fact, a specific design aesthetic characterizes such resorts, with the term property being a misnomer, because planners totally avoid any construction that might seem artificial.

The Casino Group (CGH Earth) in Kerala is making waves – its Coconut Lagoon resort has been listed by the Conde Nast Traveller as one among 25 of the world’s most remote and exotic hideaways. Its specialty is the accommodation in Tharawads – traditional ancestral Kerala houses made of wood which have actually been recreated using century-old materials, guided by experts in the Thachu Shastra school of carpentry. The bathing area is open to sky. The entire experience is altogether novel and memorable.

In Karnataka, Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd., a unit of Karnataka Tourism, has blazed a new trail. Over the past ten years, the Company has turned losses into profits, and emerged as a front-runner in the Eco-tourism business. Starting with the Kabini River Lodge, they have now developed four new resorts, offering a wide range of activities.

It has patented a concept called the Gol Ghar, a gazebo which is open on all sides and serves as a community dining space. Care is taken to provide modern toilets; other than that, few concessions are made for other creature comforts, i.e., no satellite TV! Cleanliness, hygiene, eco-friendliness – yes; discos and wild parties – no.

Writes Ikarus Tours of Germany, “We have experienced a very interesting place in the wilderness, not being spoilt like others.”

Developing a resort in a remote location presents its own set of challenges. Says Vinay Luthra, Executive Director of Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR), “We are committed to socially and environmentally responsible tourism.” Such development cannot be imposed – it has to integrate with the existing socio-economic profile of the region. Moreover, development has to enhance the quality of life of the local population. JLR hands over 10 per cent of its profits to local villages for use in social amelioration schemes.

At Devbagh, a Village Forest Committee has been constituted to ensure that the development activities do not disrupt the lives of the villagers. All those displaced by the creation of the resort are rehabilitated to the extent possible – villagers are trained for new jobs, their skills employed for making furniture, decorative and souvenir items for the resort.

Such concerns add a new dimension to project development. For the Taj Group, dealing with these issues starts at the concept stage. E Kumar, General Manager (Projects) confirms that Environmental Impact Assessments are routinely carried out for all projects. For resorts in forests and protected areas, such scrutiny holds special relevance, and ensures that only eco-friendly features will be incorporated. Ergo, no air-conditioning and now swimming-pools in sanctuaries!

Worldwide, environmental awareness has stimulated greater efforts to promote sustainable tourism. Green Flag International, a not-for-profit concern based in the UK, works in partnership with the tourism industry. Through a rating scheme, it audits holiday packages, tour operators and resorts, looking at criteria such as:

  • Consideration given to landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage
  • Waste disposal and recycling
  • Interaction with local communities in terms of goods and services
  • Sympathetic building and architecture

The Green Flag approach has introduced independent product performance and testing, evaluation and accountability.

For architects and interior designers Eco-tourism represents a whole new idiom in resort development. It means understanding the needs of a niche customer, and incorporating aspects into the design that complement the natural habitat. It means a special sensitivity to the environment, maintaining a fine balance between man and nature. The guideline could simply be: “Less is more.”

The reward would come in guest comments such as this made by Louise Nickleson, a travel writer from the UK, about the Kabini River Lodge. “This is paradise…a re-charging of wonderful memories to be savoured slowly until the next visit. May the place never change.”

© Aparna Datta, 1998

Published in Assets – Property pages of the Times of India, Bangalore, April 9, 1998

 
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