Taking holidays is an important part of modern life. Who hasn’t got through a difficult Tuesday afternoon at work by daydreaming about their next getaway?
And while the typical ‘fly and flop’ package is still undoubtably popular, a growing number of holidaymakers are now opting for ecotourism.
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism, growing in popularity since the 1990s, is defined by the Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
Beyond that, there’s a lot of different opinions on what exactly is or isn’t ecotourism. The following principles come up most often:
- A focus on enjoying nature (animals, water, landscapes, skyscapes, etc)
- Tourists’ money funding nature conservation
- Sustainable and low-impact facilities / accommodation
- Respect of local and indigenous cultures
- Tourists’ money going directly to local people
- A focus on learning about the destination’s ecology and culture
Another important aspect is that ecologically sensitive areas (e.g. a rainforest in Costa Rica) lend themselves very well to ecotourism ventures, but by their very nature such sites cannot cope with too many visitors without degradation.
Ecotourism sites cannot take as many guests as possible as this will risk damaging the very sites the tourists come to experience. For this reason the Ecotourism Society adapted the classic definition of sustainable development. Ecotourism: “meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.”
The country most associated with ecotourism is undoubtably Costa Rica. The small Central American nation is blessed with rich rainforests and rivers, boasting many charismatic animals like sloths, tree frogs and turtles. The country has been very progressive in its uptake of renewable energy and has taken a similarly ecological approach to tourism – promoting ecotourism has allowed it to monetise its natural assets while preserving their integrity. Other destinations that spring to mind are frequently in the developing world, like Borneo, Kenya and parts of India. However, rich countries can also embrace ecotourism with New Zealand, Norway and Iceland popular eco-destinations.
Currently, the UK doesn’t feature too highly as a global ecotourism destination but that seems to be changing. The website Green Traveller lists many eco lodges in England alone.
Why do we need ecotourism?
Tourism is one of the world’s biggest industries, and is an important source of income and employment for many countries. However it also has costs. The industry is responsible for over 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, helping to fuel dangerous climate change.
More locally, the construction of hotels, resorts, and accompanying infrastructure, has led to habitat loss and displacement of local poor people. High volumes of tourists also produce a lot of waste, and put pressure on water sources. Many hotel and resort chains are owned by foreign corporations, some of whom extract vast profits without giving much to the host community.
Finally, development for tourism has sometimes led to cultural homogenisation, the breakdown of traditional customs, practices and activities, and the marginalisation of local people. These impacts are particularly prevalent in developing countries where locals have less economic and political power, but also happen to a lesser extent in developed countries with large tourism industries (e.g. Spain and Italy).
Of course, it’s horrible to think that your holiday could be causing damage to the host community. We travel for pleasure, relaxation and adventure, not to marginalise anyone or pollute the environment.
A tourism experience can be environmentally sustainable and/or culturally sensitive without necessarily being ecotourism, so clearly ecotourism is not the only positive option. However it is a very progressive trend, which is clearly resonating with many people. Plus it has a strong business case, as the broader category of nature tourism is now the fastest growing segment of tourism.
Role of architecture in ecotourism
But what does all this have to do with architecture and design?
Point 3 of our 6 identified key principles calls for ‘Sustainable and low-impact facilities / accommodation’. Clearly this alone isn’t enough to make an ecotourism experience, but it is an important point. Also, good design can help to fulfil some of the other points too: being culturally sensitive by respecting local architectural styles, and benefiting the host community economically by hiring local people for building, maintaining and operating the premises.
We believe a well designed eco lodge should:
- Be made of predominantly natural materials, sourced locally and sustainably
- Use passive solar and energy efficiency features to minimise energy demand
- Include renewable energy technologies to provide most or all of the power
- Utilise water conservation methods and rainwater harvesting
- Provide a comfortable, inspiring and educational base for guests
- Draw design inspiration from local architecture and blend into the landscape
We are actually developing our own award-winning eco-lodge design, called PassivPod. While it could be adapted easily for other uses, PassivPod is perfect for ecotourism.
A ‘pod-shaped’ building with four bedrooms and comfortable living space, it uses passive solar design, solar power and a wood stove to be carbon neutral in operation. It’s also made from natural materials and harvests rainwater. With its extensive floor-to-ceiling glazing on the southern side, balcony and outside hot-tub, PassivPod is ideal for placement in an area of rich natural beauty.
Our design was a finalist in the Sunday Times Eco-Haus Competition 2014 and we’re working on further developing the technical plans, building a dedicated website and raising funding for a prototype. Our vision is for PassivPods to be rolled out in remote rural areas, allowing people to have inspiring and comfortable nature-based holidays from a zero-carbon base which enhances rather than degrades the landscape.
If you work in the ecotourism industry and are interested in PassivPod, please get in touch and take a look at our new website: www.passivpod.co.uk.
If you’re interested in ecotourism as a tourist, here’s some useful resources:
And we’ll keep you updated on our progress with making PassivPod an ecotourism reality. Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to know!
What do you think of ecotourism? Tweet us your views at @KoruArchitects.