One of the questions we get asked most frequently by our readers involves how to choose a responsible tour operator, eco lodge or green hotel.
Research shows that global interest in ecotourism (which was defined by The International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people”) has grown rapidly in recent years.
According to the Center For Responsible Travel’s 2015 Travel Trends & Statistics report, around one in five consumers (21%) say they would be willing to pay more for a trip with a company that has a better environmental and social record.
A 2012 report by The Travel Foundation found that 66% of travelers surveyed would like to be able to identify a “greener” holiday more easily. And 84% of those working in travel PR/marketing see “green” credentials becoming increasingly important in the near future.
Unfortunately, these sorts of stats attract a good bit of greenwashing from profit-driven people looking to cash in on the eco-friendly movement. So how do you find a responsibly managed eco lodge when you travel? And what’s the difference between an eco lodge and a green hotel?
Read on for the answers, and a brief guide to some of the most acclaimed eco lodges around the world…
What Is An Eco Lodge?
The biggest difference between an eco lodge and a green hotel is the setting in which you’ll find them. Eco lodges tend to be more remote, located in relatively pristine natural environments such as beaches, jungles and mountains. Green hotels, on the other hand, are more often associated with cities and towns.
Eco lodges and green hotels both emphasize elements such as environmental responsibility and minimizing negative impact. The best ones offer renewable energy sources, recycling services, eco-friendly toiletries, energy efficient lighting, locally sourced food, organic linens and towels, non-toxic cleaning supplies, non-disposable dishes, water conservation methods and various other sustainability-focused initiatives.
But eco lodges tend to be more dependent on the natural environment than green hotels, more active in nature and wildlife conservation, more focused on educating visitors about the flora and fauna of local ecosystems, and more deeply connected with the area’s indigenous culture (whose influence is often incorporated into the lodge’s decor and restaurant menu).
The best eco lodges also work to ensure positive relationships with the local people. They train and employ them at fair wages, take part in community development initiatives, offer activities that help visitors conserve and appreciate local customs, and contribute to the local economy.
In this way, they reinforce the notion of ecotourism as a more sustainable long-term business model than altering or destroying habitats for quick financial gains.
How to Find A Responsibly Managed Eco Lodge
One of the biggest issues that eco lodges and green hotels face is the lack of a universal definition. How eco-friendly does a lodge or boutique hotel need to be to qualify? And who determines which accommodations will pass muster?
Unfortunately, some of the world’s most well-known and respected “green” certification programs are cost-prohibitive for many eco lodges, which are often relatively small and owned and operated by independent entrepreneurs rather than corporations.
But there are numerous reputable certification programs that responsible travelers can look for before they book an eco lodge or hotel stay. Many– including Green Seal in the U.S.– are part of the Global Ecolabelling Network, a non-profit group comprised of 25 third-party organizations throughout the world. They’re all devoted to improving, promoting and developing labelling systems for eco-friendly products and services.
Sponsored in part by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria are widely considered the gold standard in “green” certification. These criteria involve effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage, and reducing negative impacts to the environment.
Where the GSTC has guidelines for destinations, hotels and tour operators, Green Key Global is designed specifically for the lodging industry. Its flagship Eco-Rating Program, which evaluates properties on an environmental, social and economic level, has certified around 2,370 green hotels and eco lodges in 52 countries over the past 15 years.
Green Globe is another popular certification program, offering training and education for hotels/resorts, attractions, organizations, cruise ships, and various tourism industry suppliers. Their global network of independent auditors provide third-party inspection and an internationally recognized seal of approval that’s become increasingly popular over the past 25 years.
Great Eco Lodges Around the World
CAMPI YA KANZI ECO LODGE (Kenya)
You can’t swing a stick in East Africa without hitting a luxury safari camp. What makes this eco lodge overlooking Mount Kilimanjaro different is the fact that it’s actually owned and operated by the Maasai, the nomadic pastoralists who have called this region home for some 500 years.
The 400 square mile Campi ya Kenzi (“Camp of the Hidden Treasure”) is bordered by Amboseli, Tsavo and Chyulu National Parks. So there’s a diverse array of ecosystems (mountain forest, grasslands, river woodlands, bush and savanna) and remarkable biodiversity (50+ mammals and 400+ bird species) that makes for a memorable safari. Can you imagine a morning walking safari with a Maasai guide?
The tented camp is exclusive, with a maximum of 12 guests at any given time. The tents were all built sustainably, with thatched roofs, lava rocks and traditional Masai decor. But there’s no sacrifice in luxury, including hot and cold running water, flush toilet, brass taps, massive log beds and a verandah providing stunning views for a sundowner at day’s end.
DAINTREE WILDERNESS LODGE (Australia)
Named one of the Top 50 Ecolodges In the World by National Geographic, Daintree is run in partnership with the local Kuku Yalanji tribe, allowing guests a rare chance to immerse themselves in the culture of Australian Aborigines.
The lodge is set in the Daintree Rainforest, the world’s oldest, which is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on Australia’s northeast coast. The landscape looks like something out of Jurassic Park, surrounded by sandy beaches, rugged mountains, waterfalls and pristine forests. The area contains 65% of Australia’s bat and butterfly species; 30% of the frog, reptile and marsupial species; and 18% of the bird species.
The lodge’s Advanced Eco Certification ensures your stay in their elevated treehouse-style villas makes a minimal impact on the pristine environment. Activities include painting workshops using ocher from a nearby waterfall and hiking tours to explore the ancient, otherworldly plants of the forest. And the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is less than an hour away.
ECOCAMP PATAGONIA (Chile)
The first hotel in all of Patagonia with a certified Environmental Management System, this Chilean-owned eco lodge offers luxury glamping and spectacular views of the famed peaks of the Torres del Paine massif.
The carbon neutral camp’s unique geodesic dome suites offer wood-burning stoves, en suite bathrooms, and open terraces that provide occasional sightings of local wildlife. The dome’s design was inspired by the Kaweskars (Alacalufes), the nomadic Patagonian people who once lived in what is now Torres del Paine National Park.
Their green exteriors are designed to blend harmoniously with the surrounding environment, with skylight windows designed to utilize natural heat and light. All of the camp’s electricity is provided by a micro-hydro turbine and photovoltaic panels. Their composting toilets, aggressive recycling program and commitment to the local community/culture are commendable as well.
FEYNAN ECOLODGE (Jordan)
After a 14-km hike through the mountainous terrain of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, Feynan seems like a mirage rising out of the desert. Named one of the Top 50 Ecolodges in the World by National Geographic, Feynan is part of a unique partnership between EcoHotels (a private company) and Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).
Feynan Ecolodge is a pioneer of sustainability, not just in Jordan but the entire Middle East region. It is fully solar-powered via photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof, with natural ventilation, and all water coming from a local spring. A substantial portion of Feynan’s revenue helps fund conservation efforts in Dana, which covers 320 square kilometers and contains the highest level of biodiversity in Jordan.
Activities at Feynan range from hiking and biking in the reserve to spending the day with a shepherd, learning about Bedouin culture from a local family in their goat-hair tented home, and taking a cooking class and making a 3-course Jordanian meal. But our favorite was spending the night sleeping on a bed under the stars on the eco lodge’s roof.
HAMANASI ADVENTURE & DIVE RESORT (Belize)
This Green Globe-certified eco lodge set on the picturesque Caribbean coast was named Belize’s Hotel of the Year in 2009. Located just minutes from Hopkins Village, with the MesoAmerican Reef offshore and the Maya Mountains nearby, it’s a perfect location for nature-lovers and adventurers alike.
Hamanasi is part of a pilot project supported by Conservation International and using the Caribbean Association of Sustainable Tourism’s methodology. Their sustainable initiatives include composting, rainwater collection, eco-friendly cleansers, louvered windows and ceiling fans to minimize AC usage, extensive recycling and hiring over 90% of staff from local communities. They’ve also set aside 10 pristine acres as a nature reserve.
Their ecotourism activities are endless, but our favorites included a guided hike through Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Scuba diving (and spear-hunting the invasive lion fish) the Belize Barrier Reef, and taking Garifuna drumming lessons in Hopkins Village.
LAPA RIOS ECO LODGE (Costa Rica)
Recently named one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, this award-winning eco lodge has also been voted one of Latin America’s top resorts by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure.
Lapa Rios is set on the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by over 1,000 acres of protected rainforest on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. It’s adjacent to Corcovado National Park, a soon-to-be-named UNESCO World Heritage Site widely considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The pristine lowland forest habitat is home to a stunning array of wildlife, including four species of monkeys and significant populations of endangered species such as the jaguar, baird’s tapir, white-lipped peccaries, scarlet macaws and the harpy eagle.
Opened in 1993 by former Peace Corps volunteers John and Karen Lewis, the eco lodge was a pioneer in Costa Rica’s ecotourism movement. Their 16 thatched roof bungalows make use of cooling ocean breezes, while their salt-based pool, open-air restaurant, yoga classes and Ayurvedic massages ensure “eco-friendly” never feels anything less than luxurious.
Their community-based initiatives include working with local NGO Earth Equilibrium to build school classrooms, dining rooms, and playgrounds; provide badly needed school supplies; and install water pumps and solar panels to supply clean water and electricity in local communities around the Osa Peninsula.
NIMMO BAY WILDERNESS RESORT (British Columbia)
Another one of NatGeo’s Unique Lodges, Nimmo Bay is tucked away in the old growth wilderness of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. It couldn’t be more remote: Surrounded by majestic mountains, pristine forest, glistening fjords and tumbling waterfalls, it’s accessible only by helicopter or floatplane.
Widely considered one of the first true ecolodges in the world, the resort has been owned and operated by Deborah and Craig Murray since the early 1980s. Originally known as a hotspot for heli-fishing, the resort has become a bucket-list destination for adventure-seekers (drawn by hiking, fly fishing, and kayaking) and wildlife aficionados (orcas, bears, humpback whales, salmon, sea lions) alike.
Thanks to a 5,000-foot waterfall originating atop Mount Stephens, their hydropower turbine creates enough energy to run the entire lodge off-grid. They also source the majority of the ingredients served in their restaurant locally and have a partnership with the area’s First Nation communities of the area through which they use indigenous guides and offer educational cultural activities.
The waterside wooden chalets, cedar hot tubs, waterfall plunge pool, floating dock with fire pit and yoga classes), and dinner cruises on the Mackenzie Sound are nothing to sneeze at, either.
PHINDA FOREST LODGE (South Africa)
Considered one of the world’s first eco lodges, Phinda is part of a 170 square kilometer private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Praised by National Geographic for its blend of sophisticated luxury and environmental consciousness, it was also a seminal part of the life-changing experience in South Africa that inspired me to start Green Global Travel.
Their 16 rooms (which are spread far apart to increase the sense of seclusion) offer a delightful immersion in “Zulu zen.” The floor-to-ceiling glass windows make guests feel at one with the surrounding forest, as well as providing opportunities to view wildlife that, during my visit, included a spiral-horned antelope called a Nyala, a Black-backed Jackal, and an entire family of Warthogs within a dozen feet of the back patio.
The activities are endless, including exceptional morning and sunset game drives in the private reserve, walking safaris, tracking endangered Black Rhino on foot, touring the rehab/breeding facility of the Endangered Wild Cats Project, and Scuba diving in the India Ocean’s Sodwana Bay, which is considered among the world’s top dive sites.
ROSALIE BAY RESORT (Dominica)
Set in a picturesque valley where the Rosalie River meets the Atlantic, this excellent boutique hotel puts an emphasis on environmental sustainability, wellness, and farm-to-table food. If you’re seeking an exclusive sanctuary on the Caribbean’s “Nature Island,” Rosalie Bay simply cannot be beat.
Opened in 2011, Rosalie Bay Resort hasearned an array of awards and accolades, including Green Globe certification, a Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award, and Dominica’s Resort of the Year. Its 28 rooms and suites are luxurious, with flat screen TV, free WiFi, iPod docking station, coffee maker, mini fridge and A/C. But most of their electrical needs are powered by wind turbines and solar panels.
It’s surrounded by natural beauty, with the Rosalie River on one side, the Morne Trois Pitons (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the other, and a beautiful black sand beach that’s a frequent nesting ground for sea turtles. Their turtle conservation program is arguably the best in the Caribbean, allowing the resort to guarantee guests will see a sea turtle at some point if they visit during nesting season.
THREE CAMEL LODGE (Mongolia)
If Mongolia isn’t on your travel bucket list, this ultra-traditional eco lodge (which National Geographic Traveler named one of the World’s Best Ecolodges in 2013) should be. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Gobi Altai mountains, the lodge offers 35 authentic gers– the yurt-style tents favored by Mongolia’s nomads– made from circular wooden frames covered in thick felts and canvas.
The interior features hand-carved furniture, wool carpets, camel-hair blankets and wood-burning stoves. The main building, from its wooden peg construction to its hand-molded roofing tiles, was designed like an ancient Buddhist temple. With a focus on environmental and cultural preservation, the lodge is a reflection of its unspoiled natural surroundings on the Mongolian steppes.
Available activities include helping paleontologists excavate the Flaming Cliffs, home visits with local nomads, and throat-singing performances at the lodge. Or you can just immerse yourself in the beauty of your surroundings, watching spectacular sunsets over the great Gobi Desert. –Bret Love
The co-founder of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media, Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of experience. He’s been published in over 100 print publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, National Geographic, Rolling Stone and Yahoo Travel. He’s an in-demand speaker at travel conferences, covering topics ranging from branding and content marketing to responsible travel and how DMOs can work with bloggers. He’s also made a name for himself as a content and influencer marketing strategist, advising companies such as Discover Corps and International Expeditions.
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