Ecotourism: A message of sustainability and luxury

Forget the hustle and bustle of the big cities or the artificial culture of a gated resort – a new breed of tourist is discovering a luxury paradise that is educational, environmentally-friendly and immersed in a world of coffee. Ecotourism is emerging as an increasingly popular way for people to travel with a conscience and to reduce their carbon footprint. The coffee industry has caught on, with plantations and sustainable resorts cropping up around the world. Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn is one such boutique hotel above the Central Valley of San Jose in Costa Rica. The resort is working to increase sustainable tourism by preserving its coffee-growing heritage while attracting foreign spending to some of Costa Rica’s more economically fragile regions. “As a country, the culture has a strong, progressive consciousness about protecting the environment and pride in their agricultural community,” says owner Glenn Jampol. Jampol and his wife, Teri, built Finca Rosa Blanca in 1985 as one of the first deluxe hotels in Costa Rica. It was established at a time when Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias Sanchez, gained international recognition by winning the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the civil war between the Sandanistas and the Contras in Nicaraguan. Jampol says the event generated much media attention for the area, helping to catapult the hotel into success. “It was a time that tourism just started to become interesting,” he says. “Hotel establishments in the area were all small family-run businesses that offered very rustic, homey accommodation experiences, but they didn’t necessarily have the knowledge about what expectations clients had outside Costa Rica.” Jampol decided to combine the “small hotel idea” with personalised service and what he considered to be a “low impact business that was highly sustainable.” In 2003 Jampol bought his first coffee field located next to the hotel. At the time, the average price paid to growers wasn’t even a quarter of what it is today. “I was concerned because the price of coffee was seriously low, so low that most coffee farmers couldn’t make any profit at all and they were selling their land off,” he says. “They were turning some of these farms into housing developments and I didn’t want that to happen in the area where I lived because it was such a beautiful agricultural area. So, I bought the property and opened it up to tourists.”
Jampol says Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world has helped spur the ecotourism trend. “Costa Rica is a leader of sustainable tourism,” he says. “The country’s progressive consciousness about protecting the environment and honouring the biodiversity which is so prevalent in the country is what makes it by far a leading ecotourism destination.” Ecotourism has become very important to Costa Rica and accounts for over US$2 billion each year. Currently, 25 per cent of Cost Rica’s land mass is protected in national parks or biological reserves under government legislation, according to the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism (ICT). This is a significant turn-around for a developing nation that was previously endangered by illegal logging throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the Costa Rican government has offered farmers Pago de Servicios Ambientales (PSA) also known as the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) incentive to conserve its natural resources. As a result, this scheme has seen green coverage in Costa Rica increase by 25 per cent since 1995.  “When I first started in this industry, ecotourism was the idea of a platform out in the middle of the jungle with no hot water, being bitten by mosquitoes and sleeping in a tent,” Jampol says. “But, that isn’t what [ecotourism] is about at all and we’ve proven that.” Ecotourism is by no means a new idea, having grown from the environmental movement in the late 1970s, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). TIES says ecotourism emerged as one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry worldwide in the early 1990s, and expanded globally between 20 per cent and 34 per cent per year. In 2004, ecotourism grew three times faster than the global tourism industry as a whole, according to United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Travel Weekly predicts that sustainable tourism could grow to 25 per cent of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately US$473 billion a year. Finca Rosa Blanca is the first certified sustainable hotel in Costa Rica. It has evolved over the last 20 years to become the highest-ranked plantation and inn for sustainable tourism and has been awarded five ‘green leaves’ by the Certification for Sustainable Tourism(CST), a certification of sustainability program managed by the Costa Rican Tourist Board (ICT). “The perception is that you have to sacrifice quality to have high sustainability – not true,” Jampol says. “I believed that sustainability is good business so I was determined to prove you could grow good coffee that was superior quality, organic, shade grown and simply stunning.” At Finca Rosa Blanca, materials are recycled; coffee is pulped and used as a fertiliser; solar energy is used to heat water and; underground electrical systems ensures there’s no interference to surrounding wildlife. The plantation cultivates its own organic shade certified coffee, with the trees sequestering carbon dioxide and aiding in soil moisture retention, thus minimising erosion. The hotel and plantation supports the local community by only employing staff from the area so they can invest their earnings back into the community. “Understanding the consciousness of the country is really the base for why sustainability has done so well,” Jampol says. “Modern day pioneers are attracted by this consciousness because it has a protective sense and they want to do more.” Oswaldo Acevedo from Café Mesa de los Santos in Colombia similarly operates an ecotourism facility. The Hotel Hacinenda El Roble is surrounded by more than 300 hectares of land and 55,000 shade grown organic coffee trees. The hotel attracts both foreign and domestic tourists with a anywhere from basic knowledge of coffee, to experts. Acevedo says the idea of merging coffee plantations and accommodation is an increasing trend in coffee producing countries. “Luxury coffee travel is a new category of tourism in the world,” Acevedo says. “It’s born from people’s curiosity to learn about coffee culture and it’s a trend comparable with the culture of wine and vineyards which have also allowed tourists to discover the culture.” As a result, Acevedo says many coffee farms have opted to make their facilities hotels so tourists can enjoy the coffee culture and scenery implicit in coffee plantations. Café Mesa de los Santos is a family legacy that began in 1872 as a coffee farm. Acevedo established the hotel alongside the family’s organic coffee plantations in 2010. “The coffee plantation has been a family tradition inherited from generation to generation,” Acevedo says. “It’s also a hobby, and for this reason I wanted to share this pleasure with the Colombians and foreigners, so they can see the coffee growing process.” Visitors to Café Mesa come from a range of countries including Germany, U.S. and Canada. Recognising Café Mesa de los Santos’s commitment to the environment, the hotel received an international certification of organic production in 1998 and Acevedo says the plantation continues to grow their coffee with clean technologies that are environmentally friendly and supportive of conservation, ensuring an ecological balance for wildlife and water sources. Similar trends are being seen on the other side of the world in Indonesia, where Sugeng Sugiantoro, Resort Manager of Losari Spa Retreat and Coffee Plantation in Central Java, has seen growth in the ecotourism sector. “The environment has now been identified as a major sales and unique selling point,” Sugiantoro says. “This is one clue that guests are becoming more culturally and environmentally conscious in their choice of accommodation and facilities. People are now not only looking for bed breakfast holidays – they look for more attractive and interesting experiences. Losari, located 900 meters above the plains of Central Java, has been built as a labour-of-love by its various owners over 180 years. Losari boasts a Colonial-era railway station from the 1860s and is the prior residence of a Javanese Prince. The original plantation owner’s house from 1828 still stands surrounded by coffee trees that have been grafted and grown from the original Robusta-Arabica plants nearly 200 years ago. At these resorts, coffee plantation tours have become a standout feature. “These tours have become one of our most popular attractions at plantation accommodation,” Sugiantoro says.  “People want to learn about coffee culture; from planting to serving a steaming cup of coffee.” Sugiantoro notes that these tours contribute another source of income to their total revenue. “Plantation tours definitely have a positive impact on our coffee tourism business,” Sugiantoro says.
On the other side of Asia, the coffee growing estates of Coorg in India have started attracting a number of coffee tourists after Tata Coffee opened up some of its plantations to guests. The company has not only seen the ecological value, but also the financial gain in generating a new revenue stream by opening Plantation Trails through its Hospitality Division to the public. Founded in 1943, Consolidated Coffee (now Tata Coffee) has built an empire around its coffee brand, from green beans to instant coffee, roast and ground coffee products. Now, catering to guests is helping add to their empire. “I don’t think our guests come here only because they are coffee drinkers,” says Christine Jamal, Vice President Corporate of Tata Coffee. “Sure, they like coffee and they drink it, but Plantation Trails cater to leisure tourism, attracting foreign and domestic travellers, corporate clients and families who want to enjoy a tranquil experience.” With an established 19 coffee estates in the Coorg, Chikmagalur and Hassan district, spread over 12,800 hectares, Tata Coffee produces 10,000,000 kilograms of green coffee each year. Turning its agricultural venture into tourism success, 10,000 guests are expected to visit the Plantation Trails this year.  Eight bungalows,  some of which are heritage, are nestled in Tata Coffee’s lush plantations across the verdant hills of South India, attracting nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, intrepid adventurers and luxury connoisseurs. Jamal notes the Tata Coffee Plantation Trails allow an insight into the coffee growing process, as visitors can experience the natural beauty of the area and visit the live plantation sites. “Tata Coffee is the largest carbon sink in the whole organisation because we actively  pursue sustainability in every aspect of our plantation business by conserving our ecological wealth,” she says. “We encourage constant re-plantation and have large expanses of rich green cover and water reservoirs.” Tata Coffee has recently won the Financial Express Emergent Ventures International (FE-EVI) Green Business Survey and leadership award in 2010 and 2011 for their commitment to tackling climate change awareness and sustainability issues in the Indian business community. Over time, Jamal says that the Plantation Trails will likely be a top destination for corporate getaways. “We want to remain true to the plantation lifestyle,” Jamal says. “We are positioned as a plantation experience because we want people to experience the life of the planter; how they used to live, how they still live, their whole lifestyle and the original plantation bungalows the coffee farmers once used to live in 100 years ago offers this opportunity.” GCR

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