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Hitesh Mehta: On Ecotourism Trends in Asia from 2017

Hitesh S. Mehta, the president of HM Design, is a pioneer in the field of authentic ecotourism and a well sought-after ecotourism landscape architect, environmental planner and architect. Here, Mehta speaks to Mallika Naguran, the founder of Gaia Discovery, of his views on how ecotourism is likely to shape Asia in the years to come and about his next book - the second volume of Authentic Ecolodges.

Hitesh Mehta: Asia is big on ecotourism and will get even bigger!18 January 2017, Singapore. Hitesh Mehta has years of ecotourism practice worldwide and capacity building involvement, beginning his practice in Kenya in 1991 and is now based in Florida, USAAmong the projects he has completed in Asia involving ecotourism principles are Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa, Guangdong Province, S. China and Nihiwatu Ecolodge, Sumba Island, Indonesia. He provided the Conceptual Master Plan for Pearl Sanctuary, Boracay Island, Philippines, among others and capacity building workshops in Borneo, India, the Philippines and more (see below for the list of projects in Asia). Mehta has also authored the highly illustrative Authentic Ecolodges. Mallika poses the following questions to him.

Based on your deep and extensive experience, what trends are you seeing in Asian ecotourism with respect to visitor arrivals and popular tourism activity?

Tourists, just like in other worldwide destinations, are searching for experiential travel and authentic connections with local peoples and nature.  Because of the rising middle-classes in India and China, more people are willing to pay for quality eco-luxury experiences. For example, domestic Chinese tourists are paying $700 a night for the new Bamboo Villas at Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa. 

Ecotourists are on the rise in Asia and there has been a noticeable increase in the number of ecolodges and ecotour operators, some of which are receiving international recognition. Of the fifteen Finalists of the 2017 WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, four are from Asia: Cinnamon Wild Yala, Sri Lanka is a Community Award Finalist; Misool Lodge, Indonesia, is an Environment Award Finalist and both STREETS International, Vietnam and The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation’s China Hospitality Education Initiative (CHEI), China are People Award Finalists. And to top it all up, the OSCARS in the Sustainable Tourism World - National Geographic World Legacy Awards also have several Asian based Finalists: Both Andaman Discoveries, Thailand and Chambok Community Based Eco-Tourism, Mlup Baitong, Cambodia are finalists in the Engaging Communities category which recognizesdirect and tangible economic and social benefits that improve local livelihoods, including training and capacity building, fair wages and benefits, community development, health care, and education.”  

Crosswaters Ecolodge in China exemplifies the use of sustainable building materials such as locally harvested bamboo. Here, an observation tower and a fine dining restaurant are located where two rivers meet.

The above-mentioned accolades from industry experts demonstrate that visitors to Asian destinations are increasingly frequenting those properties or destinations that are making a difference. With regard to visitor activities, the trends are both in nature and cultural immersion. Popular ecotourism activities include bird-watching, snorkeling, homestays, local foods, interpretative guiding and more.  

Setu Ecolodge's over-water villas on an island in northern Sri Lanka uses many eco-friendly planning and design techniques.How about visitor perception of sustainable hotels and destinations? 

Visitors have become more aware of environmental and social issues. They do acknowledge that sustainable hotels are making a difference and they are more willing to support these properties than say ten years ago. They are willing to give their money to organisations like above finalists who are committed to sustainable tourism leadership in local community development, empowerment and cultural heritage, those that have achieved environmental best practice through biodiversity conservation, protection of natural habitats and who are dedicated to the development of capacity building, training and education to build a skilled tourism workforce for the future: 


Do you see greater sustainability momentum in the design and construction of nature-based properties?

Ecolodges have recently been developed in new and emerging destinations like Myanmar and Laos and established destinations like Indonesia, China and India are seeing more and more nature-based tourism facilities that are using sustainable technologies and figuring out ways to save money through water and energy conservation, use of local materials, passive design techniques etc. We are currently working on an eco-friendly yet state-of-the-art Mountain Experience project in Southern China. Mention should also be made of ITC Hotels in India, a 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Award finalist for their efforts to embed sustainability into each of their property's fundamental design. ITC also self-owns wind farms for its own consumption, with more than 50 percent of its electricity powered by renewable wind and solar sources. The hotels treat and recycle water, reducing consumption by 50 percent. Excess treated water and compost are shared with local municipalities, with nearly all solid waste recycled. ITC's policy is to replant all vegetation disturbed during construction, and they have planted more than 10,000 trees in the last two years, while also ensuring that at least half of all paper and wood is either Forest Stewardship Council certified, sourced locally, or recycled.

Do you also see increased infrastructure development as a result of increased tourism activity?

Some countries are more advanced with these and India has quite a few projects in the pipeline focused on ecotourism infrastructure development. Just like with cities, infrastructure is the greatest challenge for rural authorities who are generally strapped for money. It should be noted that increased infrastructure in the ecotourism world is not necessarily a good thing. The Railway currently being built in Kenya by the Chinese is cutting through very important wildlife corridors! And the road that is being planned in Northern Serengeti in Tanzania has caused uproar in the conservation community. Cell phone towers that stick out like sore thumbs in the landscape also kill the wilderness experience.

Nihiwatu Resort on Sumba Islands, Indonesia embraces ecotourism principles in its design provided for by Hitesh Mehta.

Do you think the trends described above are likely to continue from 2017 through 2020?                

Considering that urban populations are going to grow exponentially in Asia over the next 30 years, the need to travel to natural areas for rest and relaxation is inevitable. I have no doubts that ecotourism will indeed continue to set the trends in the tourism industry.

How is HM Design geared towards shaping greater sustainability in ecotourism?

HM Design is considered by our peers as the world’s leading sustainable tourism and ecotourism physical planning and ecolodge design office. Just this year, two papers written by our firm that are related to ecotourism and ecolodges are going to be published in a peer-reviewed book. Our intention is to promote authentic ecotourism and ecolodges, and continue to be the world leader for the next twenty years.

What else is needed, you think, to ensure that ecotourism is better understood, appreciated or managed? 

The Plataran Menjangan Lodge and Spa is designed after a typical North Balinese village and has magnificent views of four volcanoes.A global umbrella body like GEN (Global Ecotourism Network) that takes over from the slowly dying The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), which currently has no board members (advisory or otherwise) with specialisation in ecotourism. The Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) is a new organisation whose founding members are the entire ex-Advisory Committee of TIES.

GEN's mission is to bring together the world’s national and regional ecotourism associations and networks, destinations, indigenous peoples, global operators, professionals and academicians to grow the industry, provide advocacy and thought leadership, and to encourage innovation and authenticity in ecotourism.

GEN will act as a vital resource for evaluating ecotourism practices and disseminating authentic ecotourism trends, applied research and experience driven studies. 

GEN is also doing something that TIES has not been able to do over the past 19 years, which is to organise a conference in Asia! GEN is partnering with the International School of Sustainable Tourism, Philippines to organise a Conference in late May-early June to celebrate the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. Formal announcements will be out next week! 

What are the recent ecotourism projects that you have been occupied with?

We have projects all around the world so I will only focus on Asia. Our office recently completed a master plan for the Plataran West Bali Nature Reserve that was a few months ago nominated by Green Destinations as one of Top 100 Worldwide Sustainable Destinations

We are also working on another Sustainable Destination Plan - Crosswaters Mountain Experience (includes tree canopy walks, hiking trails, boardwalks, suspension bridges over rivers, zip lining etc.) in southern China and located right next to the international award winning Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa for which I was the Team Planning and Design leader. 

In the Philippines, we are finalizing the Conceptual Master Plan for an eco-friendly Development – Pearl Sanctuary in the dense developed island of Boracay and next month, we will start work on the planning and design of a unique Native Tropical Botanical Garden and Lodge - KayFled Gardens and Lodge in Antipolo, Philippines.   

Hitesh Mehta's conceptual master plan of Pearl Sanctuary works around nature such as the wetland in the Philippines.

You have conducted quite a few ecotourism planning workshops in Asia. Can you share a few interesting observations from there?

I must admit that I have conducted more ecotourism and ecolodge planning workshops in Asia than any other continent. It is indeed my favourite place to conduct workshops. I sit on the Board of the International School of Sustainable Tourism (ISST) based in Subic Bay, Philippines and over the years I have conducted five workshops just in the Philippines. Other workshops have been held in India.

These workshops are attended by a wide range of participants – seasoned professionals (architects, planners, sculptors, engineers, landscape architects etc.), academicians (professors, deans, students), ecolodge owners and developers, government officials and more.

These five-day intensive workshops are both theory- and practice-based and participants get to put into practice over the last three days what they have learnt in the first two days. It is the only workshop of its kind in the world and average ratings are 4.7 out of 5.

What can we expect from the second volume of Authentic Ecolodges and when will it be published?

Authentic Ecolodges - Volume Two will be different in the sense that each property will have at least eight pages out of which half a page will be a poem written by my wife that best describes the sense of place of the respective ecolodge.

The intention is to highlight in this second book those countries that were not represented in the first book. I have already researched and photographed 10 ecolodges and have 20 more to go. Most recently, I inspected and photographed The Jim Jungle Retreat, a lodge in Corbett Tiger National Park, Northern India and was impressed by the way it had taken a destroyed forest and resurrect it through native plantings. It is the kind of ecolodge that will appear in my next book. I am looking at a publishing date of July 2019.

Thank you Hitesh Mehta for your second interview with Gaia Discovery.

Read the first Gaia Discovery interview with Hitesh Mehta here.

Here’s a list of Hitesh Mehta’s involvement in Asian tourism projects as of December 2016.

  • Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa, Guangdong Province, S. China.
  • Nihiwatu Ecolodge, Sumba Island, Indonesia.
  • Conceptual Master Plan for Pearl Sanctuary, Boracay Island, Philippines.
  • Sustainable Tourism Destination Plan for Vagamon Hill Retreat, Kerala, India.
  • Mannar Island Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, Mannar Island, Sri Lanka.
  • Sustainable Development Master Plan for Wolong Panda Reserve, Sichuan Province, China.
  • Sustainable Tourism Plan for Plataran West Bali Nature Reserve, Bali, Indonesia.
  • Sustainable Tourism Plan for Crosswaters Mountain Experience, Guangdong Province, S. China.
  • Antam Cluster Conceptual Master Plan, Java, Indonesia.
  • Conceptual Master Plan for Gandhara Flower Valley, Yunnan, China. 
  • Visioning for Woto Moro Ecolodge, North Maluku , Indonesia
  • Short Consultancy for refurbishment of Dhikala Ecolodge, Corbett Tiger Reserve, India.
  • Provided short consultancies for Ecolodges in Vietnam, Mongolia and Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia

Mehta has conducted the following capacity building activities in Asia:

  • Five-Day Ecolodge Planning and Design Training Workshops, Philippines. (1998, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016)
  • Five-day Ecolodge Planning and Design Training Workshops in Sikkim and Jim Corbett NP, India
  • Two-day field trip of Eco-Friendly Properties in Sabah Province, Malaysia
  • One-Day Eco-Planning and eco-Design Workshops- Blue Ridge Mountains, Alice Springs and Tasmania - Australia
  • Half-day Trail Design Training Workshop, Tasmania, Australia
  • Half-day Trail Awareness Building Workshop, Mannar Island, Sri Lanka

 Photos courtesy of HM Design.

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