Hitesh Mehta on Ecolodge Principles and His New Book "Authentic Ecolodges"

Pioneering and world-renowned landscape architect, environmental planner and architect, Hitesh S Mehta, President of HM Design based in Florida spent the last 30 months travelling 46 countries around the world to research his new book ”Authentic Ecolodges” which is to be published by Harper Collins in October 2010. Hitesh is the longest serving board member of The International Ecotourism Society and the author of International Ecolodge Guidelines Published by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) of Burlington, Vermont. He was also a former captain of national Kenyan cricket team.

Mallika Naguran catches up with the rather colourful Hitesh during his stopover in Singapore from Brunei as keynote speaker in ASEAN Tourism Forum 2010.

How would you define ecotourism and ecolodges?

Ecotourism, in my opinion, is any tourism in nature-based locations that practices the three main principles of protection of nature; benefits to local people and offering of interpretive programs.

 Hitesh: Harmonizing people with nature.

Hitesh: Harmonizing people with nature.

Ecolodges, a growing trend in accommodations, must embrace these three principles plus any other two out of the eight other principles, as defined by my research paper in 1999.  In short, ecolodges are “low-impact, nature-based accommodations of two to seventy-five rooms that protect the surrounding environment; benefit the local community; offer tourists an interpretative and interactive participatory experience; provide a spiritual communion with nature and culture and are designed, constructed and operated in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner."

What are these ecolodge principles?

I felt that we had to focus on the principles that constitute an ecolodge to differentiate it from traditional nature lodges and hotels. Eleven basic principles that constitute an ecolodge were discussed in a research paper and presented at an international conference (Mehta, 1999). 

An ecolodge should:

 Hitesh with Batwa, a pygmy tribe, in Uganda.

Hitesh with Batwa, a pygmy tribe, in Uganda.

(1) help in the conservation of the surrounding flora and fauna,

(2) have minimal impact on the natural surroundings during construction;

(3) fit into its specific physical and cultural contexts through careful attention to form, landscaping and color, as well as the use of vernacular architecture;

(4) use alternative, sustainable means of water acquisition and reduces water consumption,

(5) provide for careful handling and disposal of solid waste

(6) meet its energy needs through passive design and renewable energy sources;

(7) use traditional building technology and materials wherever possible and combines these with their modern counterparts for greater sustainability;

(8) endeavor to work together with the local community and involve them in the initial planning stages.;

(9) offer interpretive programs to educate both its employees and tourists about the surrounding natural and cultural environments ;

(10) contribute to sustainable local development through education programs and research and

(11) use environmentally friendly sewage treatment systems.

What trends do you see happening in this niche area?

I see a rise in community-owned and operated ecolodges, as well as projects that respect the local cultures and architecture. I'm also noticing an influx in smaller but higher-end lodges, some of which have wellness centers. Another positive trend is a growing number of eco-refurbishments and expansions at existing lodges.

 The medium is the message, as Hitesh dons a gorilla suit to communicate the need for rainforest conservation.

The medium is the message, as Hitesh dons a gorilla suit to communicate the need for rainforest conservation.

It is crucial that such ecolodges have community involvement to be successful. For instance, Nihiwatu Resort in Indonesia has drastically reduced incidences of malaria amongst local Sumbanese; Wilderness Safaris in southern Africa has a successful project called “Children of the Wilderness” which aims to expose underprivileged local children to their own wildlife heritage, as well as its potential to create livelihoods for their communities; Campi Ya Kanzi in Kenya has employed a medical doctor and built a clinic for the local Maasai; and Phinda Forest Lodge in South Africa has helped build classrooms for the local school and continues to support adult education classes.

 Animals have voices too, says Hitesh.

Animals have voices too, says Hitesh.

It is my hope that community-owned and operated ecolodges continue to grow; that there will be public and private partnerships when it comes to owning and running these special places.

What do you consider some of your most satisfying or fulfilling projects to date?

Crosswaters Ecolodge in Northern GuangDdong province, China is my all-time favorite project as I was able to put together what is now considered the Ecolodge Design dream team and the final product was extremely satisfying. The Ecolodge has now become the MOST published lodge in the world in the last twelve months and just a few weeks ago won the ‘Oscars’ in the world for Landscape Design - the ASLA Honor award for General Design!

 Bamboo Bridge at Crosswaters Ecolodge, China.

Bamboo Bridge at Crosswaters Ecolodge, China.

I was the project manager for EDSA, the lead consultants and landscape architects. I also was part of the architecture team. What was unique about the project was that we had a feng-shui master as part of our team and Crosswaters was designed using feng-shui principles. The project is also the largest celebration of bamboo architecture anywhere in the world and the important message here is that bamboo was harvested on the site and is the most environmentally friendly building material in the world.

I have also done a few Master Planning projects that have protected sensitive areas, several dream houses I did in Nairobi, a couple of ecolodges designs that have not yet been built. I feel that every project that I work on, whether they were built or not have been satisfying and fulfilling because in the process, I learnt new things, people that I related to (developers and more) learnt about eco-design.

 Fountain at the entrance of Crosswaters Ecolodge.

Fountain at the entrance of Crosswaters Ecolodge.

Tell us about your upcoming "chai-table" book “Authentic Ecolodges” published by Harper Collins.

A few months after the launch of my first book- International Ecolodge Guidelines (May 2002), I saw the need to complement it with a pictorial book that showcased most of the authentic ecolodges on the planet and in so doing celebrate the amazing work of local craftsman, indigenous communities, architects, landscape architects, engineers, owners, operators etc.

 Hitesh' recent project - Kwanari Ecolodge in the Caribbeans.

Hitesh' recent project - Kwanari Ecolodge in the Caribbeans.

Little did I know then that this would become a ‘labor of madness’ project!  After four ecolodge visits in 2002-2003, this personal project was placed on hold due to work commitments. My dream jumpstarted in early 2007 when I decided to leave my full-time job to focus primarily on this book.

After a journey that took me to 46 countries spanning all six continents and at a cost of half a million US Dollars (time and expenses), I am delighted to present to you the first “chai-table” book in the 32 year history of ecotourism, which is now the fastest growing segment in the tourism industry! I say “chai” because almost twice the number of people drink tea than coffee in the world! 

I will be doing a world tour promoting my book “Authentic Ecolodges” beginning September 2010.

What do you hope to achieve with "Authentic Ecolodges"?

The three main reasons I wanted to do this book was to raise the bar in the ecolodge industry, increase awareness amongst travelers of today and add to the body of work for professionals and academics alike.

 Hitesh, protected by armed guards, during his work in Congo.

Hitesh, protected by armed guards, during his work in Congo.

There are unfortunately many cases of greenwashing, whereby lodges are marketing themselves as ecolodges when they are at best nature-based lodges or in a few cases town eco-hotels. So what is an authentic ecolodge, you may ask? After ten years of research, interviews with architects, eco-consultants, developers, operators, indigenous communities and feedback from many stakeholders in the ecotourism industry ( Ecolodge Forum, Costa Rica, 1995), I came up with a criteria system to determine Ecolodges.

How can travellers do their part in promoting ecotourism?

As a traveller, you have responsibilities too to uphold ecotourism. When traveling to another country, do respect the local culture, understand the politics, read literature books about the destination concerned, and learn some important phrases of the language. It’s always good to travel light and to keep the environment clean by not littering. It is also wise to choose an environmentally friendly tour operator and low carbon or carbon free transportation.

 Travellers can help with conservation.

Travellers can help with conservation.

In my opinion, carbon offsetting for airline travel is better done by donating directly to the ecolodge itself if it has a carbon-offsetting programme, or by donating to native conservation agencies. If your chosen destination doesn’t run such a programme, you can donate to companies such as NativeEnergy at Atmosfair, the latter of which funds alternative energy projects in countries like India, China and Honduras.

Having said that, airlines only generate two per cent of global carbon emissions; cows in meat industry spew nearly three times that!

What drives you to promote harmony with nature in architecture?

 Jainism, instilled by family, is an influence on Hitesh' work.

Jainism, instilled by family, is an influence on Hitesh' work.

My inclination to protect and preserve nature stems from my early days of practicing Jainism and from day one, the principles of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence - was instilled into my everyday life. My family has been vegetarian for over 40 generations and I have now been a vegan for 4 years. This early childhood has influenced the way I design, think and live – a low impact approach. So it was natural that I would concentrate on green design as an architect and a landscape architect.

Photos courtesy of Hitesh Mehta, Rob Wild and Matt Lewis. Get more information on "Authentic Ecolodges" here.