Eco, green, sustainable: you must walk the talk

From left: Arturo García Rosa, president and founder, SAHIC; Mauricio Ventura Aragón, Minister of Tourism of Costa Rica; and Jonathan Worsley, chairman, Bench Events (SAHIC partner).

From left: Arturo García Rosa, president and founder, SAHIC; Mauricio Ventura Aragón, Minister of Tourism of Costa Rica; and Jonathan Worsley, chairman, Bench Events (SAHIC partner).

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Eco, green and sustainable are terms that have been used too often. There are new ways to market the same worthy ideas — but the most important thing is authenticity, said speakers at SAHIC Costa Rica Sustainable Hotel & Tourism Investment Conference held Sept. 13-14 at the InterContinental San José.

This was the 13th conference run by SAHIC (South American Hotel & Tourism Investment Conference), and the third this year. The other 2017 events were held in Cuba in May and Buenos Aires in September.

Mauricio Ventura Aragón, Minister of Tourism of Costa Rica.

Mauricio Ventura Aragón, Minister of Tourism of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica wrote the book on sustainable tourism. This Central American country, which is the size of Nova Scotia and has five million people, gets practically all of its energy from renewable sources, said Minister of Tourism Mauricio Ventura Aragón. 

“We were 100 per cent renewable for 100 days last year and 150 days this year,” the Minister told journalists at a private breakfast. 

Costa Rica aims to be the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2021, and sustainability initiatives permeate their way of life.

“But Costa Ricans are our main attraction. We are adjusting the face of tourism, attracting more MICE with our new convention centre which will open in 2018 and can hold 4,600 people,” the Minister said. “We're looking at wellness, nature and adventure.  Instead of walking on a treadmill, guests can walk in green space; they can experience adrenalin on a zipline. In the afternoon, they can have a massage, and an organic dinner at night.”

They are also working to attract more airlines to Costa Rica.

Tourism is an important part of the Costa Rican economy accounting for 40 per cent of all industry, generating $4 billion per year. There are other indicators of the sustainability of tourism in Costa Rica — there's a 30 per cent revisitation rate, and the average stay is 12 nights, the second longest in the world after New Zealand. 

And while Costa Rica benefits from the knowledge, systems and marketing power of some of the large hotel companies, 80 per cent of the hotels are less than 40 rooms — with accommodations ranging from basic lodging to sophisticated hotels and fantastic, luxury lodges in the middle of the jungle next to a river, Minister Aragón said.

50 Shades of Green

Hans Pfister.

Hans Pfister.

Hans Pfister, co-founder and president of the Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels & Lodges, spoke about how terms such as “ecotourism,” “sustainable tourism,” and “green tourism” have been used too much and have lost their meaning. “Is McDonald's a sustainable company?” he asked the audience.

At Lapa Rios Lodge, recently selected as a National Geographic lodge, there are 17 bungalows attached to a 1,000-acre rainforest. The resort charges more than $1,000 per night. Their marketing materials recently deleted the word “EcoLodge,” which had been used for 24 years. Kura Design Villas in Uvita , one of the most sustainable resorts in Costa Rica, is an ecotourism resort, but is now marketed as a sexy, couples-only resort. 

Hotel Grano de Ora in San José, Costa Rica, is an example of an urban country done sustainably, Pfister said. “Run by a Canadian family, they have nice dinners, but also support Casa Luz, which takes young girls off the street, improving the lives of 200 young girls and children.

“You don't want sustainability to be in your face — don't do that, don't eat that — preachy but not sexy.  Don't market sustainability, but show them what you do, with back-of-the-house tours.  The consumer doesn't buy into eco/sustainability.  They've been burned too many times. Walk the talk. Do things right, Pfister said.

Pfister also warned investors and operators to be cautious about the green certification universe. He's wary of the GreenLeaders program from TripAdvisor, for example, but recommends the National Geographic certification — “it's rigorous,” he said.

“How do you find out if it's for real?” Pfister asked. “Talk to the people on the ground.”

The Costa Rica Experience

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís with delegates at the SAHIC conference.

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís with delegates at the SAHIC conference.

The two-day conference ended with a speech by Costa Rican President  Luis Guillermo Solís, who welcomed the visitors to the country declaring that the conference “represents
a precedent for the country, paving the way for development, sustainability and
investment.

“Today's Costa Rican experience can be presented to the world, not as an example, but as an opportunity to show the way to take a path that is different from the norm,” he said. He made a pitch for wellness tourism — “Wellness goes well beyond the moment itself — it's a life experience that makes sense.”

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