a. When: Lapa Rios began the CST in 1999, gathering information, proofs, and implementing minor changes. Owners John and Karen Lewis initiated this half-year process with the assistance of the first ecolodge manager, Gustavo Segura. The Lapa Rios employees also played a role. In November 2000 the CST evaluators granted Lapa Rios a CST Classification: 4 Leaves (out of 5).
Between 2001-2003 Andrea Bonilla, Lapa Rios general manager and vice president of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality Services, developed more systems, improved standards and focused on greater community outreach. With her guidance, owner assistance and staff participation, Lapa Rios accomplished the 5 Leaves classification in November 2003, one of only 2 lodges in Costa Rica with this distinction.
b. Why: Sustainable tourism, ecotourism, is more about experience and insight than gathering information. Ecotourism occupies a vernacular role for people and place, and when travelers encounter the local community their experience becomes real. Without people, the experience of the location becomes secondary regardless its natural beauty, distance from civilization or amount of pristine land in protection.
From its inception, the Lapa Rios mission, No matter how you cut it a forest left standing is more valuable than one cut down, helps people make decisions. Lapa Rios means to combine the community and consumers together with the preservation of more than 1,000 acres of tropical rain forest. And to prove this mission was real, doable and truly being accomplished, it was important to have an outside voice authenticate its veracity. Certification provided that means.
In 1999 Lapa Rios, wanting to support the Costa Rican government’s new sustainability initiative, began the certification process. The CST’s four, in-depth categories contain excellent standards and sound best practices.Today, with almost 7 years of experience, Lapa Rios recognizes the CST as an ongoing, unending process. The CST is tedious, laborious and involves time, patience and financial investment. But, by becoming certified Lapa Rios is differentiated among hospitality businesses; many lodges and hotels do not yet participate.
Probably, the Costa Rican certified hotels and lodges have an added advantage-they lead the tourism industry with values. Certification, if properly executed over time, improves a business’s financial, social and environmental bottom line. CST-participating hotels guide Costa Rica’s tourism, providing sound direction, marketing best practices and service, and verifying worldwide the country’s environmental and social values.
Certification is not just an effort to raise ethical principles. Multiple benefits derive from certification. Though many view certification as too costly both in time and expense, management and owners can demonstrate certification eventually ends up saving time, helps to manage risks and adds real value.
Beneficial categories worth examining:
Lapa Rios owners, management, staff and consumers recognize that certification continues to improve operations by building audits, audits unique to the property. Lacking direct interaction from owners, the CST standards can act as a guide to a hotel or lodge management team, to making the best environmental and social solutions. The CST defines an ideal, a best practice or environmental/social goal, and the owners/management are left to devise the most reasonable implementation to achieve that objective. Good management improves skills, changes direction if necessary, to create a routine, an improved infrastructure or community response. Bookkeeping improves because checklists and other management tools document proofs.
Lapa Rios certification created standardization. It put in writing different attempts made toward bettering sustainability to community and place: all departments now have detailed systems checklists, with timely routines and reporting techniques; incorporated recycling and trash data collection; the projected use and conservation goals of electrical energy, water and non-recyclables; and monitored organic and biodegradable product suppliers, how community projects are progressing, need funding, etc.
Information gathering and interpretation tools have been developed over time. By collecting data and information, internal audits are easier and performance and improvements chartable. Short and long range planning become straightforward.
Some of Lapa Rios improvements inspired during the certification process:
Good communication gives value to the CST. Sharing between for lodges and hotels is the best source for ‘best practices and products exchange’ and a means to push CST improvements and skills. Hospitality businesses throughout Costa Rica have shared their sources for a better pool ionization system, a Costa Rican-made solar water heating plant, Osa-endemic plants, certified wood products and organic produce. Lapa Rios shares its list of distributors of certified biodegradable products, organic produce, harvest-certified renewable materials, locally manufactured or harvest-certified products/produce, and alternative energy sources.
The lodge promotes best practices through modeling as well as refusing poor practices. Local renewable building materials harvesters know Lapa Rios only purchases legally permitted materials. And, in 2005 Lapa Rios encouraged Osa businesses to consider alternatives to only plastics when a beverage supplier refused to transport refillable bottles. This community stand proved effective; the company reversed its decision plus the community continues to seek funding for the construction of a Pto. Jiménez recycling center.
Certification can be used for marketing. Lapa Rios has sent written documents about environmental and social sustainability, certification benefits, etc. to travel agents. The result: more agent interest with greater business. The Lapa Rios website, linked to the CST, identifies for guests the many projects and practices promoting community and environmental sustainability. A good reputation, doing what you say you do, provokes interest: travel publications and environmental organizations become interested in the Lapa Rios property and its projects, publishing articles about the ecolodge’s social and environmental conservation and certification efforts.
In 2005 Lapa Rios received the USA Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) for its exemplary business practices. Many of the good intentions recognized by this award can be directly attributed to certification practices and its process. Likewise, other environmental and social responsibility awards honor Lapa Rios’s commitment to good stewardship.
Through staff motivational events, outside training programs and ongoing skills’ classes (improvements suggested by Lapa Rios guests) personnel continue to develop and improve habits, their environmental response. The Lapa Rios employees are the local communities’ leaders, they promote change: the town dump has people designing short- and long-term development solutions; there is a new drug awareness program, both for children and adults; and many regional social and environmental problems are addressed and improved because of Lapa Rios staff involvement. Lapa Rios recently constructed a suspension (walking) bridge to cross the Carbonera River; the lodge advocates and provides tools for community beach clean ups; and removes trash from public area.
Tourism in general and certified sustainable ecotourism education in particular has added valuable skills to an increasing number of Osa residents. Both environmental and job training has given confidence to people who are able to imagine a better future in this remote area where ranching, subsistence farming and mining were the only job opportunities in 1990.
The Lapa Rios consumers (guests) assist the community to sustain the surrounding environment with hiking/boating/kayaking with community-based tour providers, sharing in environmental stewardship and through travelers’ philanthropic efforts. Guests help to clean the local beach, roads and schoolyard, modeling good practices for community members. Guests share experiences with children at the Lapa Rios-guests’ funded primary school, equipping most of the regional schools with student supplies and library books. Following a 3-hour back-of-the-house Sustainable Best Practices Tour guests receive a ‘Sustainable Ideas for Your Home’ document, reasoning that a travel experience can influence change to a guest’s own environmental practices and outreach.
If an ecolodge uses standard business practices it only practices standard business. Certified Sustainable requires confidence to leap above typical, standard or normal by creating an opportunity to improve the business’ hospitality response to operation challenges.
Within 2-3 years, Lapa Rios employees had grown more confident working within the guidelines of the CST. Today, they willingly share responses that are resourceful out of necessity; their region-specific answers are culturally taught and most often sustainable. Consider a few:
Coconut shells and crafted bamboo replace metal bowls, snack servers;
Erosion channels and retention walls are constructed with stacked flat rocks instead of rebar and concrete blocks;
A locally sourced food substitute reduces the need to transport commonly accepted (expected) ingredient. Restaurant staff and written menus teach guests about the change and invite acceptance to culture.
In 1990 Karen and John Lewis purchased more than 1,000 acres of primary- and reemerging-growth rain forest on the SE tip of the Osa Peninsula. The Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, and this private purchase added to the land conservancy buffering Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park. The Lewis’s conjectured their unique conservation intention-to sustain the pristine land together with the local community-would attract visitors.
In the early 90s, ecotourism had yet to define the lodge owners’ responsibilities or those of the community and its consumer-travelers. All three stakeholders played key roles to insure the success of the Lewis’s land purchase.
Lapa Rios was created in response to the growing demand from the emerging Costa Rican nature travel industry in the early 1990s. From its inception, Lapa Rios has offered a highly personalized guest experience and above standard accommodations in a pristine wilderness setting. The highly trained, friendly service from an all-local staff includes cooked-to-order multi-course meals and staff-naturalist led, educational rain forest hikes, beach activities along with several opportunities for community interaction.
The Lapa Rios buildings were designed to have minimum impact, to leave a small footprint. The architectural style reflects the local heritage-open air, pole and thatch. Construction materials are sourced locally, with focus on renewable plant materials. Using renewable building products provides local jobs both for planting and harvesting, and a platform to improve rural environmental education. Locals are beginning to value their pristine land and its materials. They know how to use best practices, obtain government permits, etc., providing ongoing sustainability to the region.
In 1991 the remote area had few skilled builders for the initial construction. Critical to the ongoing success of Lapa Rios was working with and training locals, enabling them with confidence to greater challenge. The Lewises only hired a few expert construction leaders from San José. Their professional obligations: 1. Oversee building construction, 2. Be a teacher, improving the community’s construction capacity, and 3. Model responsibility.
Gratified to honor “Do what you say you were going to do,” Karen and John Lewis, together with assistance from the Costa Rica land trust agency, CEDARENA, and US-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC), have created a conservation easement for 930 acres of rainforest. When the Lapa Rios business passes to the next generation the Lapa Rios Reserve will remain intact, never to be developed, but protected in perpetuity.
These efforts to think globally and act locally have drawn a highly educated travel consumer to Lapa Rios. Most guests are professional: lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs and policy makers, people who travel widely with high levels of education and income, people who act from principle. They generally are committed to the earths’ future, acting out sustainability. They are visionaries willing to journey off the beaten, mass tourist track to experience a unique product committed to people and place. Lapa Rios guests are interested in expanding their knowledge of Costa Rica’s pristine, conserved natural resources and to meet community folk, their history and better understand local values.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following principles:
This goals list underlies the Costa Rican sustainable certification program, and many certification programs worldwide. However, consumer education is lacking. With time and greater education to the differences found between certified vs. non-certified hotels, consumers will become more educated to the value of their travel choice. They will decide holidays must make a difference to the natural resources and its community. Eventually, certified hospitality will be consumer driver and the number of participating lodges and hotels will increase.
Sustainable tourism is challenged by “green-washing”. Many destinations use the title ‘eco-X’ simply because they are close to a natural reserve, have vegetation or are built in the forest or in some pristine location. Without being certified sustainable, by an outside party, no tourism business can call itself an authentic, real ecolodge or sustainable hotel as only they say this is so. By using the certification process and program, guests know and are guaranteed they participate together with the owners and community to protect the environment, develop the local community, and improve their own response towards being sustainability.
Lapa Rios offers guests a location where they can be in nature, enjoy comfort in a wilderness setting and better understand their part in helping to sustain the Osa’s biodiversity and communities. The 16 private bungalows and common areas are set on breezy ridges of primary and regenerating rain forests overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The contiguous 930-acre Lapa Rios Reserve (all primary forest) is exclusively for registered guests; this constant temperature forest preserve models the need for land preservation to combat global warming. All local naturalists have been trained to showcase rain forest species as well as the interrelatedness of all its biodiversity. As a certified property, Lapa Rios proudly takes guests on a sustainability tour, pointing the systems supporting the ‘back of the house,’ and providing ideas for guests to improve their way of living.
More then 90% of employees are from the nearby communities, and are hired knowing personable guest interaction is part of the job description. English, the travelers’ language, is required learning-through-practice. Lapa Rios promotes not only nature-based tours but also supports opportunities for guests to participate within the community: guests visit an employee’s farm; a dance group from the local school performs weekly and teaches guests typical dances; various local artists visit weekly to sell and display their products, crafting items on site as an educational offering for guests.
The CST designed a paradigm of environmental and social standards. Each participant designs their own level of response, and the CST evaluators measure the progress, assess quality and standards. Following an evaluation the CST’s involvement and responsibility ends. Participants who seek to improve must drive their own capacity building-skills training, ‘how-to’ seminars, where to find quality products, develop and contract community services, etc.
Lapa Rios is located 400 kilometers from the capital city, San José, and because there is only unreliable phone service in the village 20 kilometers distant, communication continues to be difficult. (Like most small, independent lodges, Lapa Rios only supports a local office.) Resolving challenges associated with certification is troublesome because few hotels drive higher standards in the supporting hospitality industries, and most supply-side businesses can proceed unchecked by the CST’s high standards. Certification challenges include:
Certifying Sustainable requires a willingness to be honest to past and present actions, and an acceptance that improvement is possible. Certification requires a top-down commitment from owners, to share and agree on a vision with management, staff and even non-associated local people. Reasons must be understood in order to gather willingness and cooperation to this self-reflection and change. Dedication to improve and excel gains momentum as more people understand and realize the benefits of better practices and greater individual capacity. Becoming certified, being sustainable, equates to honoring the earth by enabling people. This business ethos is far more reaching than simply examining the financial bottom line. However, as greater consumer demand forces businesses to certify, those who acted wanting to make a difference, before that request, will lead. These businesses will gain from that leadership.
Improvement to what exists requires effort, and the Lapa Rios response to some situations may provide ideas for other considering certification:
Support community people and they will assist you.
Organize community, employee and guests programs that make a real difference, that add social and environmental improvements to the broader sustainable goals.
Before improving supply sources or retrofitting equipment request advice, assistance and help from other certified properties.
The easiest way to certifying sustainable is to only design and construct with credible, sustainable guidelines. This process begins with the dream stage through the finished product. Include community people. Never abandon the ‘be sustainable’ principles, as ignoring values one time makes it easier to substitute and accept less in the future.
Begin certification-an established business profits from certification with improved skills, greater employee confidence and pride, improved community relationships, and better operational systems and equipment.
More information about CST can be found on line at www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr