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Lapa Rios and its Sustainable Certification (CST)

When and why did you choose to obtain the environmental certification (CST)?

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 eco lodge 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.

What are the main benefits of getting the certification for Lapa Rios and for its tourists (the difference between having it or not)?

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:

Operations Management Improved with Internal Audit:

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.

Means to Gather Information and Create Interpretation Tools

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:

  • Lowered water and energy consumption (typical to remote eco lodges, water comes from a natural spring in the forest) through measuring and monitoring tools;
  • Twice daily check of swimming pool non-chlorinated, ionized water has improved water quality and guest experience, and lowered environmental impact;
  • Educated community and staff to plant and promote Central American endemic fruits and vegetables, and developed recipes based on cultural tastes;
  • Created written materials and improving staff language skills to educate guests about best sustainability practices, native plant species; demonstrated renewable building products, and improved local recipes with local uses to endemic fruits and vegetables;
  • Removal of exotic plant species to replanting gardens and pathways with locally harvested endemic species;
  • Creation of a methane gas project from food scraps and pigs;
  • Better use of plants controlling erosion, improved humus from compost production; Improved community needs’ response, particularly to road maintenance, environmental educational opportunities and recycling practices;
  • Dedicated support to local suppliers of regional culture: food products (tortillas, tamales, frescos, etc.), renewable plant/tree growers, indigenous artists and tour operators.
  • Educate and improve staff knowledge to sustainability issues, teaching best practices for both in the workplace and in their homes;
  • Provided and invited guests to greater staff and community involvement, through endemic tree species culling and planting, support-by-visit a village sea turtle project, a village walking tour, a family operated farm visit where guests to milk cows, gather eggs, make tortillas and fresco, staff-guest interaction to shore fish, make woven palm ornaments, etc., and
  • Continue the goal to search, endorse and promote certified organic produce and processed foods, chicken, eggs, and biodegradable products.

Exchange of Best Practices and Products

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 as a Promotional Vehicle

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 eco lodge’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.

Means to Improve Environmental and Social Habits

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.

Incentive to “Find Alternatives to Standard”

If an eco lodge 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.

  • A 6-cubic meter insulated ice chest for transporting 16 fresh produce boxes replaced the idea of a refrigerated truck;
  • An insulated storeroom to cool fresh produce with an air conditioner substituted the need for a walk in refrigerator;
  • Bamboo with pump dispensers replaced plastic personal product dispensers; and
  • The Osa Peninsula escaped the plastic bag phenomenon until the 1990s, therefore recycling cardboard containers, re-useable glass, plastic and pichinga containers is second nature;
  • Lapa Rios architecture and construction honors place. Eighty-percent of the lodge is made from renewable materials: roofs are thatched palm, all furniture is bamboo, walls are peeled cane and many service items are non-standard, crafted from local vines, bamboo, cane, etc.
  • Wood used for exterior decks and stairs is harvested from certified sustainable forests and interior wood from local plantation-grown Gmelina sp., an exotic species being used for area building needs rather than being chipped for overseas markets and polluting the Golfo Dulce;
  • Food scraps and peelings from both guest and staff kitchens are fed to pigs; their manure creates methane gas to fuel the staff kitchen stove.
  • Sun heats all water and provides daytime lighting needs; and
  • Data is being collected on unused diesel-generated energy. The plan: capture, invert and store this excess energy for use during the night, when minimum energy is needed and the generator can be stopped.

What kind of tourists visit Lapa Ríos (market share)?

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.

What can Lapa Ríos offer to tourists as a certified hotel?

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:

  • Minimize impact
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental and social climate
  • Support international human rights and labor agreements

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 eco lodge 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.

What are the problems you encountered in order to obtain the certification? How did you overcome these problems?

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:

  • Purchasing products in bulk was almost non-existent in 1999. Most retail and wholesale industry packaged products for home consumption.
  • Solution: Patronize only distributors who respond to CST environmentally standards, who package in recyclable containers, willing to re-use containers, who use no plastic wraps and cooperate with single stop delivery, etc.
  • Responsible recycling develops slowly. Government- or industry-driven education is almost non-existent. Consumer do not drive recycling by those who create trash is or is mandated by law. Distributors of recyclables deadhead rather than take back their empty containers to San José recycling centers.
  • Solution: Use only refillable bottles, buy fresh produce rather than canned, avoid non-recyclables, separate all trash on site, distributing any recyclables to groups re-using, collecting and/or transporting recyclables for profit.
  • Often those who provide environmentally sound products (organic, biodegradable) have no or little competition. Service to client and product is poor, especially in remote locations. The cost for these non-compete products is overly expensive-biodegradable cleaning and personal care products, low watt light bulbs, recycled and alternative paper products, etc.
  • Solution: Keep awareness high. Demand excellence. Support competition.
  • The government continues to impose heavy import taxes on: alternative energy products, items made from recycled materials, biodegradable products, etc. This financial burden discourages many hotels from certifying, from changing present practices to improve their hospitality product.
  • Solution: Maintain conversation with CST people and environmental organizations to lobby this tax exoneration.
  • Greenwashing is rampant with organic producers and the biodegradable products industry. Proving a distributor certification standard takes so much effort, particularly for those living remotely.
  • Solution: Create a network of certified sustainable businesses, listing yearly those who match CST standards and expectations.
  • The CST plays no role to teach environmental best practices, list product suppliers, certified distributors.
  • Solution: Support Rainforest Alliance and other groups who bridge this need by offering training courses to the larger community, local businesses, hotels, etc., and providing skills training and certification encouragement.
  • Initial financial investments to recommended CST expectations are costly, especially for small businesses with few rooms. (Solar power panels, invertors and battery banks, wind power, pool ionization systems, personalized refillable water carriers, kinetic flashlights, etc.)
  • Solution: Go slowly. Improve one department at a time. Market improvements and allow travel agents and guests to add their promotional voice to upgrades or practices. Encourage banks to offer low interest loans for CST-certified improvements.
  • Lack of municipal services places an unequal demand for greater response from those who appear responsible, who demonstrate success. (Lapa Rios maintains and repairs 5-kilometers of road from erosion, landslides, trash, potholes, tree falls, river crossings, etc.)
  • Solution: Model capacity of skills and train others. Seek assistance and cooperation from neighbors.

6. Do you have any recommendations for other tourist operations that want to get certified?

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.

  • The area had no primary school when Lapa Rios construction began in 1991. Area residents requested assistance and financial help. The Lewises built and then donated a 4-building rural primary school complex to the community. The ongoing maintenance of this school, as well as other primary schools in the Osa, is funded through guest donations of time, their shared talent, materials and monetary gifts.
  • Lapa Rios continues to organize the Osa Peninsula recycling center and dump. This long-term process first requires community education as well as materials and time.
  • Support community members to broaden the business’s financial benefits: assign sewing projects or small food orders from women and homemakers who specialize; employ local men who have a unique skill, fish or raise organic foods, etc.

Organize community, employee and guests programs that make a real difference, that add social and environmental improvements to the broader sustainable goals.

  • The Peninsula offers young people little social or health education. Lapa Rios organized a 2-day D.A.R.E. (anti-drug) program for over 80 teenagers.
  • Local children learn traditional Costa Rican dances and perform weekly for Lapa Rios guests.
  • Guests and staff share experiences together in Lapa Rios. Evening programs highlight nature sightings or principles of ecotourism, other sustainable destination holiday choices, issues relating to sustainability, a guest sharing life interests, etc.
  • Nature-based tours are inherent to ecotourism. Guests endorse locally trained naturalists, as they excel in interpreting the forest relative to their life experiences. Being authentic with people and their home is being sustainable.
  • Include guest tours and activities that add benefit to local families or community-based projects. Authentic, cultural experiences are equally popular with guests, as tourism is about people.

Before improving supply sources or retrofitting equipment request advice, assistance and help from other certified properties.

  • Join and support environmental (hospitality) organizations, those people who live and work sustainable ideals.
  • Listen to community members, employees and lodge owners to what works for them.
  • Buy locally, only from companies who guarantee major breakdowns with genuine replacement parts. Avoid importing equipment, as sourcing parts becomes complicated and expensive.
  • Obtain guarantees or proofs for Certified Organic, Certified Biodegradable-before purchase.
  • Help establish local organic gardeners-build relationships, improve community sustainability, by encouraging family farming vs. renting or selling farmland to agribusinesses.
  • Use sunlight-to replace daytime lighting needs, heat water and make electricity. Simple solar cookers provide cheap and easy solutions to long cooking pots-beans, stews, rice, etc.
  • Use wind and breezes-to cool buildings, pump water and produce power.
  • Re-use food scraps-to make quality compost and/or methane gas.
  • Think alternatively. Rethink typical responses. Balance NEED versus WANT. Always ask: does this solution negatively affect the surrounding natural resources and community, now or in the future?
  • Recycle or reuse or refill all glass, PET plastic, aluminum and metal cans. If necessary, return recyclables great distances until companies bringing recyclables willingly accept recycling duties.

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.

  • Begin slowly, with small projects that require changes in habits, but only when ALL people involved in the process have a full understanding to the expectations. It is imperative to teach the reasons behind the change, what the improvement will add.
  • Do one challenge at a time when beginning certification. Introduce a second process following success.
  • Work the new challenge in increments, using one step to train for the next. Ask employees and guests to contribute their ideas. When employees and guests accept the certification process as a positive direction multiple challenges can be worked simultaneously.
  • Guest service can be improved using guests’ observations, opinions and suggestions. Without trained, personable employees who can offer excellent service even modern, efficient and sustainable business will fail.
  • Keep copious, careful records for certification proofs. Maintain lists of improved practices (guests and employees), retrofits, community contributions, etc.
  • Publish improvements frequently, showing employees and guests where skills began and improvement was gained. Find help, suggestions and encouragement from other certified lodges and hotels. Request skills training ideas, help with locating environmentally sound products, what mechanical solutions worked best to improve their physical plant, etc.
  • Celebrate often! And affirm all improvements, both large and small.

More information about CST can be found on line at www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr