Project Management Institute

Two shades of green

ecotourism is taking off, but project sponsors struggle to balance environmental and financial goals

When actor Leonardo DiCaprio debuts his ecofriendly resort on an island off the coast of Belize in 2018, it'll be a project more than 12 years in the making.

That long schedule is one of the hallmarks—and risks—of ecotourism, a global trend in which travelers vacation at sustainably designed developments where they can marvel at pristine and often fragile natural habitats.

The world's protected land areas receive about 8 billion visits per year, according to a 2015 study in the journal PLOS Biology. By 2021, ecotourism will represent 25 percent of the global travel market, predicts The International Ecotourism Society.

But delivering such ecofriendly travel destinations requires project owners to find a delicate balance among financial, social and environmental goals. “Whatever you do should enhance the environment, not take away from it,” says Hitesh Mehta, president of the global design firm HM Design, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. That can be surprisingly difficult to do. “If you build a sustainable lodge in a wildlife refuge that disrupts a migration path, or a property in a rain forest that requires removing trees, you take away from the land.”

Then there are practical considerations, like whether the local community wants to become a tourist destination and how to measure environmental and financial impacts. Despite these challenges, governments are backing ecotourism projects. Vietnam has begun a VND19 trillion project to transform its Vu Yen Island into a tourist destination by 2020. In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh recently announced plans to develop an ecotourism project in each of its 23 districts, while the state of Himachal has proposed 56 ecotourism projects.

By 2021, ecotourism will represent 25 percent of the global travel market.
Source: The International Ecotourism Society


Renderings of the resort, above, and one of 48 private houses planned for an island owned by actor Leonardo DiCaprio near Belize

Outsiders vs. Locals

Delivering ecotourist projects’ planned environmental benefits isn't always easy. One of the biggest obstacles are project owners who like the idea of ecotourism but start to lose interest when they have to make tough decisions to balance cost against environmental goals. “Often, the people who want to make a difference are not the ones with the money,” Mr. Mehta says. That means they have to partner with public and private stakeholders who may have different agendas for the project.

He recalls working on the Kwanari Ecolodge in Dominica, West Indies. The original project plan called for 100 percent solar power. But when investors saw the price tag, they nixed the idea. Mr. Mehta ended up designing the site with grid power and a solar system backup, and the plan is to have a full solar system for phase two of the project. “As a designer, you know some things will get taken out of the plan,” he says. “You always need to balance financial issues with environmental and social goals.”

However, he notes that the most important stakeholders in an ecotourism project aren't the outsiders—nongovernmental organizations, investors, government agencies or project owners. They are local communities, he says. “The locals have to be involved in the project planning right from the beginning or it won't be sustainable.” That means involving the community in project decisions and using local contractors, consultants and labor throughout the project.


Mr. DiCaprio plans to open “a restorative island” off the coast of Belize in 2018. Problems related to coastline erosion and deforestation will be solved by replanting native trees and mangroves.


Niyanta Spelman, executive director of Rainforest Partnership, Austin, Texas, USA, agrees. “It is the number one lesson we've learned,” she says. Since 2008 her organization has worked with forest communities on alternative, sustainable development projects like ecotourism that allow them to protect their forests while generating an income. Projects include eco-hostels in the Peruvian forest communities of San Antonio and Calabaza.

The projects are directed and managed by the community, while Rainforest Partnership provides training, guidance and some funding for infrastructure. However, “it's moved slower than we wanted,” Ms. Spelman says. There were project delays caused by the need to secure funding from donors and leverage funds from local governments, and because the community makes all decisions. That adds a lot of time and complexity, but it is a critical part of the project delivery process, she says. The local leaders have no experience building a tourist destination, so they face unfamiliar challenges including figuring out how to sustainably dispose of trash and what amenities need to be added to meet the expectations of global tourists.

Despite delays, the hostel in San Antonio was finally completed in 2014, and work continues on the Calabaza hostel. Rainforest Partnership is also delivering training to local community leaders on overall management, eco-hostel management, food handling, agriculture management and other issues as tourists begin arriving.

“As the project manager, you have to be on top of every step in the project and make sure every contractor understands what you are trying to do.”

—Hitesh Mehta, HM Design, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Measuring the Benefits

Training local workers is a vital component of a successful ecotourism project, Mr. Mehta says. Without proper guidance, a project team could spend years designing an ecofriendly lodge for an environmentally sensitive area, and have it all destroyed in a day by a single untrained contractor, he says. “As the project manager, you have to be on top of every step in the project and make sure every contractor understands what you are trying to do.”

But after an ecotourism project is completed, project sponsors face the complicated issue of measuring benefits. Most developments set the goal to do no harm, though some, like the new resort on Mr. DiCaprio's island, intend to restore and improve a site. In either case, organizations are tasked with rigorous monitoring to ensure environmental standards and promises to the local community are met.

Despite all the challenges, if project owners can find the right environmental, social and financial balance, they can reap big rewards from sustainable tourism projects, Mr. Mehta says. “Ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing tourism trends, and it will continue to influence the rest of tourism for years to come.” —Sarah Fister Gale

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