Eco-tourims Firm Funds Guilt-Free Travel
BY LISSY GORALNIK
Herons mark the estuary’s edge, where freshwater feeds the Pacific Ocean and where dolphins dive and rise in the distance. Playa Viva, a new resort 30 miles outside of Zihautanejo, Mexico, is nestled beside the La Tortuga Feliz turtle sanctuary, an Aztec archaeological site, and 160 acres of private nature reserve.
The resort was built with local materials either salvaged or harvested from sustainably managed resources -- forests that are managed for long-term ecosystem maintenance. Local artisans crafted its furniture. Playa Viva will create more energy than it uses through solar panels and wind turbines and by using biodiesel in the resort’s vehicles. It will limit water use and return filtered wastewater to the aquifer cleaner than when it was drawn, said Playa Viva LLC founder David Leventhal in a recent phone interview.
The resort’s staff teaches local farmers sustainable agriculture techniques, and practices permaculture, a land-use method that includes organic farming, rainwater harvest, and wetlands and forest restoration.
Leventhal’s goal is for tourists to "transform” when they stay at Playa Viva, which will open in November.
"[This happens when] people are in relax mode on vacation in an environment that shows them that they don’t need to be electronically connected, or use as much water, or participate in the same consumptive patterns we have grown accustomed to, and they find they are just as rewarded,” he said.
A group of five University of California, Santa Barbara students hope to help fund projects like Playa Viva through Coastal Ecoventures, their still-evolving "responsible” tourism investment company.
The company will advise and provide loans to sustainable tourism projects too small to receive money from commercial banking operations, but too big for micro-lending funds, said founding member Ashley Dean. They plan to connect non-profit and government funders to responsible tourism operations in coastal communities, whose owners often have big ideas, but limited resources to institute them.
"This is an unexplored part of the market,” Dean said.
The students used Playa Viva as a model to develop the EcoValuator, an evaluative scorecard they will apply to future sustainable tourism projects. The scorecard examines more than 60 performance indicators of a potential loan recipient’s environmental, social and governance impacts and practices. The company’s goal is to encourage development that incorporates ecology, equity and economics, said founding member Paul Spraycar.
"Poorly scoring developments can revise their plans based on our recommendations and re-submit their proposal,” Dean said. "The goal is to encourage awareness and adaptability, not to enforce a stagnant model. Sustainability responds to change.”
Dean said the company is working to build relationships with government and non-governmental organizations, and private companies to raise capital for projects. It is a member of The United Nations’ Environmental Programme’s sustainable tourism advisory group, which is finalizing a draft of global criteria for sustainable tourism -- a necessary step for an industry that lacks clear standards, she said. The company hopes to begin funding projects this summer.
Tourism and development has provided many economic opportunities for Mexico, said Spraycar.
Lissy Goralnick is a doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. This is her second appearance in EJ.
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