AN EVALUATION OF ECOLODGES
IN THE BRAZILIAN AMAZON
Luciana Coelho Marques
presented at the Cuarta
Feria Ecoturistica y de Produccion 15 – 23 Julio, 2000
Buena Noche de Hato Nuevo, Manoguayabo, Santo Domingo, D.N., Republica Dominicana
© Luciana Coelho Marques 2000
Concerned with environmental issues and impacts caused by conventional tourism, people are opting for destinations and tourism products, which do not cause environmental problems but do embrace ecological values. Ecotourism, a form of nature based tourism, and sustainable development, are terms that are indiscriminately used and encompass diverse concepts and experiences. This paper discusses ecotourism and identifies ecolodge criteria. It further compares and analyses several lodges in Brazilian Amazon.
Ecotourism, as well as terms such as: green tourism, ecological tourism, sustainable tourism, nature based tourism, alternative tourism, and adventure tourism, have recently been used to designate tourism that is developed in natural and cultural settings. At first glance, they may appear to be the same, but it is not always the case. Terms such as sustainable and responsible tourism, for example are synonymous of ecotourism, yet others have their own characteristics, principles and practices. Among the terms, however, ecotourism is the one, in which the concept, principles and criteria of sustainable development are most evident. This may explain why it has been the favorite term of the trade. It is important to observe that in many cases the prefix "eco" has been added to tourism products only as a marketing tool.
In the state of Amazonas, the largest of Brazil’s northern states, the main tourism products are jungle lodges, which often refer to themselves as "eco" lodges. The majority of these enterprises are concentrated in Amazonas’ Ecotourism Hub, an area created in 1996 by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment (MMA), and comprises 12 townships. It also declared the state of Amazonas a model state for ecotourism. This article looks at ecotourism principles, extracting from those, criteria for ecolodges, and then analyzes several lodges in the state, based on those criteria.
A literature search was carried out on ecotourism’s concepts and definition. From the information found, it was possible to identify several aspects that, due their repetitive nature, were identified as fundamental points in ecotourism. Ecolodge principles and criteria were extracted from these as well as from the literature. Based on the criteria developed, twelve lodges situated in Amazonas’ Ecotourism Hub were evaluated and compared. The literature search revealed two main sources of jungle lodge information in the state, an initial study (SUDAM, 1999) provided the basis for analysis for my monograph (Marques, 2000). Further study included site visits, interviews, and personal observations.
According to Ceballos (1998), an evaluation of ecotourism, initially, requires its definition. Notwithstanding, there are many definitions and concepts of ecotourism, elaborated by different segments with different interest. No globally accepted definition exists, however. Pires (1998) understands that each sector involved with ecotourism (NGO’s, local communities, academics, governmental organizations) tends to create their own idea of the activity, based on their specific interests and points of view. Consequently, many definitions have appeared. However, by finding common aspects among the definitions, it was possible to define and explain four main principles of ecotourism, which are outlined below:
1. Promote environmental conservation
Ecotourism is generally developed in intact or little disturbed natural areas. Thus, the development of the products should be planned and controlled, opting for a rational use of resources and for quality in its management. Ecotourism should minimize impacts to wildlife, soil, vegetation, water and air quality through the use of management procedures. It should also promote the use of alternative energy resources, adequate waste and gray water disposal, recycle, landscape architecture, alternative technologies (composting and low flush toilets, water collection, recycle materials, etc), and follow an environmental educational program. In addition, environmental protection involves small group size in order to obtain low visitor density thus maintaining an adequate carrying capacity. At the same time, the activity must maintain and emphasize the cultural traditions of residents.
2. Promote an interpretative educational experience
While visitors are enjoying nature, they should also be motivated and educated by participatory activities, which have the objective of stimulating their ecological conscience and transmitting knowledge about the regions visited. Wallace and Pierce (1996) stated that they also should experience authentic two-way interaction with local residents, as well as having experiences that help them consider sustainable development, conservation and wildlife protection issues in both the host and the home country.
Fundamental to ecotourism, is the participation of local residents. Their involvement should generate material, social and personal benefits.
From the moment local people perceive that the ecotourism is a source of revenue and depends on natural attractions, they will immediately start to value and preserve it. Ecotourism should be an additional source of revenue to local people. It should not substitute traditional economic practices such as fishing and agriculture. Local people can become more involved in ecotourism: by running their own business, be it lodging, handicrafts, supplying food or other products or by being employed by a lodge as guides or canoe drivers. They can also be consultants in architectural design.
4. A lucrative business
Ecotourism is also a commercial activity and as such it should be economically viable for both the local community and the operators. However, as discussed above, ecotourism requires low visitor density and small group size, therefore its profits are modest and over the long contrary to mass tourism.
An ecolodge must be located near a natural area. Many establishments call themselves "eco", but in practice, don’t meet the philosophy or principles of ecotourism. In an attempt to distinguish between the lodges that practice ecotourism and those who don’t, Russel, Bottrill and Meredith (1995) proposed the use of two terms: lodges and ecolodges. According to the authors, lodge is a generic term, which encompasses traditional hotels situated in areas of natural attractions (nature-based lodge) such as fishing and ski lodges and luxury retreats. On the other hand, ecolodge (nature-dependent tourist lodge) is a term used to identify lodges that based their activities on nature as well as following the philosophy and principles of ecotourism. However, there are no internationally accepted guidelines for ecolodges at present. Despite this, Hawkins, Epler Wood and Bittman (1994) agree that some characteristics of ecolodges are already well-known. For example, ecolodges are:
The state of Amazonas is a pioneer in offering this kind of hospitality in Brazil. In the beginning of 1980’s, there were only three hotels in the state: the first, Lago Salvador Hotel, located in the township of Iranduba, inaugurated in 1979; the second, Amazon Lodge, (a floating hotel) inaugurated in 1982, in Juma Lake, situated in the township of Autazes and thirdly, Pousada Guanavenas, built in 1982 and located in the township of Silves. Later, the Ariaú Amazon Towers (1987) and the Acajatuba Jungle Lodge (1989) were built. Currently, there are 22 lodges in the state although not all are actively operating. Some are closed or under construction. Most are situated in the State’s Ecotourism Hub, which is composed of 12 townships.
TabLE 1 – JUNGLE LODGES – LocaTION – SituATION IN 2000
||Acajatuba Jungle Lodge, Aldeia dos Lagos, Amazon Ecopark Lodge, Amazon Lodge, Amazon Village Apurissawa Jungle Lodge, Ariaú Amazon Towers, Lago Salvador, Pousada Amazonas, Pousada dos Guanavenas, Terra Verde Lodge and Jungle Palace|
||Amazon Camp Lodge, Amazon Swiss Lodge, Anavilhanas Creek, Ariramba Jungle Camp, Boa Vida Jungle Resort, Green Paradise Lodge, Malocas Junge Lodge and Rain Forest Lodge|
|Mamirauá, Piranha Lake and Panty Awacadá|
|Active||King’s Island and Rio Negro Lodge|
Until 1987, jungle lodges functioned without any evaluation or classification. At that time, the National Tourism Council approved regulations and a classification system for ecological hotels. According to those regulations, ecological hotels were considered to be those which met the follow conditions:
Located in an area of dense jungle or other natural beauty.
Totally integrated with the local landscape, without any interference in the environment;
Far from cities, in areas of difficult access and limited public services;
Offer simple accommodations, facilities and services, which are owned or contracted to third parties: transportation, hospitality, food and ecological tourism programs.
According to the classification system, jungle lodges were classified in environmental or ecological hotels, and these types were subdivided in two categories, Standard or Special. Therefore a lodge could be considered environmental standard, environmental special, ecological standard or ecological special. The hotels that were classified had to adjust themselves to the legal, constructive and environmental aspects required, as well as, to adapting their services and equipment to the chosen category.
On April 16, 1996, the Brazilian Tourism Institute (EMBRATUR) decided to cancel the Brazilian Hospitality Classification system, thus, the classification system of jungle lodges was abolished as well. Currently, the regulations and classification system are being re-evaluated and it is expected that in the near future a new classification system will be developed. The only guidelines currently regulating lodges in the state are furnished by the Amazonas Environmental Protection Institute (IPAAM) and the Amazonas Tourism Board (SEC). These guidelines, however, are not specific to ecolodges, they are used for others kinds of enterprises.
The state of Amazonas is enormous but a majority of the jungle lodges are located near the capital, Manaus, along the Rio Negro River. Rocha (1994 in Júnior and Souza 1998), mentioned that this is a preferred location for three reasons: 1) proximity to Manaus, which facilitates tourists’ reception; 2) beautiful scenery along Rio Negro and its tributaries and 3) the black waters of Rio Negro, which are acidic and are not conducive to mosquitoes and others insects’ proliferation. Junior and Souza (1998) stated that the majority of jungle lodges’ owners established their hotels in areas with dense forests, near rivers and where tourists can observe nature and visit villages. The SUDAM study (1999) confirmed that 70% of the researched lodges are located in areas where the diversity of natural attractions is between medium and high. Ten percent of the lodges are in areas where the natural diversity is just medium; 10% are in areas of high natural diversity and only 10% are located in areas of extraordinary diversity. Out of 10 lodges, two: Terra Verde and Amazon Lodge were cited for the surrounding natural attractions. The survey was concerned over the diversity of cultural attractions, showing that 50% of the researched lodges are in areas of limited potential; 30% are in areas of medium diversity and 20% are in areas where the diversity is between medium and high. In this respect, Pousada Guanavenas and Terra Verde were distinguished.
Access to the various lodges depends on their location. As such, means of transportation varies with the hotel. When the access is by river, regional boats or speedboats are frequently used. A few of the lodges have their own boats (Ariaú, Lago Salvador and Apurissawa). The majority of the lodges hire them as needed.
According to the previously presented characteristics of ecolodges, these hotels must be designed in harmony with the natural and cultural environment, using the principles of sustainable architecture and recycled materials. In the case of Amazonas, the local community’s customs are expressed by their architecture, art and daily life. The "caboblos", as riverside residents are called, live in houses of simple wooden construction, often on stilts ("palafitas") or on a floating base: with straw roofs. These cultural traditions should be present in each lodge.
The Brazilian Tourism Institute’s (EMBRATUR) old classification system required that 70% of the constructed area used regional materials and techniques. Sousa (1996) mentioned that the majority of the lodges in Amazonas were built with the fishermen, Indian and "caboclos’" styles in mind. Some of the structures are similar to those of some Brazilian Indian tribes such as: Ye’Kuanas, Tukanos, Tyriós, Carajás, Jamandis, Yanomames and Xavantes. Wallace and Pierce (1996) understand that, in spite of the fact majority of the lodges use local materials in their construction, there are a few who were particularly inspired with the local architectural style. Junior and Sousa (1998) believe that the lodges are adapted to the climate, economic and social level and landscape of the Amazon region. The SUDAM (1999) study further analyzed the following aspects of lodges: adapted to the regions climate; the level of harmony with nature; the use of renewable materials, native decoration and ergonomically appropriate. The lodges that were graded "medium" and "no" were ones where discrepancies occurred.
Out of the 12 active lodges located in the Ecotourism Hub, just one, Amazon Village, uses alternative energy. It uses several energy sources including, candles and kerosene lamps. Energy saving techniques are also employed. Electricity, supplied by batteries, in the guestrooms is only available at night (6PM-6AM), while in the kitchen and service areas, electricity is available 24 hours per day.
Another jungle hotel, the Amazon Lodge also uses candles and gas lamps in the public areas. Several years ago it experimented with solar panels but they were found to be unsatisfactory due to continuous problems. The hotel now uses a generator, which is turned off at night to allow the guests to enjoy the nocturnal forest sounds.
Most of the other lodges use generators, some of which are noisy. The Amazonas’ Ecotourism Hub Survey found that 41,7% of the researched lodges’ owners are interested in using solar energy and, 20% were interested in aeolic energy as well.
Water treatment, drainage and solid waste residues
A majority 91.7% of the lodges treat wastewater by septic systems, while 9.1% used other methods. Generally, the septic systems used by the lodges were considered to be simple.
The majority of the hotels (75%) do not treat their water. Most consume water from artesian wells (77,8%). Others, obtain water from public services or treat it with chlorine.
Nine out of 12 researched lodges separate garbage. Information is not available for two of the other three and one definitely does not separate it. Biodegradable garbage is often used to feed animals. Cans are usually brought to Manaus for recycling. Amazon Lodge is the only lodge that actively recycles.
Despite the fact that many lodge owners claimed that they promoted environmental education programs, the SUDAM study (1999) showed that in actuality, there are few initiatives. Environmental information available is also limited. The number of hotels that distribute folders or exhibit informative panels is inexpressive. According to Wallace and Pierce (1996), the absence of literature about local customs, behavior rules, reduction of impacts, is the main indicator of non-existent environmental education programs. None of lodges promote conferences or others scientific events about the region.
Packages and prices
Attractions and services offered are in the form of packages and vary according to duration, activities, accommodations or visitor request. The duration varies from: 2 day/1 night, 3 day/2 night, 4 day/3 night with 6 day/5 night being the longest stay. If the client desires, he/she can purchase a full day package. In the majority of the lodges, tourists opt for the 3 day/2 night package. Activities developed at all the lodges are very similar. The differences among them are due to the attractions of each area and in the quality of services, which vary from place to place. The most common activities and excursions are alligator spotting, motorized canoe rides, bird watching, fishing, jungle hikes and visits to native dwellings. Some lodges prepare a package according to the guest’s interests. The daily rate varies from US$120 to US$ 2000. Packages (and rooms) usually are given names of the region’s animals: Jaguatirica, Canaçari, Peixe-boi, and others.
The economy of the state of Amazonas’ communities is primarily based on subsistence agriculture and fishing along with some extractivism such as collection of fruits native to the region. According to Nelson (2000), hunting and timber exploration have dramatically reduced in the past few years due sanctions enforced by the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA). Many communities also produce handicrafts.
Families generally live in simple wooden houses. The energy consumed is supplied by generators. Drinking water is obtained from private well, which are often shallow and hand dug (cacimbas), from the river or rainwater collection. Poor water quality is often responsible for health problems. In some communities there are health clinics, telephone posts and schools, but in others they are non-existent. When there are schools, they commonly only teach until the fifth grade, after which the students must go to Manaus to obtain further education. A large percentage of adults don’t know how to read and write. In the health clinics, many medicines are lacking and the doctor visits on a monthly basis. Each community has a community leader.
Benefits generated by lodges
The lodges’ owners believed that their enterprises contribute economically to the local communities through the generation of income. They commented that the local residents benefit socially and culturally by the presence of the lodge due to fixed work and opportunities. They agreed that the lodges help the communities offering transportation and communication, specially in cases of emergencies. Lodges also supply diesel for generators; value the local handicrafts and introduce basic principles of environmental education. However, it was observed that many of the jobs available to residents are low paid and short term. The owners alleged that sometimes, the local people are not ideal for the lodges’ work, because their cultural habits do not always match the owners’ and guests’ expectations. Local residents are not used to lodge schedules, which deprive them of weekends. In addition, owners commented that the local residents have limited education and professional skills. Owners have tried to purchase local goods, but complained that it was difficult as communities produce in small quantities and not on a regular basis.
As stated above, the main economic activities of communities in the Amazon are agriculture and fishing, which are financially unstable. Wallace and Pierce (1996), have shown that regardless of being low paid, a significant number of local people (42%) would like to work in the lodges to have a fixed income. On the other hand, 55,7% prefer to continue in agriculture or didn’t think that they have the skills necessary to work in a lodge. However, this study showed that from 76 lodge employees interviewed, only 27,3% are from the nearby communities. This indicates that a minority of the local people are hired. According to Nelson (2000) men tend to be more active in tourism, because their skills are more frequently requested: forest guides, canoes drivers and in lodge construction. Women play a minor role, primary in food preparation, handicrafts and in some cases work as chambermaids in the lodges. Nelson (2000) also commented that the communities have similar natural and cultural attractions and a tourist generally visits only one community during his/her stay. More than one community could be visited, however, if the attractions were more diverse and a range of scheduled activities offered. Wallace and Pierce (1996) showed that the majority of the residents interviewed liked the visits, because of the presents (money, candles and pens) they received from tourists. In an attempt to compensate for the visits, some guides also bring food staples to the families. Residents do not understand the visit’s objective and sometimes it even disturbs the community’s well-being, but it’s permitted because of the financial and nutritive benefits that come with it (Wallace and Pierce, 1996). As all community visits organized by lodges, are included in a package price, the benefits the community receives are indirect and occulted from the tourist (Nelson, 2000). She also stated that the extent of the community involvement has been determined by owners of the nearby tourism venues and guides to suit their needs and schedules. Currently visits are unstructured and short, one or two hours long.
There are many types of nature based tourism, but ecotourism is the one, in which the concepts of sustainable development, its principles and criteria are more evident. This explains the fact it has been the favorite term by trade. For a product to be considered ecotourism, however, it must promote conservation of environmental areas and provide an interpretative educational experience, besides integrating with local residents and be a lucrative business.
There are no internationally accepted guidelines for ecolodges at present, but, as we seen above, some characteristics of them are already well-known. Most of the lodges in the state of Amazonas are located near the capital city Manaus. Most use the local architectural style and renewable materials on a limited basis. Other sustainable practices were little used. It is surprising specially considering that they are located in are area where many alternatives are possible. Some of the lodges had a high capacity and very few practiced recycling. Activities developed are similar and the little quantity with avarage quality of information supplied to the visitor.
Community involvement is limited. Participation is primarily on an individual basis, not including the whole community. Lodge owners attribute this to cultural problems. Local communities are extremely grateful to lodge owners, which have to a large extent a paternalist attitude, donating food, fuel, toys, and other items.
For ecotourism become a viable economic activity, some challenges will need to be met: these should include all aspects of the ecolodges, not only the architectural features. Amongst the issues that must be addressed are: the creation of environmental education programs for visitors and employees; behavior guidelines and a specific jungle lodge classification system. Carrying capacity needs to be evaluated and a more defined market segment met. These together with sound ecological principles in ecolodge construction, ecotourism in the Brazilian Amazon will be successful.
© Kalalú-Danza / Luciana Coelho Marques 2000