From chic resorts and home-stays to wildlife lodges, ‘green’ operators across Asia don’t just offer great vacations but give back to the people and planet too.
Global warming, the buzzword of 2007, is making a comeback. Not that it ever went away.
With the recent dismal conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 (COP 15) in Copenhagen, it’s hogging the headlines again, for all the wrong reasons. Anyway, the climate concern raises questions as to whether we should ditch airplanes and stop travelling altogether.
However, tourism, when sustainably nurtured, provides one out of 12 jobs in the world (UN World Tourism Organisation statistics), improve people’s lives and protect the planet’s wild places and heritage. So, as sustainable tourism expert Costas Christ puts it: “Take that plane, but choose a trip that supports sustainable tourism.”
In 2006, Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group Wild Asia launched its annual Responsible Tourism (RT) Awards, focusing on how businesses impact the environment, empower the local economy and heed cultural sensitivity. Here are their earth-friendly picks:
El Nido Resort
Diving buffs and beach lovers head to El Nido for its dazzling coral reefs and white sandy beaches. El Nido’s two resorts are located on Miniloc and Lagen Islands and framed by rainforests and limestone isles that date back 250 million years.
Home to over 800 fish species, 100 bird species and endangered turtles like the Hawksbill and Green Turtle, El Nido has been gazetted as a Protected Area by the Filipino government. Here, you can kick off your sandals, sip chilled margaritas and soak in the sun. Or explore the limestone caves with kayaks and stroll in forests of giant trees.
The founders of El Nido were divers who still try hard to strike a balance between running a business and conserving the environment and taking care of the villagers. The resort’s onsite sewage treatment plants ensure no raw sewage or greywater reaches the sea.
The resort’s only doctor provides free medical care to the locals who have no access to a doctor or hospital. More information at www.elnidoresorts.com
Sarinbuana Eco Lodge
Nestled in mountainous central Bali with a sweeping view of Mt Batukaru (2,200m), Sarinbuana’s handcrafted bungalows sit in the middle of a permaculture farm. Start your day with a platter of freshly harvested passionfruit and melons. Then lace up your boots for a day-trek up Mt Batukaru.
Cap off a delicious Balinese dinner with homemade vanilla ice cream, then lounge on the veranda and tune in to the forest’s nightly symphonies. Guests can also explore natural waterholes, amble in the paddy fields or unwind with a Balinese massage.
Sarinbuana raises funds for village projects like forest protection and hall construction. The lodge also works with local authorities to protect 800 hectares of neighbouring rainforest. Five-percent of annual profits from their Orangutan trek in Sumatra goes back to the Sumatran Orangutan Society based in Ubud. More information at www.baliecolodge.com
Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi
With rates starting from US$900 (RM3,300), Six Senses Yao Noi is your ultimate hedonistic getaway. The 56-villa resort sits on a cliff overlooking surreal limestone outcrops and emerald-green sea.
The villas come with private infinity pools and sun decks, with personal butlers at your beck and call. The villas are designed to maximise natural lighting, hence saving on electricity. Locally sourced thatch roofs and overhangs create shades and cool the villas. Yao Noi is also 100% self-sufficient in its water supply.
Guests can stroll the wooden walkway that meanders through the mangrove forest. The resort works with local schools and government to set up a recycling system and 0.5% of annual revenue is funnelled back into social and environmental causes. More information at www.sixsenses.com
Nanga Sumpa Lodge
Through Kuching-based tour operator Borneo Adventure (BA), visitors to Nanga Sumpa experience the Iban lifestyle. Join the villagers for their berandau (“sit around and chitchat” in Iban) at the longhouse ruai (common veranda) and toss back local rice wine, tuak.
Or set out on a fishing trip with the locals in a longboat and sample freshwater fish wrapped in bungkang leaves and grilled over firewood. Also, help the guides gather wild ferns and vegetables for your lunch picnic. There is no ‘forced’ cultural dance performance at Nanga Sumpa. Visitors are treated like guests and are encouraged to mingle.
Community tourism gives the locals an alternative income and reinforces the need to preserve their culture and forest. BA set up an education fund to enable local kids to pursue higher education and offers interest-free loans to villagers for business ventures. More information at www.borneoadventure.com
Sunderbans Jungle Camp
Lucky visitors to the Sunderbans National Park might spot the rare Royal Bengal tigers. But even if they don’t, a stay at the Sunderbans Jungle Camp (SJC) is a worthwhile experience. A community tourism project on Sunderbans’ Bali Island, SJC provides room-and-board plus river cruise packages.
Guests stay in mud cottages modeled after the local buildings. The boundary between the camp and the village is hazy. While gorging on tasty crab curries with local organic rice, visitors can watch giggling kids or local women in their Technicolour saris sashaying to the lodge’s tube well.
Power here is from a generator and solar panels. Biodegradable ayurvedic soaps and homespun cotton towels are supplied to guests. Local boatmen take guests on daily cruises. It’s common to spot chital deer, crocodiles on the mud bank and monitor lizards scurrying away. About 230-odd bird species have been sighted in the Sunderbans.
Income from tourism supports projects like free kindergarten, scholarships, free healthcare and mangrove replanting projects. More information at www.helptourism.com
Relive the opulent lifestyle of the Mughal emperors by staying at this five-star hotel with a view of the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. Visitors experience the Mughal hospitality from the time they step into the sprawling red-brick hotel with beautiful courtyards and water fountains.
Inspired by Fatehpur Sikri, the hotel was awarded the Aga Kahn award in 1980. Some of the 269 rooms and suites come with personal butlers. Hop on ITC’s horse carriage for a 10-minute ride to Taj Mahal before sunrise or get your butler to arrange a trip to the Red Fort.
Make sure to treat yourself to an ayurvedic massage at ITC’s Kaya Kalp — The Royal Spa, the largest in India. Complete your day with a dinner of spice-infused lamb and chicken kebabs and freshly baked garlic naan at the Peshawri Restaurant.
ITC’s pledge towards a greener environment is translated into its various workshops and training for their staff and local communities. All of its greywater is treated and used for landscaping, and organic waste is composted. ITC constantly adopts new innovations to monitor, reduce and reuse water to meet its goal of becoming “water positive” and have “zero waste.” More information at www.itcwelcomgroup.in
Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
Visitors to this western Himalayan region will be blown away by its stunning landscape — vast plateaus framed by lofty peaks, plunging gorges and ancient gompas (Buddhist monasteries) carved into sheer limestone cliffs.
This isolated district of Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is cut off from the rest of the world six months a year due to harsh winters. Tourism provides sustainable livelihoods for a community that traditionally relies on agriculture and livestock.
Historically a part of western Tibet, Spiti is home to Tibetan Buddhists and the 10,000-strong population is spread across 66 villages.
You get a slice of the Spitian lifestyle by staying with local families in mud homes, sampling delicacies like steamed momos (meat or veggie-stuffed dumplings) and learning how the traditional homes cope with extreme temperatures.
Adrenaline junkies can opt for high-altitude trekking or river rafting while those who prefer a laid-back holiday can take a guided stroll to the 1,000-year-old Dhankar gompa.
Ten-percent of the revenue from each tourist’s homestay goes into a conservation fund used for restoring heritage monuments, conserving wildlife and building passive solar houses. More information at www.spitiecosphere.com.
Treetops Jungle Lodge
Treetops is a low-impact lodge run by locals living on the fringes of Yala National Park. Living in mud- or tree-top huts, visitors have easy access to the stunning wildlife and get to sample the local lifestyle while treading lightly.
Taking up only 5% of a nine-acre plot of land, the lodge accommodates no more than eight guests at any time. Aside from elephants, chital deer and marsh crocodile, the area boasts 161 bird species.
The lodge uses candles and oil lamps in place of electricity, and water comes from the wells. Plastic is a big no-no. Nature-based jobs like guiding create an alternative to hunting and tree-cutting for the locals. More information at www.treetopsjunglelodge.com
Tmatboey Village Ecotourism
Preah Vihear Province
Bird watchers and naturalists travel here for a good reason — to spot the Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis. These are two of the most endangered bird species in the world.
US-based Wildlife Conservation Society established this community-based ecotourism project to protect the birds and their habitat. In return, the tourism income benefits the locals.
Guests stay at the community-run chalets and relish delicious home-style cooking by the villagers. Local guides, some formerly poachers, help visitors to spot the Ibises.
In the 2007/8 season, the community raised more than US$12,000 for projects like building wells (the main source of water supply) and providing employment.
The bird population has increased and there is a growing sense of ownership amongst the villagers. More information at www.samveasna.org