Working towards tourism that is more sustainable and responsible is not always easy. It is a labor that requires learning, a lot of perseverance and, if things are done well, can result in great success, such as in the case of Yacutinga Lodge. Today, the Lodge’s owner and manager, Carlos Sandoval, tells us about the beginnings of the hotel and ecological reserve that forms part of Yacutinga Lodge, the first eco-lodge in Argentina. Carlos reflects on how his business has evolved over the years, and of the benefits of having a sustainable and responsible tourism business.
- Why Carlos decided to build Yacutinga Lodge from scratch, and how his life has changed since then;
- How his thoughts on sustainability and tourism have changed throughout his professional career;
- Where he sees the priorities for sustainability in tourism;
- How an Eco-lodge differs from other kinds of accommodation;
- Why Carlos certified Yacutinga Lodge with the Rainforest Alliance;
- Which part of the certification process he found the most difficult;
- The greatest challenges in terms of guests and operating the Lodge.
Carlos, why did you open the Yacutinga Lodge in Argentina?
In 1997 I worked in the Republic of Paraguay, developing an incoming tourism company specialized in ecotourism. I realized that in the zone around the Iguazu Falls (the border between Brazil and Argentina), there weren’t any established hotels dedicated to providing guests with an authentic experience and intense contact with the exuberant nature that characterizes the region.
I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to build Yacutinga as a company governed by modern concepts of sustainable tourism and functioning as a symbol of social responsibility and environmental protection for the region.
How has your business (and life) changed since then?
After 1998, I left my activities in Paraguay to move to Argentina and began construction of the Yacutinga Lodge. The place I chose to build it created a lot of problems due to its distance from any urban centres.
The Lodge’s pristine location required a very strong environmentalist conviction in order to minimize the negative impact that the construction of the lodge would have on an area of jungle practically untouched by humans.
I decided to live in the middle of the jungle, taking on many of the restrictions of that way of life. I spent two years living together with the people that were building the lodge; two years of great personal growth.
To achieve this, I had to leave my family and children, somehow entranced by the need to be constantly present during the construction and implementation of the Yacutinga Lodge.
The two years we needed to build the Lodge from scratch were very intense: working from sunrise to sunset, living in camps, at first even without paths or potable water, not to mention electricity.
I felt like a pioneer at the end of the 20th century. I learned so much about the local people that accompanied me on this construction adventure. Observing and interpreting natural processes that weren’t in the biology book, I shared meals with representatives of the aboriginal communities.
They taught me to look at the jungle from a different point of view. It was a time when we truly practised the strictest form of sustainability: living in a pristine environment, reverting to a more primitive lifestyle, discovering the essence of nature, living with the local population and feeling like you are part of the natural environment.
Building Yacutinga Lodge has been undoubtedly one of the most spectacular chapters in my life.
Has your understanding of sustainability in tourism changed since you began your professional career?
I began my career in tourism in the ’70s. In those days, no one spoke about sustainability; in fact, we had just begun to speak about ecotourism. Most tourism companies and tourist agencies weren’t yet aware of the need to regulate touristic activity to avoid resource depletion and to minimize the negative impact on the host communities.
Many years have passed, and the criteria for sustainable tourism have transformed into a conceptual necessity for every tourism stakeholder, whether it be an employer, an employee, a public institution, an NGO or the tourists themselves.
Today, due to population growth and the massiveness that characterizes tourism in the 21st century, it is impracticable to have a tourism business without responsible practices.
It is not only because of a situation of tourism resource depletion or the cultural alienation that communities potentially suffer because of tourism development but rather, the consciousness that our planet provides us with finite resources. Therefore, providing a tourism service that is properly managed and functions as consciousness-raising has become a social, environmental and corporate duty.
Since the beginning of our ecotourism operation in 2000, many things have changed in our region: some good and, unfortunately, many bad. The negative impact of agricultural expansion and the need for excessive consumption affect natural areas, where biological ecosystems take refuge and are conserved. Not to mention uncontrolled population growth and the penetration of exotic ways of life into host communities. These adverse effects result in environmental impoverishment and loss of cultural diversity.
The good news is that many tourism entrepreneurs in the Misiones Province, and also the region’s Ministry of Tourism, have understood the situation and begun to take adequate actions to reverse these negative impacts. Since early 2015 we have a tourism policy at a regional level.
I am confident that this new public-private sector initiative will succeed in achieving the desired balance, and that we can achieve the sustainability that our industry urgently needs.
In your experience, what are the priorities for sustainability in tourism?
A major challenge lies in successfully applying the concept of sustainable tourism to all levels of the commercial value chain. Sustainability should not merely consist of pompous statements and should be used less as a marketing angle.
I believe that the great challenge is to effectively create awareness among consumers, providers and regulatory agencies, to develop an industry that goes beyond the economic and the commercial, making a tangible contribution to environmental education and the acquisition of social commitment.
How does an Eco-lodge differ from other kinds of accommodation?
An Eco-lodge is an establishment with soul. It needs to be business-focused in order to sustain its financial feasibility, but it doesn’t forget its commitment to the environment that shelters it or the community that hosts it. This commitment should be reflected in the reality of the business and give the Eco-lodge its unique personality.
An Eco-lodge should educate through tourism and be beneficial to the place in which it operates, therefore creating awareness and responsibility for the future.
Carlos, why did you certify Yacutinga Lodge with the Rainforest Alliance?
Yacutinga Lodge has been certified by Rainforest Alliance for the second consecutive year now. Initially, the Misiones Provincial Government invited us to become certified, which is when I realized the immediate benefits that the certification created for our business.
We decided to pursue the Rainforest Alliance certification for a second year as a way to measure and evaluate our sustainability performance internally.
The rating achieved in the last certification was very high, to a large part thanks to the behaviour of the Yacutinga Lodge staff members, who firmly push the company toward perfection in the realm of sustainability.
The Rainforest Alliance certification process has helped us understand what is balance and what is luxury. It has helped unite our staff behind a common cause, together tackling the many challenges. And it has ingrained in all of us an environmental and social commitment.
Which part of the certification process did you find the most difficult?
The certification process of the Rainforest Alliance is based on the completion of various objectives in three different categories: environmental conservation, social commitment and the internal organization of the company.
Yacutinga began as an Environmental Conservation Project: protecting 570 hectares of jungle by performing low-impact ecotourism activities and promoting scientific research. For that reason, we initially thought that due to our undertaking of actions favoring environmental conservation, this part of the certification would be easy to complete.
Surprisingly, it turned out to be the opposite, because the environmental requirements of the Rainforest Alliance Certification included concepts that unfortunately aren’t dealt with in our region and, therefore, made them almost impossible to achieve. Among those were the control and monitoring of carbon emissions and efficient recycling (not only at the internal level of the business) of waste generated by tourist visits (batteries for example).
Other aspects that weakened our certification was adapting our services to guests with reduced mobility and the prioritization of purchasing goods from sustainable providers since they are practically non-existent in our region.
To understand these limitations, we needed to communicate that Yacutinga Lodge is in a truly pristine and undeveloped area.
However, without a doubt, what constantly threatens our performance is the lack of vocational training on conservation in our municipality. Many times, we feel defenceless against poaching and environmental deprecation.
Our ecotourism efforts are sometimes slowed down by municipal authorities stuck in a short-sighted mentality of extracting natural resources rather than conserving them. In other words, we find ourselves in a mildly hostile environment due to our strong convictions about environmental conservation.
However, I am optimistic that things will change. The Rainforest Alliance certification has begun to have a strong effect in the province. More and more accommodation providers want to gain certification and act in favour of sustainable tourism.
I am confident that soon the negative impacts that exist in our region will be drastically reduced, thanks to the awareness that this certification has brought. For us, this is without a doubt the greatest benefit of the Rainforest Alliance certification.
Which have been the greatest challenges in terms of guests and operating the Lodge?
Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge that we have had, and continue to have, is to meet and exceed the expectations of Yacutinga Lodge’s guests during their stay with us. Even if we did the impossible to achieve it, there are external factors that are outside our control and work against customer satisfaction.
Sustainable tourism in our region is still a new concept and not well understood. Not by those that offer the services or the official agencies, and not by the visitors either, some of whom don’t realize that sustainable tourism requires a different perspective on vacationing.
In my view, sustainable tourism means enjoying our leisure time in a conscientious and balanced way, respecting the local culture and interpreting the environment through experiences. Fundamental for this to work is the support on the part of the tourist in adapting to these concepts, enjoying them and giving them value.
At Yacutinga Lodge, it is often difficult to satisfy guests who consider themselves responsible travellers, but in reality, are not. Their demand for comfort is overwhelming for the environment in which we are immersed, and which is fundamental for the concept of sustainability that governs my company.
Thank you, Carlos.
Learn more about Yacutinga Lodge here.
This interview was facilitated by the Rainforest Alliance. Since 1987, the Rainforest Alliance has worked towards conserving biodiversity and to promote a sustainable way of life through the transformation of agricultural and business practices, as well as consumer behaviour.
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