The Izhcayluma Lodge in Vilcabamba, Ecuador has come close to implementing many of the recommendations about sustainable tourism. The owners and employees seem to have found a good balance in sustainability and business, between foreign and national clients and between clients with more and less money to spend. Because of this, it might even be more sustainable to stay as a guest at Izhcayluma, than to work as a volunteer on an Eco Farm. Let me explain.
The project of the Izhcayluma Lodge started in 1998 with the dream of two German brothers. Initially, it started like most businesses with hard work and blood, sweat, and tears. Their first challenge was to make it profitable. But they also had a long term vision. The brothers didn’t just want to create a business; they wanted to create a new home. It had to be a place where guests could feel at home while traveling, and a place where they could grow old. Feeling at home somewhere only works when you get along with your neighbors and the community. At first, the people from the small town of Vilcabamba thought that the German brothers were a bit crazy. Who in their right mind would buy 10 hectares of mostly farmland at two kilometers uphill out of town to build a hostel? But the brothers were determined to make it work and put a lot of effort into socializing, sharing, and working with the local community.
Almost 20 years after Izhcayluma opened its doors to its first guests, it is fully accepted by their neighbors and the local community. The hostel grew into a lodge and now provides jobs to around 30 people from the area. Many of them came from poor families and have been with Izhcayluma for many years. The salaries they earn at Izhcayluma have helped them move forward and provide better opportunities for their children. Part of the supplies the lodge needs are bought in Vilcabamba, and so helps the economy of Vilcabamba. If the guests of Izhcayluma want to go on a tour, the staff of the lodge will help them to book with one of the agencies in town, providing extra business. The 10 hectares of farmland has been turned into a lush garden that attracts many bird species and other wildlife. Besides planting in their own garden Izhcayluma is involved with several reforestation projects at different locations. Since 2019 Izhcayluma has also dedicated itself to try to avoid single-use plastics. Plastic straws and (water) bottles have been banned. Instead, people can fill up their water bottles for free. This can be done either with spring water from the tap, or from a 25-liter bottle at the reception. All these measures and their results together make Izhcayluma a good example for others to learn from.
Previous mentioned social projects were mainly set up to improve the livelihood of local communities. The Latin American Travel Association (LATA) helped a lot with marketing the Huaorani project. Through the Latin American Travel Association tourism awards, the project has won twice the title ‘Best Sustainable Tourism Project in Latin America’. Although the Huaorani Lodge is a great social project, it actually wasn’t sustainable when they received those two prices. At that time Tropic was only able to continue operating the lodge with money coming in from selling Galapagos Tours…
The Izhcayluma Lodge is less famous but makes a better example of ecologically responsible business. The lodge was built on damaged farmland, is sustainable for the environment, the local community, and the owners. But that isn’t all, Izhcayluma is popular among young, old, international and national tourists which makes it more resilient to economic fluctuations. Ideally, more tourist accommodations should follow the example of Izhcayluma. But this isn’t easy. It took years for Izhcayluma to reach where they are now. They needed years to grow into the community, years to grow their garden, and years to become known and popular. On top of that their daily operational costs are high, combined with tourist-friendly prices to be able to compete with the competition. Most new businesses need quick revenue to please their investors (including booking websites and investment corporations).
Currently, the biggest threats to Izhcayluma (besides the Covid-19 pandemic) are the global corporations like booking and especially Airbnb. Because of the high operational costs and relatively low-profit rates from Izhcayluma, joining these corporations would mean that they have to increase the prices for their customers. As long as they can afford to do so, the owners of Izhcayluma prefer to avoid joining any big corporation. This isn’t just for the money but also, or even mainly, because the philosophy behind Izhcayluma contradicts booking websites. The booking websites prefer or even require a quick profit, or else it will have negative consequences for the hotel. The owners of Izhcayluma prefer long term sustainability. More information about other ‘green hotels’ you can check this article in Academia. And you can click here for other sustainable tourist projects.