Culture, Environment, and Education for Guests and Indigenous People at an Eco-lodge in Belize

Culture, Environment, and Education for Guests and Indigenous People at an Eco-lodge in Belize

San Felipe , Belize
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The lodge is located in the Toledo District of Belize, the most unsettled and undeveloped part of the country--as yet untouched by the cruise ships and condos in the north. Toledo is home to indigenous Mayan people who still live in traditional thatch villages and to the unique Garifuna Afro-Carribbean culture. It is also home to diverse wildlife and plants, beautiful Mayan ruins, caves, and waterfalls. As the lodge was planned, owner Chris Crowell wanted his guests to experience these things in a genuine way, while having as little impact on the surrounds as possible. Staff come from nearby Mayan villages and are encouraged to interact with guests. Tour groups are never larger ...

About You
Contact Information
Title

Ms.

First name

Holly

Last name

Masek

Your job title

Sales & Marketing

Name of your organization

Cotton Tree Lodge

Organization type

business - hotel

Annual budget/currency

US $500,000

Mailing address

440 E. 117th St., Suite 4B

Telephone number

212.529.8622

Postal/Zip Code

10035

Country
Alternative email address
Your idea
This will be the address used to plot your entry on the map.
Street Address

Moho River

City

San Felipe

State/Province

Toledo

Postal/Zip Code
Country
Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourist experience and educational benefit to tourists , Quality of benefit to residents for the destination , Quality of stewardship of the destination.

Organization size

Small (1 to 100 employees)

Indicate sector in which you principally work

Tourism-related business

Year innovation began

2007

Indicate sector in which you principally work

Living culture, Nature, Culinary or agritourism, Indigenous people, Adventure, General tourism.

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Innovation
What is the goal of your innovation? Please describe in one sentence the kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

To use our eco-lodge as a base for promoting yet preserving the cultural and natural treasures of southern Belize.

Please write an overview of your project. Include how your approach supports or embodies geotourism or destination stewardship. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the map located on the competition homepage.

The lodge is located in the Toledo District of Belize, the most unsettled and undeveloped part of the country--as yet untouched by the cruise ships and condos in the north. Toledo is home to indigenous Mayan people who still live in traditional thatch villages and to the unique Garifuna Afro-Carribbean culture. It is also home to diverse wildlife and plants, beautiful Mayan ruins, caves, and waterfalls. As the lodge was planned, owner Chris Crowell wanted his guests to experience these things in a genuine way, while having as little impact on the surrounds as possible. Staff come from nearby Mayan villages and are encouraged to interact with guests. Tour groups are never larger than 10. The tours themselves send income to local families, small businesses, or national parks. Only 11 cabanas means our lodge will never be too overwhelming or disruptive of a presence in the area.
The lodge uses solar power and carefully manages waste water. We work with a non-profit, Sustainable Harvest International, which oversees an organic garden on the property and that provides vegetables for the lodge kitchen. SHI teaches local farmers sustainable techniques as alternatives to chemicals or slash and burn. SHI also provides volunteer opportunities in surrounding villages for our guests to interact with communities in a meaningful, constructive way during their vacation.

Explain in detail why your approach is innovative

There are many, many tourism operations in Belize. Most move tourists in and out quickly, checking off a to-do list of major sites: snorkeling the reef, cave tubing, Xunantunich... Chris's vision was for guests of Cotton Tree Lodge to "connect with the people and culture of Belize", yet we don't want it to feel like a living history museum. The people of this area are proud of their cultures but ready to progress, and everyone who sends us feedback or posts a review says it was 'the people' that made the biggest impact on them. While our guests may visit a village home and see how a Mayan woman still hand-makes corn tortillas for her family, they also see the new mechanized village corn mill, then visit an organic cacao farmer and his successful startup chocolate company. We are in the process of building a craft studio where local artisans can display their pottery, weaving, and wood carving. While these were once practical skills, they are now good sources of income thanks to tourist demand.
After leaving the lodge, our guests have offered to invest in everything from the chocolate company to a laboratory to study medicinal plants. Nearly everyone who comes here recognizes Toledo as a unique and beautiful place with a lot of potential-- and a lot to lose. We hope that by continuing to support small farmers and locally owned businesses we can direct income to responsible enterprises in the region and preserve the 'sense of place'.

IDB/Fomin
Si perteneces a un pais de Latinoamerica y el Caribe tienes la oportunidad de presentar tu iniciativa para acceder a fondos para innovaciones en turismo sostenible del BID/FOMIN (para mayor informacion leer la seccion sobre la oportunidad BID/FOMIN en la pagina principal del Desafio).

Deseo postularme.

Si perteneces a un pais de Latinoamerica y el Caribe tienes la oportunidad de presentar tu iniciativa para acceder a fondos para innovaciones en turismo sostenible del BID/FOMIN (para mayor informacion leer la seccion sobre la oportunidad BID/FOMIN en la pagina principal del Desafio).

Consumidores (viajeros), Operadores de Turismo, Prestatarios de servicios turísticos, Grupos comunitarios autóctonos, Atractivos naturales y culturales.

Indica cuales de estas tematicas cubre tu innovacion (elige todas aquellas opciones que apliquen)

Estrategias y herramientas innovadoras para la promoción y puesta en mercado de destinos y productos en turismo sostenible y geoturismo..

Impact
Describe the degree of success you have had to date. How do you measure, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the impact on sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How has it transformed or contributed to the power of place or demonstrated the sustainability of tourism? How does your approach minimize negative impacts?

We have only been open for two years and do not have much measurable data, but we hope that we are having a positive impact on the region surrounding us. By bringing guests to the region, we are creating an economic incentive to preserve Mayan and Garifuna culture, as well as (we hope) a sense of regional pride as the visitors are eager to learn about the traditions, crafts, music, language, etc. of this area. By bringing guests to seldom-visited national parks (Rio Blanco only received 100 official visitors in 2008!) we are showing the government that it is important to preserve these places. And by taking careful steps at the lodge to minimize our environmental impact, we hope we are showing our staff alternative ways to develop a business. For example, our gardener, who has been trained by Sustainable Harvest International, recently brought us over to his home to see the new organic vegetable garden that he is planting, based on the knowledge he's acquired working with us.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your work, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

We have been able to employ a fair number of people from the two closest Mayan villages to our lodge: Santa Anna and San Felipe. Many of the families in these villages are subsistence farmers, so the money earned from employment at the lodge helps families pay expenses like school tuition and uniforms.
Seeing how guests react to the people and sites of Toledo, many of our staff are seeing their district in a new light and with a new pride. They have begun suggesting new tours and activities for our guests-- places we might never have found otherwise.
Local crafts women know they can come to the lodge during busy periods and hopefully sell cuxtals, baskets, or jewelry to some of our guests.
Cotton Tree Lodge is an active participant in the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, occasionally hosting meetings at the lodge and providing a strong voice on sustainable development for this region.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

We push people slightly out of their comfort zone and encourage them to explore. Very few people have ever slept in a thatched cabana in the middle of the jungle, falling asleep to the sounds of howler monkeys. It might make them a little nervous to take a kayak up a jungle river solo, or jump from a 20 foot waterfall. It might not be immediately comfortable to eat strange food with a Mayan family in a thatch home with dirt floors and no electricity. But these are the sorts of experiences that stick with our guests, and makes them want to return. We encourage our guests to engage with what's happening around them and let them know that it's ok to ask questions. Only then will they really connect with this place.

Describe how your work helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area's cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues.

Guides and park rangers usually touch on environmental issues with tour groups, and believe it or not, conversations about heritage and preservation frequently come up during dinner. Our guests sit family style and Chris, the owner, often sits with them. After spending the day swimming through a wet cave or visiting a farm, our guests want to know what will happen to this area. Will small farmers burn the rainforest to plant corn? Will commercial farmers burn the rainforest to plant citrus? Will foreign companies drill for oil in the nearby Temash Sarstoon park? We try to stay abreast of these happenings, but there is no easy solution here. Tourists who keep their eyes and ears open will learn that everyone (businesses, environmentalists, indigenous farmers, churches, etc.) has interests to be served, and preserving the beauty and culture of Toledo while allow it to economically develop is a challenge we must all face together.

Sustainability
How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

We started our organization with private investments from friends and family. In exchange for a $2,500US investment, we offered a share in the company and a week stay for two. Since opening, our funding has been a combination of loans from investors and revenue generated by our hotel. Our annual budget is roughly $500,000US. We currently employ 36 Belizeans and 1 American on site in Belize plus 2 Americans in the United States, all full time. In addition, we offer 2 internship positions for American volunteers each year. Finally, we have 1 part time Belizean volunteer who helps out on weekends that we are putting through high school.

Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? Is there a potential demand for your innovation?

Our oranization is heading towards financial sustainability. We currently generate roughly $400,000US of the $500,000US needed per year. The main requirement for financial sustainbablity is exposure, especially to groups interested in sustainable tourism, cultural tourism, and voluntourism. There is most certainly demand for our innovation. Our prior guests have relayed that their visit has changed their lives and they actively promote what we are doing to their family and friends.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

As part of the travel-industry, economic downturns in the US hugely reduce the number of guests we will see in Belize. We are limited by seasonal tourism as well, it's hard to keep staff employed year-round when guests mainly come from November to May. There is not a lot of training available to the workers in this region, and the most experienced people want to go to more developed locations like Placencia and Ambergris Caye, where they can work in larger hotels and earn more money. It's still sometimes a challenge to convince guests and travel agents that the river and Mayan villages can actually be better and more memorable than a swimming pool and cable TV.

What is your plan to expand or further develop your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

We do not plan to expand the lodge much if at all. We prefer the small numbers of guests for lower impact on the surrounding villages and a more intimate experience. We are always looking to develop new tours and find cross-promotional opportunities with unique organizations in the area, such as Tumul K'in Center of Learning (a high school incorporation sustainability, community outreach, and Mayan culture into its curriculum).
The rainforest around us is beautiful and mostly untouched, so we are trying to research economic incentives for the local indigenous populations to want to preserve the land (perhaps they could work as rangers if it were designated as a national park), rather than farm it.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.

Chris Crowell found himself in Belize by accident in 1979 en route from one Central American destination to another. Six years later he returned to start a small charter sailing business, grew familiar with the country, and eventually sailed up the Moho River to find the land where Cotton Tree Lodge is now built. In his own words, Chris decided to created the lodge to, bring "people from all over the world to experience a truly meaningful stay in Belize...I saw a chance to create an atmosphere where individuals could appreciate other cultures while learning something about their own spirit. It’s a dream of impacting lives... of exploring new terrain."
To execute the dream though, took some business savvy. Chris enlisted his friend Jeff Pzena, who was just finishing business school at Babson. Jeff wrote the business plan for the lodge as his final project for his MBA.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Originally from Florida, Chris Crowell started his career as an art teacher, world traveler, and avid sailor. He first discovered Belize in 1979 while traveling between Guatemala and Mexico, but did not return until six years later when he set up a charter sailing business called “Timeless Tours”. For 10 years Chris migrated between summers managing the youth hostel at Martha’s Vineyard, MA and winters running Timeless Tours in Belize. He began working on the lodge seriously in 1999.
Jeff Pzena, Business Manager, Cotton Tree Lodge and Cotton Tree Chocolate
Jeff Pzena is originally from New Jersey. After graduating from the University of Chicago he moved to Cambridge, MA where he started a beer and wine-making hobby shop and micro brewed his own label, Fat Cat Beer. Jeff returned to school for his MBA, writing the business plan for Cotton Tree Lodge while still earning his degree. Jeff now works for an IT Firm in New York, for Cotton Tree Lodge, and for Cotton Tree Chocolate.

Describe some unique tourist experiences that your approach provides. Be specific; give illustrative examples.

We offer 'voluntourism' opportunities through Sustainable Harvest International, a non-profit which teaches Central American farmers sustainable agriculture techniques. Guests can travel to surrounding Mayan villages and work alongside families training with SHI to build wood-conserving stoves, plant cacao, start a school garden program, etc. They also learn about sustainability efforts in the area, and have a chance to connect directly with their host communities.
Our chocolate farm tours visit organic cacao farms, where guests learned how the ancient Maya used cacao, and find out how it is grown and harvested today. They try their hand at making chocolate and share a traditional lunch of caldo with a Mayan family in their home.
We try to share some of the more unique aspects of the Toledo community with our guests whenever possible. We bring guests to community events like the Toledo Cacao Festival, Tumil Kin High School's Maya Day Celebration, and the Deer Dance at Easter. One of our staff even invited everyone at a yoga retreat to attend his wedding in a nearby village.
We help our guests to share skills with the surrounding communities. For example, a guest from 2008 wished to return and do a presentation on water pollution which was designed by a children's museum in Connecticut. We helped her connect with local primary school teachers to do this in March of this year. Meanwhile, her daughter stayed with a local farmer's family to learn about sustainable agriculture techniques.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

We are currently partnering with a non-profit called Sustainable Harvest International. They add a lot of value to our program in Belize, overseeing our organic garden, training local farmers to grow produce used by the lodge (vegetables, cacao, eggs), and developing volunteer programs for our guests.
Our lodge/innovation could be enhanced by more organized apprenticeship programs. We train waiters, cooks, bartenders, groundskeepers, and office help, but if we had more resources we could hire some really strong, experienced managers and/or teachers to oversee these programs. Our staff could then eventually take these skills back to their communities to start small businesses of their own, or rise to management positions at Cotton Tree.