There are many considerations when designing, building and operating an ecotourism resort that differ from more general tourist accommodation. Compliance with a wide range of requirements is necessary for inclusion in the important ecotourism associations as well as to satisfy green-minded guests. For example, air-conditioning is not considered necessary for ecolodges, but hot water showers are a must; energy consumption should be kept to a minimum; the ecolodge should cause minimal or no damage to the local environment; local communities should be supported; waste should be recycled, etc. etc. (a very useful and detailed description on 'Designing and Operating an Ecolodge in the Lao PDR' produced by the Mekong Tourism Development Project can be obtained from the Lao National Tourism Administration).
However, no ecolodge can claim to be 100% ‘green’ and we are no exception. What distinguishes Rivertime and other ecolodges from other forms of accommodation is that ecolodges make serious, sustained efforts to build environmentally-friendly facilities and procedures into their operations.
International eco-tourism associations define ecolodges as:
We vow to minimize forest destruction and supporting conservation of nature both generally and in the local area.
The resort was constructed with nature in mind. Trees, vines, and lush vegetation abound in the densely forested area of the resort grounds. This was achieved by carefully and respectfully locating each lodge, sala and other constructions in whatever space was naturally available within the forest. This was also the case with the extensive, one-meter-wide, forest footpaths which were designed to wind through the forest, flanked by dense natural growth (grasses, bushes, flowering plants as well as trees). The dense forest canopy covering most of the resort was also left undisturbed and the forest continues to be a sanctuary for many varieties of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and butterflies. All our fruit and vegetables are local and organically-grown. During the dry season, we cultivate organic vegetables on the banks of the river near the floating restaurant. When the river rises up the river banks, we are still able to use home-grown organic vegetables from the organic vegetable garden in the garden restaurant. Shower units in the resort bathrooms use on-demand heaters. The resort lodges and restaurant do not use air conditioners but use natural air flow and fans for cooling. We do have air conditioners installed in the meeting room for the comfort of our guests that rent this building, however the units are not used unless requested. All clothes, dishes and linens are washed with water conservation in mind and air-dried. Low wattage fluorescent light bulbs are used in some, but not all, locations. The electricity used in the resort is produced by falling water (i.e. hydropower from the Nam Ngum hydro-electric power plant upstream from the resort). Hydropower is generally considered to be ‘green’ in the eyes of most environmentalists as, once established, the power plants produce no carbon emissions. However, we do lose some environmental ‘points’ in this category since we use no solar power such as solar water heaters. We looked into installing solar water heaters (which would have had to be on the lodge roofs) and would have liked to install them. However, we found that, for the heaters to be at all effective, we would have had to cut down the canopy producing trees which stop direct sunlight from reaching the roofs of all the lodges. To have cut down all those trees just to earn some more environmental ‘points’ would have been purely cosmetic and would have defeated the objective of preserving the forest environment.
Our resort buildings were designed to be compatible with traditional Lao rural architecture while including features (such as European-style bathrooms) to improve the convenience to non-Lao guests of the resort. All the lodges, the office, the floating restaurant, and internal walkways and salas were built entirely by tradesmen from three local villages, often in family groups, who displayed tremendous skill, innovation and care in all the construction, including difficult tilework and glass installation, carpentry, installation of European toilets and shower facilities, much of which was new to them. An example of their diligence is that all of the resort lodges wooden roof fretwork was individually carved, on site, by hand. Throughout the construction period, these village craftspeople made substantial design contributions and showed tremendous patience in dealing with the changing demands of the main designers (Philip and Khamkeun) for whom ecolodge construction was also a new venture. In addition to the resort buildings, all the furniture in the resort and floating restaurant was produced by local villagers, much of it built onsite by local craftsmen and women.
We have developed a very positive relationship with nearby villages since we began construction of the resort. The construction of the resort was achieved solely using local labour and expertise. People from local villages continue to benefit in many ways from our presence, for example: guests often buy handicraft items such as hand-woven Lao skirts, etc. which are produced by these villagers; older women from the local community are often brought in to provide traditional massages for our guests and local tuk-tuk drivers provide transport for our guests. All our staff are local people from nearby villages. In addition to providing all staff with accommodation plus 3 meals a day, we pay salaries which are 20% to 40% more than other resorts, hotels and restaurants. Because we recruit locally in a rural area, it is usually not possible to find staff with high levels of education or English skills, and so on the job and English language training is an ongoing commitment we make to our staff and standard of service.
Children in five local primary schools benefit extensively from donations of educational materials and school infrastructure as well as receiving English language classes from the resort operators and volunteer guests. Village community organizations receive annual contributions to village development funds in return for their commitment to preserving the natural beauty and cleanliness of the local area.
We use low water use toilets. (We researched and considered the use of environmentally-correct, water-free ‘dry toilets’ but decided this would be a step too far for us and, we believe, for our guests). Deep well water is used for toilets, washing clothes and dishes. High-quality, 3-stage, chemical-free filtration system is used to produce drinking water and water for food preparation. Linens, tablecloths, bedsheets and towels are only cleaned every 3 days or on demand. Our swimming pool uses flowing river water that needs no chemical treatment.
We reduce, re-use and recycle as much as possible. Organic waste from the restaurant and kitchen is used as natural fertilizer for our organic vegetable garden on the river bank. Synthetic waste is collected weekly, bundled up and sent to a recycling plant 8 km. from the resort location where it is graded, broken down into chips and sold on to a variety of industries around Vientiane.