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In Search of the Authentic Ecolodge

With all the green buzzwords flying around these days, it can be hard for travelers to know what to trust. How do you know if a tourism business is truly sustainable? How can you be certain that an ecolodge is really “eco”? What kinds of criteria should you be looking at?

Enter Hitesh Mehta, a Kenyan-born architect and landscape architect who has traveled the world seeking to answer these very questions. The result is his new book, Authentic Ecolodges, which presents 36 lodges that Mehta considers to be among the best of the best.

Mehta is an acknowledged expert in the field—he’s been referred to as an “ecolodge guru”—who has worked on ecodesign projects around the world and is a longtime member of the executive board of The International Ecotourism Society. Authentic Ecolodges is the outcome of a three-year, 46-country odyssey during which Mehta personally visited and evaluated all of the lodges included in the book, along with several others that did not make the cut.

With its coffee table format, stunning photographs and alluring descriptions, Mehta’s book will delight both travelers and design aficionados, but in many ways, it’s what’s behind the book that’s most interesting. Mehta’s efforts to systematically define what makes a lodge “eco” offer guidance for travelers seeking authentic experiences and inspiration for planners seeking to develop new properties that minimize impacts on the environment and maximize benefits for local people.

Although most of the analytical background is left out of the book, Mehta outlines his basic methodology in his introduction. His definition of an ecolodge—developed though 10 years of research and interviews with professionals and stakeholders in a variety of ecotourism-related fields—is as follows: “a two- to 75-room, low-impact, nature-based, financially sustainable accommodation facility that helps protect sensitive neighboring areas; involves and helps benefit local communities; offers tourists an interpretive and interactive participatory experience; provides a spiritual communion with nature and culture; and is planned, designed, constructed and operated in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner.”

Based on this definition Mehta developed a checklist of criteria that any lodge must satisfy in order to be considered “authentic.” The lodges are scored based on these criteria and given a rating indicated with butterfly symbols.

According to Mehta, one thing that is unique about his project is that it is the first time “in the history of hotel-book writing and certification” that a single person has personally visited every included property and evaluated them according to a single set of criteria. He hopes that the rating system he developed will be used by travelers, architects, and others involved or interested in ecotourism.

Mehta explains, “There are two main reasons I have done this book: to create environmental and social awareness amongst travelers, professionals and researchers around the world and to celebrate the brilliant work of people on the ground—craftspersons, lodge owners etc.—people who would normally not make it in the glossy magazines and books like the so-called ‘star architects.'”

Authentic Ecolodges will be released by HarperCollins on November 2, 2010. Pre-order discounts are are available from Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. The book is also available from www.authenticecolodges.com and any bookstore.

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