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Tough Questions: Planet, People, Peace in Costa Rica

The view from Il N’gwesi Community Lodge.

Ed Wetschler

DAY ONE: Planet, People, Peace

Sustainable tourism: an oxymoron? That’s the pessimists’ view, an argument that the travel industry, even at its best, diverts land from better uses of it, erodes local traditions, results in a lot of jetfuel emissions, and enriches Hotel Inc. But you’ll hear a different story at the Second International Conference: Planet, People, Peace, here in Costa Rica.

You could hardly pick a better place for this meeting than Costa Rica, a country that has designated great swaths of its territory as national parks, nurtured small eco-resorts rather than mega-resorts, and encouraged wildlife viewing and soft adventure rather than golf. More than 200 people are attending this event, and although the majority are from Costa Rica, there’s a good contingent from the United States, not to mention environmentalists, tourism development specialists, and folks from countries  like Ecuador and Kenya.

The Word from Kenya

Meet Joseph  Ole Shuel, a (very) tall Kenyan in red Maasai garb. Shuel is the director of Il N’gwesi Community Lodge (1996), a tourism facility that is entirely owned by the 6,000 members of his community. Shuel believes that tourism should engage visitors in the indigenous culture. “It’s all about the encounter,” he says, “so it must be done in a dignified way.” This is not just about sneaking shots of people in exotic clothing.

Setting up Il N’Gwesi was not about sneaking around, either. Rather sell or lease land to an outsider with plans to build a hotel, these Maasai wanted a facility that they would own and operate. But they only came to this conclusion after two long years of meetings. Shuel was adamant about this, because he believed that a community-owned business just wouldn’t work unless everyone — “not a majority, not 90%, but everyone” –  was on board.  “You can’t just impose this; it must come from within,” says Shuel.

“There was fear at first,” he admits. “We were and we still are the only community in Kenya that has created a lodge entirely owned and operated by Maasai.”

How to Build a Community Eco-Lodge

So they decided to build upon what they already knew:

  • They constructed the lodge themselves, using local know-how.
  • Being unfamiliar with hotel “hospitality,” the community adapted a hospitality philosophy based on an aspect of their traditions. “We decided to treat guests the way we treat our elders. In our society, elders are never ignored. They are given maximum attention at all times; their desires are anticipated.
  • Figuring out how to feed their guests posed a problem, too. The local diet is essentially milk, blood, and meat, which might not fly with most tourists. So they gathered roots and other ingredients that were edible and asked visitors to show them how they would prepare food using those things. Here was an intercultural exchange that was authentic and, I’ll bet, fun.

The result is what you see today: a lodge with spacious guestrooms that show off indigenous crafts and look out over a watering hole that attracts elephants and other big game. Most of the resources used for the buildings and the meals are local and sustainable (FYI, water is heated for showers by solar power). Your guides have been watching wildlife all their lives. And, as mentioned, they treat you the way they treat one of their elders.

A few hours after Shuel’s presentation, I walk over to ask him some questions. While I’m talking, he looks me in the eye and takes both my hands between his. Here in Costa Rica we are 10,000 miles from Kenya, but for a moment, I have a glimpse of how it feels to be an Il I’gwesi village elder.

Next: Day 2

Ed Wetschler, Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Caribbean Travel & Life, the Official Pennsylvania Guide, and other print and new media. He is president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine

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3 Comments

  1. November 4, 2010 at 9:54 pm — Reply

    I love Costa Rica. Some of my best trips and greatest memories are on the beaches there. I think it is time to start writing more about Costa Rica Travel on my blog.

    Cheers. Great Site.

  2. November 12, 2010 at 4:52 pm — Reply

    I think the senior editor should not publish articles about destinations he has not himself visited, particularly Costa Rica, with his wife and daughter and Grandma Carole and Grandpa.

    • November 13, 2010 at 3:59 pm — Reply

      Actually, the senior editor went to Costa Rica in 1985, at the dawn of adventure travel, took the now defunct railway to Limon, snorkeled in pristine waters off the Nicoya Peninsula and rafted the Reventazon River with none other than Michael Kaye of Costa Rica Expeditions, the country’s adventure travel godfather, who you can see in this week’s video. But admittedly, it was not with the family. So perhaps it’s time to return …

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