The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Chapter Forty-One
Treading Lightly?
Ecotourism's Impact on the Environment

Martha Honey

Nestled in a national park on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Maho Bay Camps, 114 platformed tents hidden in deep foliage, overlook the turquoise-blue bay. Three miles of winding wooden walkways, designed to protect the growth and minimize soil erosion, connect the tents to the beach, communal toilets, cold water showers, and the large, gazebo-shaped dining-cum-meeting room. Maho Bay, the oldest, largest, and best-known property built and owned by New York developer Stanley Selengut, is one of the world's most famous and financially successful ecotourism resorts. Built in the 1970s, more than a decade before ecotourism gelled as a concept, this site-sensitive construction was both the cheapest and the least controversial technique, given the land's protected status. While the relatively rustic tents are billed as appealing to “vacationers of a Sierra Club bent,” Harmony Resort, Selengut's “off the grid” condominium complex located just above the tents on the edge of the national park, has been ranked as the world's top “ecosensitive honeymoon resort.”1 These luxury villas are built almost entirely of recycled materials (although not from St. John): The roof shingles, for instance, are recycled cardboard and cement, the bathroom tiles are made from crushed light bulbs, and the decks are recycled newspapers. Each condo relies on solar and wind power, captured rainwater, and has a computer to monitor how much electricity and water guests use.

Today, the Maho Bay tented camp and Harmony condos have become among the most popular destinations for ecotourists from the United States. They operate at nearly 90 percent occupancy, yet Selengut boasts that he spends no money on advertising. Bookings come from repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals and from garnering more good media coverage and awards than any other ecotourism project. By 1993, the tented camp was taking in $3 million per year on an initial investment of $750,000. “It's almost like stealing,” Selengut told Forbes magazine.2

Just a few islands away, in Cuba, a trickle of U.S. residents challenge the travel ban and stay at the state-of-the-art Moka Ecolodge, adjacent to Las Terrazas, one of Cuba's

From Environment vol. 41, no. 5 (June 1999). Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educa-
tional Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth St., NW, Washington, DC 20036–1802. ©
1999.

-449-

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