Interview with Karen Lewis, Lapa Rios

We talk to Karen Lewis, affectionately known as ‘Mama Lapa’, founder of Long Run GER® member Lapa Rios, to unpick 25 years of ecotourism wisdom including how to overcome challenges with the help of The Long Run and face up to succession planning.

Tell us a bit about setting up one of the world’s most renowned eco-lodges. What do you attribute its success to?

It’s Lapa Rios’ 25th year, and we’re doing better than ever. Like all good tourism projects, our vision has evolved every step of the way. Bringing the community in from the start has been one of the most important things we’ve done. In the early stages, John and I embarked on a learning journey with the community, always asking ‘how are we going to bring tourism to the rainforest so that everyone in this area can be involved?’.

 

One of our requirements for working at Lapa Rios is being open to change. To learn and progress, everyone must be flexible. To be cutting-edge in sustainable tourism, it’s important to continually expand and improve on what you’re already doing. It’s been crucial that our staff have fully embraced this philosophy.

 

Turning to outside organisations — to help us vet our sustainability efforts — has also been important. In 1998, we helped to create the Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST) in Costa Rica, and then in 2009, The Long Run’s GER® certification came along. Having outsiders audit our sustainability practice has made it easier to communicate the need for change — it’s no longer just Mama Lapa saying do this, do that!

What have been the main challenges during the journey?

The mission of Lapa Rios has always been about what we’re doing rather than saying. It’s about the protection of the land and the belief that a rainforest left standing is worth more than it is cut down; a challenging concept for most people to understand. It’s not about doing something cheapest and quickest; it’s about making decisions that do not negatively impact the environment or community.

 

In 1990, we set up meetings with local people to explain what we were dreaming of and to understand their needs and conservation concerns. We had to go out on horseback, in jeeps, and by foot just to find them. We realised their conservation awareness was non-existent. We’ve had to work relentlessly to ignite understanding through education, and to gain acceptance and improve practices over 25 years.

 

In this context, hiring the right people has been a challenge but one that’s worth getting right. The community around you must be aligned with your mission. If you’re not the type of person to learn and understand the need to separate rubbish, then you’re not the right person to work at Lapa Rios.

Planning for succession is not something that people think about when fulfilling the dream of running an eco-lodge, but why is it so important?

If you’re not thinking about the future, then you’re not thinking about the community that is supporting the project.

 

In 1999, we held a conference to invite tourism leaders, conservation activists, and academics to discuss the question, ‘What is the exit strategy when you’re not only responsible for the business but also the community?’. From this, we learnt that we needed a management company to come on board, and we’re fortunate to have had Hans and Andrea work directly with us at Lapa Rios and now as Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, a management company helping several operations in Central America.

 

When it comes to succession, the best solution for us was to put a conservation easement in perpetuity on the land so that the next buyers will not be able to develop that land. If we hadn’t done this, in the future the land could be sold off and divided by developers. Many people still consider this to have been a poor business move — most continue to measure success by its monetary value, with no consideration for the value of preserved biodiversity. My hope is that this attitude will shift over time, and sustainability-driven business will be the new norm.

 

Ecotourism started in the 1980s, mostly by couples. These people are now in their 70s. Imagine what will happen if owners don’t have succession plans and the land comes up for sale and subject to development? The concept of conservation working as the foundation for tourism will blow up. And then where will we be? The consequences are devastating.

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