When the world ground to a halt earlier this year, leaving lodges and operators staring down a long ...
OSA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA
John and Karen Lewis, the owners of Lapa Rios, believe that ‘no matter how you slice it, a rainforest left standing is worth more than it is cut down’. This 1,000-acre private nature reserve and ecolodge in Costa Rica is a widely-celebrated model for successful ecotourism. Situated just above the point where the Golfo Dulce meets the wild Pacific Ocean, the Osa Peninsula is one of Central America’s last remaining lowland tropical rainforests and contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity.
Originally established to protect the primary forest, which makes up 80% of the reserve, Lapa Rios has since been successful in restoring areas degraded by human activities such as cattle grazing and tourism development. Vigorous second forest growth has helped to protect the resident 300 species of birds, monkeys, jaguars and toucans. Education and economic sustainability for the local population is a key part of conservation efforts, partly to prevent poaching. Since 1991 Lapa Rios has had a close relationship with the Carbonera School, now impacting 600 children, and a local group of entrepreneurs called Caminos de Osa. All Lapa Rios employees are from the local region and 75% of food used is locally sourced.
Surrounded by the forest, Lapa Rios’ 17 luxury ecolodges are largely open-air with vast ocean views. Visitor experiences revolve around nature and a low impact existence; 70% of materials used to build the bungalows are renewable, WIFI is kept to a minimum, water is solar-heated and tree-planting is actively encouraged. The main lodge and the Brisa Azul restaurant soar 100m above sea level and, inspired by local Boruca designs, the conical structure allows air to circulate removing the need for air conditioning.
Lapa Rios joined The Long Run in 2012 and committed to a holistic balance of the 4Cs – Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce – as a means to contribute meaningfully to the biodiversity and the people of their local region.
The Lapa Rios Wildlife Reserve was initially established to conserve and restore a significant area of lowland tropical rainforest in the Osa Peninsula, the most bio-diverse region of Costa Rica Rica (responsible for conserving 2.5% of the biodiversity in the world), as well as to provide livelihood opportunities to the local communities and to improve awareness about conservation and sustainable environmental management, through support to basic education in local schools and by the provision of job training opportunities.
This important conservation initiative happened at a time when the Osa Peninsula’s forests were being gradually degraded as a result of human population pressure and unsustainable land use practices, which was resulting in loss of forest connectivity, especially with the nearby Corcovado National Park. The preservation of the Lapa Rios Wildlife Reserve therefore not only protected a significant area of primary rainforest (approximately 80% of the reserve is old growth forest) but also began the process of restoration of degraded areas which had previously been converted to cattle pastures. Today, there has been a dramatic recovery of the forest, and vigorous secondary forest growth now covers most previously degraded areas.
Alongside and complementary to its role in rainforest conservation, Lapa Rios has also been a leader in demonstrating best environmental management practices for its ecotourism operation, cooperating with NGO’s to make research around flag species like wildcats population in Costa Rica and endemic flora.
The Lodge, as part of the Cayuga Collection, recently partnered with Dock to Dish, Costa Rica, a Community Supported Fishery program for restaurants that allows the Ecolodge to buy the catch of the day directly from local fishermen. Thanks to the program, Lapa Rios has re-established a relationship with local fishermen in the communities to serve fresh and sustainable seafood to guests. A “Dock to Dish” night is offered to guests once a week, accompanied by guests and fishermen interaction. While working to expand the Dock to Dish program, the Ecolodge endeavours to buy only sustainably caught fish and to never serve endangered fish or seafood, using a list of sustainable fish and seafood published by the NGO Mar Viva.
Since its inception Lapa Rios had a direct impact on the community. It started on the construction of the Carbonera School in 1991, maintaining the relationship to date with that institute, supporting with educational materials and infrastructure. This project expanded to six more schools in the area, impacting more than 600 children from nearby communities.
Hiring staff and local suppliers generates sustainable growth as well as training students of technical colleges in tourism and hospitality enables them to develop skills to work in their own business or work with Lapa Rios, mentoring students and visitors is important to the educational preparation towards sustainable tourism.
Inspired by native food, our cuisine uses 75% fresh local products, creating employment and healthy recipes for our guests.
Seeking to support the local economy, Lapa Rios is open its doors to Caminos de Osa, a group of entrepreneurs from the Osa Peninsula looking to strengthen their businesses by learning best practices from more experienced companies. This know-how allows the quality of services and sustainable measures to improve standards in the area and align the interest in conservation projects and low environmental impact.
Lapa Rios has long-standing relationships with Carbonera, through its support of the local school since 1991, and with Puerto Jimenez – a major neighboring community that is 12 miles from the lodge. It reaches out to the community through a number of projects such as setting up recycling centres, and activities such as the “building for the future” project for local schools and the “Lapathon”.
Its strong commitment to high standards in sustainable management also significantly contributes to raising employees’ awareness and understanding about the importance of sustainable development transforming their values and beliefs in this respect which in turn positively affect their families’ lives and behaviour at home. By promoting locally-run tours and services to its guests, through sourcing the majority of its fresh produce locally (75%) and through providing skilled and unskilled career opportunities to local residents, Lapa Rios further improves the livelihood benefits for its communities.
Lapa Rios recognises the importance of promoting local culture and traditions not only to its guests but more importantly to its surrounding communities. Guests come in contact with the rich Costa Rican culture in many ways ranging from the artists and craftsmen that visit the lodge to traditional cooking workshops and a variety of local dishes which are included in its daily menu. Continuously seeking to create an even greater platform for intercultural exchange, Lapa Rios plans to host various cultural events that showcase local culture through art and music.
The economic success of Lapa Rios’s ecotourism operation is a key aspect of the long-term sustainability of the entire project. To this end Lapa Rios is working on several initiatives to further strengthen the foundation for the future development of the Reserve and the eco-lodge. These include the development of new ecotourism activities designed to increase the attractiveness of the destination to visitors.
Lapa Rios has recently developed a Sustainability Master Plan which aims to provide a framework on which any future development of the Lapa Rios’s ecotourism product will be based. The master planning process was led by ecotourism and architectural specialists and involved a wide range of Lapa Rios’s stakeholders including the owners, the managers, Lapa Rios staff, and other experts. The master plan sets out a comprehensive vision for the future development of Lapa Rios’s ecotourism product, including ambitious proposals for additions to the existing eco-lodge, as well as new ecotourism products.
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