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Conservation conscience

Priyadershini S.
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Environment Can luxury, sustainability and conservation converge in tourism? They can, believes Crist Inman, who gives tourism a conscience finds Priyadershini S.

The Kerala experimentCrist Inman with wife AmiePhoto: H. Vibhu
The Kerala experimentCrist Inman with wife AmiePhoto: H. Vibhu

One of the biggest challenges faced by a tourist destination is tackling the face-off between luxury and conservation. Can they co-exist in properties that draw holidayers to unwind and rejuvenate? While for some a holiday may mean high-end pampering, “the ultimate comfort of a hotel room,” for others “pure luxury is being closer to nature.”

Redefining the concept of luxury, vis-à-vis nature and authentic culture, is Crist Inman, an American, who has brought his entrepreneurial conservation model to Kerala, a State that ranks among the top ten most favoured destinations in the world.

Crist’s model of development was first implemented in Costa Rica in the mid-1990s. He worked with government and business leaders there to assist in both country and region-wide development plan. “I advised the business communities of Costa Rica and Central America on the development of high-value rather than high-volume tourism,” he says. Due to the success of this type of destination development work Crist was invited in the late 1990s by private investors in Costa Rica to assist in the development and management of lodges that practised at the property level what he was preaching at the destination level.

‘For-profit’

His company’s first such project was a lodge in Costa Rica that protected 1,000 acres of primary rain forest along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, using the profits to protect the rainforest in perpetuity, through a property easement. The idea that conservation could be the core concept of a ‘for-profit business’ was novel at the time, and the company’s early successes were noticed by other countries and investors. Soon, he and his team were implementing the entrepreneurial conservation model in some 20 destinations across the world.

In Kerala, Crist’s company is responsible for the management of Cardamom County, a resort in Thekkady, which also serves as the “learning laboratory” for his management team. It is currently the setting for trainees from other properties to learn the entrepreneurial conservation model and the practice of sustainable hospitality. The company also manages River Escapes, which has a fleet of 10 high-end houseboats, demonstrating that these also can provide superb guest experience with a smaller carbon footprint and a greater commitment to the communities of Kerala’s backwaters: “that is the real luxury,” he says. .

“If you stay disciplined you can profit without abusing the environment,” he says, adding that a destination is known by this discipline, with the practices its business people follow. 

His company Raxa Collective, whose mission statement includes Community, Collaboration and Conservation, aims to take their Kerala-tested business model to the world, as he did recently in Ecuador. He showcased recycled newspaper bags made by a group in Thekkady to conservation enthusiasts in Ecuador’s Loja region in 2012, and a similar initiative has already begun there.

His wife and co-director of the company Amie Inman is in-charge of such community projects. Crist and Amie arrived in Kerala three years ago with a determination to rid the properties they manage of plastic. During a meeting with their team at Cardamom County in early 2012, the team dedicated itself to work towards a plastic free property. The solution was relatively simple: replacing disposable one-litre plastic water bottles with elegant Italian glass bottles, which are re-usable. The glass bottles are filled from 20-litre dispensers of the same water from the same company that fills the one-litre plastic bottles.

Eliminating plastic

It was a small decision but his team figured out that this would eliminate more than 50,000 plastic bottles annually at the property alone. “We take pleasure in explaining to our guests this plastic free policy,” he says happy with the knowledge that conservation awareness is improving. 

Another ambitious plan that he is working towards is to try and go “as much as one can” off the KSEB grid. He speaks of the introduction of solar panels that would take the restaurant and kitchen completely off grid. “Everywhere we operate we want to be known as good neighbours, caring about the environment and social development. Kerala is a responsible state in terms of development policy, but the implementation can be more stringent,” he says observing some glaring trespasses. Fancifully he wishes that the 1,000-odd houseboats that operate in the backwaters would still work “in the old fashioned way.” But in the present scenario he recommends the use of the most efficient technology in terms of fuel and waste treatment. 

Crist, who has been a part of the faculty at both Cornell and Columbia universities, believes that Seven Star luxuries are unacceptable on earth. “It is irresponsible unless we redefine Seven Star certification.”

His mantra: “Conservation is a wise investment. A forest left standing is worth more than one that is cut down. Keeping our waters clean is not an option; it is an inheritance.”

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