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The world's most responsible hotels

A roundup of 10 hotels around the world that have taken on a humanitarian mission along with providing upscale hospitality.
Dozens of local kids are becoming the first in their families to attend school thanks to the efforts of the Lapa Rios EcoLodge in Costa Rica. Carbonera School is supported by both cash donations and an online "wish list" that solicits books, games, sports equipment, flashcards, disposable cameras and other teaching materials.
Dozens of local kids are becoming the first in their families to attend school thanks to the efforts of the Lapa Rios EcoLodge in Costa Rica. Carbonera School is supported by both cash donations and an online "wish list" that solicits books, games, sports equipment, flashcards, disposable cameras and other teaching materials.Elle Schuster / Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality
/ Source: Forbes

When the Anantara Golden Triangle resort started an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand five years ago, its creators never imagined that the project would evolve from an environmental effort and tourist attraction into a milestone of hotel-sponsored humanitarian aid.

With 160 acres of native forest and bamboo groves along the Mekong River, the posh riverside resort seemed like an ideal retirement home for elephants that were no longer needed in the nation’s logging industry. Anantara hired British wildlife expert John Roberts to create the camp and recruit the resident pachyderms. But Roberts quickly discovered that you couldn’t bring the elephants without their lifelong mahouts (trainers). And you couldn’t bring the mahouts without their families. And that you couldn’t bring the families without providing housing, schooling and medical care.

Anantara’s camp now supports 29 elephants of various ages and 60 people from grandparents all the way down to newborns, all of the families actively involved in an enterprise that not only rescues wayward elephants but also gives resort guests a chance to trek elephant-style through the countryside, learn all about how the animals are trained and even bathe with them in the Mekong River if they are so inclined.

“When logging was banned in the 1980s,” says Anantara spokesperson Marion Walsh, “the mahouts had no choice but to resort to the streets to make their living. They walk around tourist areas in the big cities charging people money to take photos of their elephants or selling them sugar cane to feed the animals. They’re simply trying to make ends meet, put food on the table. Our goal is to get the elephants and their human families off the street, give them secure and comfortable homes. The arrangement lasts as long as they want — there’s no time limit for how long you can stay.”

The elephant camp is totally self supporting from visitor fees and donations via the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which Anantara created in cooperation with the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp. Earlier this year, the resort also started a cottage industry for the mahout wives, who weave embroidered ethnic textiles sold at the hotel gift shop. The women keep 100 percent of the profit.

Anantara isn’t the only Good Samaritan. Although the socially responsible tourism movement isn’t nearly as pervasive as eco-tourism, a growing number of hotels and resorts around the globe are funding programs or starting charities that aid people in need. Endeavors range from supporting schools and job training programs to medical clinics, regional healthcare campaigns and sustainable development projects. But no matter the size or where they are located, all of them have a shared goal of improving the lot of the disadvantaged communities that surround the hotels.

Lapa Rios Lodge in the Costa Rican rainforest has a strong educational program. When owners John and Karen Lewis first set up shop on the isolated Osa Peninsula in 1990, there was no local school and most villagers were illiterate. Feeling that education was the best gift they could give to the local community, they started the Carbonera School and went door to door trying to convince reticent parents that learning, rather than slash-and-burn agriculture, was the key to their children’s future. Nearly two decades later, the school is thriving on contributions from lodge guests and overseas donors.

For its responsible travel component, Ol Malo Lodge in East Africa focuses on hygiene, nutrition and health care. Founded by Julia Francombe, daughter of the lodge owners, the Ol Malo Trust has launched a number of initiatives to aid the Samburu tribe of drought-stricken northern Kenya. These have included a “beads for food” program that employed nearly 400 women, a clean water program, an eye project to eradicate trachoma, and leg and foot clinics to treat jigger infestations in children.

Vil Uyana resort in Sri Lanka specializes in job training. Located in the middle of a wetlands habitat formed from reclaimed agricultural land, the luxury eco-resort started an award-winning youth development program in 2006. The academy prepares teenagers and young adults from three local hamlets for employment in the hospitality and related industries. In addition to English and Japanese language classes, the curriculum includes front office skills, culinary training, customer care, and nature and wildlife guiding.

Sometimes the endowment for these projects is straightforward, a combination of direct hotel support and donations. And other times the fundraising gets quite creative.

Jamaica’s Breds Treasure Beach Foundation — started by Jake’s Resort owner Jason Henzell and Peace Corps volunteer Aaron Laufer in 1998 — raises money through a number of different means including an annual fishing tournament, an off-road triathlon, and a buck-a-night contribution for every guest who sleeps at Jake’s.

Named after a Jamaican slang term for “brethren” or “brother,” Breds parlays those funds into an eclectic array of projects for the local fishing and farming communities including the construction of homes, classrooms, sports facilities, a computer lab and library, and a repeater antenna to facilitate better ship-to-shore communication. The foundation has also helped Treasure Beach prepare for natural disasters by creating a hurricane relief fund and an emergency response team trained by volunteers from New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

Given the fact that it’s almost impossible to separate indigenous people from their landscape, many of the hotel-based responsible tourism projects incorporate environmental elements.

A good example of this cross fertilization is the Green Futures College at Grootbos Private Game Reserve in South Africa, which teaches disadvantaged local people how to make a living from nature-based sustainable livelihoods like horticulture, ecotourism and landscaping with native fynbos plants. The school was initially funded by the nonprofit Grootbos Foundation and a matching 200,000 euro grant from the German government, but now supports itself through a landscaping business and indigenous plant nursery that employs many of the graduates.

“We decided that we should be doing more for the local community,” says Grootbos owner and managing director Michael Lutzeyer. “Our idea — given that we specialize in plants on this reserve — was to set up a foundation and train local people in indigenous gardening.”

In order to be chosen for the program, candidates from the nearby township must be 18 years of age, unemployed, have at least a ninth grade education and speak some English. “And we also teach them life skills,” says Lutzeyer. “It’s no good that you train someone who doesn’t have a bank account or know how to go onto the Internet, who doesn’t have driver’s license. So we have two teachers — a horticulture teacher and life skills teacher.”

There has been a total of 60 graduates since Green Futures was started in 2003, and the one-year program graduates its fifth class this August. Alums have started to spread their newfound skills around South Africa as nature guides, professional gardeners and native plant experts. One graduate has established a green project at a preschool in Masakhane Township that aims to provide vegetables for local children, raise environmental awareness among the local populace, and generate funds for the school by selling fynbos plants to the public.

American Claude Graves and his German-born wife Petra created a model for a socially responsible resort before they even knew where that resort would be located. “Our vision,” says Claude, “was to create a tourism venture that would be of substantial benefit to its neighboring community.” After scouting locations around Southeast Asia they decided on secluded Sumba Island in eastern Indonesia. The end result was Nihiwatu, a haven for surfers, sun seekers and scuba divers that never strays far from the original humanitarian ethos.

The Sumba Foundation, co-founded by the Graves, has renovated or rebuilt six local schools, erected seven medical clinics that serve more than 15,000 people, provided 200 villages with clean drinking water and thousands of local kids with all the supplies they need for school. Nihiwatu strictly adheres to a policy of 95 percent local staff and stimulates other economic opportunity by sourcing much of its food and building materials locally.

“For many years, no one gave us the time of day,” says Graves. “In fact, every bank and hotel developer we approached for help — and even our friends — thought we were insane for trying to make this work in Sumba instead of mainstream Bali. We have put what seems like a lifetime into this project, and at times we really were close to losing it all. For Petra and I to see our dream of creating a tourism venture, one that gives much more than it takes, to see this model of ours to finally be recognized as something special is very satisfying and encouraging,” he adds. “It just goes to show that timing is everything and persevering with a noble cause is well worth it in the end.”