Assuming that development will continue in fragile coastal regions, the question was whether we could promote responsible development that potentially mitigates negative impacts. For example, those that restore wetlands rather than eliminate them; that promote waste reduction instead of increase pollution; that hire community members rather than displacing the locals; these are the kinds of projects that should be supported.
Fortunately, such projects exist. To learn more about this niche industry, we focused our initial research on Playa Viva, a resort in the early stages of development near Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Playa Viva is promoting an innovative approach to development that goes a step beyond sustainable and incorporates regenerative development goals. In other words, they are restoring distressed land, in this case a palm plantation, back to its native landscape. The plan is to create a low-impact resort and residential community that can finance restoration and conservation.
Last July we had the chance to visit Playa Viva. While we were there we met the onsite management team to see how well the project actually matched its proposed responsible development goals. We met with Playa Viva’s green architect Michel Lewis, to look over development plans and site renderings. He showed us casita test structures and restoration activities of one of the coastal lagoons. We also met with Odin Ruiz, Playa Viva’s permaculturalist. He is actively re-vegetating the palm plantation with native species, and is reintroducing ancestral Mayan terracing for sustainable agriculture. We also had the opportunity to participate in a sea turtle release at the community-run turtle sanctuary.
During our visit, we thought about how we would go about evaluating Playa Viva’s development plans and what environmental and social criteria could be measured, particularly at such an early stage in development. The project became the case study upon which we built our methodology for evaluating responsible tourism developments. The field trip and sunset surf sessions provided a nice break from our laptops and Excel, and reaffirmed our hunch that we were working in the right industry.
A recently released article, "Good Preachers: Students' eco-tourism firm to fund guilt-free travel", highlights some of the additional work Coastal EcoVentures and Playa Viva are doing to support investment in and travel to sustainable tourism developments.