Mr. Vincenz A. SchmackThis month ECOCLUB interviews a veteran of ecotourism in Costa Rica, Mr Vinzenz A. Schmack, owner and president of Laguna del Lagarto Lodge, a small 20 room Eco-lodge at the edge of 500 hectares of tropical rain-forest in the northern Zone of Costa Rica.

ECOCLUB: How did you end up as an Ecolodge owner?
Vinzenz A. Smack: I am a professional banker and bought in 1981 out of a foreclosure 110 hectares of rain forest. Originally I wanted to cut it down and convert the land in agricultural use. At that time there were no restrictions to cut down a rain forest and the word ecology was not yet known in Costa Rica. Fortunately the lack of infrastructure and the high expenses involved refrained me from doing so. During the search to convert my newly acquired land into some profitable use, a friend suggested me to go into tourism. So I built in 1992, - after 2 years of experimenting with a small 4 room unit -the 20 room Hotel Laguna del Lagarto Lodge.
La Laguna del Lagarto

E: What is the main quality distinguishing an ecolodge from all other tourist accommodation establishments.
VS: An Eco lodge should be in a remote area or at least away from the mass tourist centers, should be relatively small (around 50 rooms maximum), should offer comfortable but relative simple rooms and facilities and its main attraction should be nature and not state of the art artificial ingredients, like tennis, golf, Jacuzzi TV in the rooms etc. Quite often you find very sophisticated “Eco Hotels” which charge $150 and more per room. I question whether such luxury Hotels should still be put in the category of “Eco Hotels”. If the philosophy is to go back to nature, my opinion is that an eco tourist should be prepared to give up, at least for some nights, all the luxury and accept comfortable but simple facilities for the enjoyment of nature.

E: What is your view of ecolodge certification, particularly in relation to the Costa Rican experience?
VS: In general, a good and serious certification is very valuable in order to distinguish the Eco Lodges from other Hotels. The Certification for Sustainable Tourism www.sustainable-tourism.co.cr
as issued by the Tourist Office ICT in Costa Rica, is a very good and serious program but it goes in many ways overboard. Just to mention one example, in order to comply with all the requisites you will have to produce 32 written plans, manuals and policies. It does not make a distinction between a big city hotel and a small hotel in the country. It also got too much entangled with bureaucracy. It takes more than a year to go through all the process. Also, the fact that since 1998, when the program was introduced, only 58 Hotels were evaluated and out of these 58 Hotels none received the level 5 certification, the highest, only 4 received the level 4 certification and 13 the level 3 certification, shows that the program is too strict, too theoretical oriented with no practical ingredients and some requirements just do not make sense

E: What were the main reasons that Costa Rica developed as an ecotourism destination?
VS: Costa Rica, as a small country has the highest area of the total territory under absolute protection, 17 % are National Parks and the total area under forests represents about 40% of its territory. Due to the fact that it is the smallest link between North and South America, the greatest variety and density of birds, insects, plants and trees are found here. Costa Rica has 5% of all the bio diversity of the world. Due to its good infrastructure, all the beautiful nature resorts are easily accessible.

E: What are the main problems facing Costa Rican ecolodge owners in your view?
VS: In Costa Rica tourism is polarized to a couple of well advertised but overcrowded areas, like Monteverde, _Tortuguero, Manuel Antonio, just to mention a few. The eco tourism is largely monopolized by large travel agencies, ecological institutions and research stations who own their own lodges and of course bring the tourists primarily to them. In the official tourist publications only the large luxury Hotels and resorts can afford to advertise. The small independent eco-lodges receive little or no support at all from the government or the tourist bureau.

E: Who is your typical guest at La Laguna del Lagarto, if there is one?
VS: We have no typical guests. All our guests are people who love nature and want to experience it through a close and direct contact. For this they are willing to bear the inconveniences of a partially bad road and occasional the bite of a mosquito.

E: What is the funniest incident that has happened at La Laguna del Lagarto? 
VS: There are many funny stories to tell, I just want to mention one: Once a guest asked when is the best time to see a Toucan. I told him , if he goes at 7:00 o´clock. in the garden area where the Pepper grows he will see one. At breakfast he came back furious telling me what kind of a German am I. He was punctually at seven, pointing at his watch, in the area I told him and he did not see a Toucan. I excused myself and told him that the Toucans are Costarricans and they do not take it so exact with the time.

E: Is there anything else you would like to say?
VS: We have labeled all the trees (70) in the garden area with the local, scientific and family name. On the trails we have numbered the trees and in a booklet the names of the trees are listed with their local scientific and family name and their main characteristics. We have also established a “Tree Garden” where we are planting all the trees of the area ,about 400. A guest can buy a tree for $15.- He receives a certificate and will be registered in the tree planters book. The Hotel guarantees the permanent maintenance of the tree.

La Laguna del Lagarto, is an Ecolodge Member of ECOCLUB.
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