Jake Kheel of Puntacana Resort on Being a Luxury Ecotourism Trailblazer

Punta Cana, the super-sized 30,000-room resort town that plays host to most visitors to the Dominican Republic, doesn't sound like much of a model for sustainable tourism. But the area's first resort, Puntacana Resort and Club, is beating a greener path, with an ecological foundation and environmental research center that have undertaken a range of promising initiatives, from local schooling to coral conservation. In an awards ceremony in Brazil last week, Puntacana became the first Caribbean organization to receive the Tourism for Tomorrow Award from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Jake Kheel, the head of the Ecological Foundation, spoke to me about the resort's commitment to sustainability, how a single company can spread ecotourism ideas among other hotels and governments, and Oscar de la Renta's fondness for bees.TreeHugger: Ted Kheel, your grandfather and the founder of Puntacana, was a famous labor mediator before he turned his sights to environmental sustainability (even at 95, he's still lobbying for limits on cars in Manhattan and free subway rides; he once tried to build a kind of green Xanadu on the Upper East Side). Can you talk about how Puntacana began and Ted's vision of ecological stewardship.

Ted bought this property here with another group of investors in the '60's and '70's. They didn't have any vision for anything in terms of what to do with the land, the plan for development, much less an idea of environmental stewardship. What happened was they slowly developed this ethos over time for a number of different reasons, one being that they got to the land early enough that it wasn't heavily impacted when they arrived. They didn't want to destroy the place. They didn't have the means means to destroy it even if they wanted to -- they wouldn't have been able to come in with fleets of bulldozers.

When [the Grupo] sold land to Club Med, that necessitated building the airport, and getting into the airport business. Soon, more businesses started coming, more hotels started setting up shop. Around 1991 or so, Ted got involved with the Earth Summit in Rio -- the first UN conference on the environment and development. He stumbled in on his own. The way he found this topic was interesting. His whole career, you know, was built on conflict resolution. He was a lawyer and a mediator. At Rio, he saw this conflict between the environment and development as something that was relevant to his particular set of skills. And he saw a way this could be done in sustainable development. So naturally it made sense to apply that into a place when you have a project that needs it.

His partner Frank Rainieri, the Dominican, was a little more inherently drawn towards social and community development -- how do you help poor people get a better life from less resources. Between the two of them, it was a strong fit. In their own ways, they were developing this property and they both came at this idea of sustainability in their own way, and over time it continually validated itself.

From a business perspective, it made strategic sense for distinguishing us from others. It made sense in terms of cost savings. And then they found better reasons to do it. Technology came along, better ways of saving money. I don't think they one day woke up and said, "the environment!" or that they originally came into this and said we're going to develop this important resort here and we'd better take care of the environment.

There's a lot of practices that we don't agree with, we sort of see as a first phase. We're trying to show examples of how you can do it, without really criticizing other people. We hope they can learn from what we're doing.

Do you see that the motivations for sustainable tourism development have changed?

From what I've seen, from what we've been doing here, there are four really good reasons to do sustainable development.

The first, the host country and the government and its regulatory bodies enforces it and requires you to do it. In developing countries that's less common. In the Dominican Republic, that's really just starting to happen now. It's like a hammer over your head and you must comply.

Another reason, and the reason many companies decide to do it, is your image. More and more today, the public and consumers and possibly homeowners-- how you live somewhere without destroying the environment. That creates a better looking company.

Related to that is the idea of efficiency. Changing light bulbs, installing automatic sensors to turn off lights, those are cost saving measures that make a lot of sense, especially in hotels. If you can bring costs down, that can mean a huge savings. There are more opportunities to adopt certain technologies and practices. And getting into better technology that puts your business ahead of the curve, that can make your company more competitive.

A lot of what we're doing is validating a lot of the reasons to do it. We're saying we're commited to this stuff, try to use it to advance our image, to save money, and take advantage of all the possible new technologies that we can. In terms of regulatory issues, we're trying to set an example to the Dominican Republic.

Just recently a hotel in the area running at 90 percent occupancy was shut down because they weren't treating their water. They were dumping it into a nearby lagoon. This was publicized all over the country. It's bad for the whole region, and that's not what we want at all.

Does watching what those other hotels in the vicinity are doing make you cringe a bit?

There's a lot of practices that we don't agree with, that we sort of see as a first phase. We're trying to show examples of how you can do it, without really criticizing other people. We hope they can learn from what we're doing.

There is certainly a real lack of planning. That's the fault of government and the fault of private investors. It's lawlessness. But there are also really positive examples, like adopting local schools, trying to get different certifications from "green hotel" programs. There are vestiges of these things happening more and more. I think the more companies that recognize the importance of this, the more competitive we become.

As an environmentalist, you have to be a tragic optimist, committed to idea that people are going to come around on this stuff and things will get better. There are some pretty bad examples but some pretty hopeful things happening as well. The hotels are starting to take leadership positions, the government is getting stronger...

How so?

The president recently named his former vice president for his first term as secretary for the environment. They're not bringing in some secondary player, but a guy with real pull. And the president gave more resources to his division.

The environmental secretary has a whole other ability to get things done, and a strong background in the environment. He went around recruiting more business leaders to take care of these national parks. The president of our company was the first person to be named an administrator of one of the national parks. They're doing different activities, tightening up regulation of the laws. Two years ago it was impossible to imagine that a hotel could be shut down because they weren't treating their water correctly.

someone said that greenwashing is actually really good, but only if you get caught doing it. Because if you get caught, then you have to go the extra mile to prove you are green. These organic certifications and clothes, home care products, efforts to unify those certifications -- I think that the companies that [go green] and are committed to it will stand out on their own. And it can't just be about image. Then you're only going to do the least amount possible and only do a superficial job of it. It has to also be about good business.

Your resort seems not just more interested in ecological practices than most, but also in preservation and conservation. Can you talk about those projects?

We're not a national park, we're a development company. But you have to have a balance with what I call green areas. We're pretty careful about having fully protected areas that we don't develop on, and also have guidelines for how we do develop.

You can't put a wall around your whole property. But one of the big things we've done is reserve 1,500 acres just for the ecological preserve. We're trying to maintain those areas for conservation of species -- birds, lizards, iguanas, the local species. And you want to provide for recreation also. We have an ecological reserve where you can go for hikes, and really check out the biodiversity.

And then we do scientific research, studying biology of different species, bioinformatics, and so on. And then we do some actual species conservation. We've been working with endangered coral species like Elkhorn and Staghorn coral, which are on the IUCN list. We are taking those species that have fallen off the reef or been damaged by storms and collect pieces of these species and put them on these corals. We put the corals on racks and let them grow out, and then we replant them on the reef. There's also an iguana restoration project. The last one we're doing right now is working on an endangered bird species. We're working with the ornithological society here to protect these highly endangered hawks, of which there are 200 individuals left found in one national park here. It's called the Ridgeway's Hawk. We do selective reintroductions. But this must be done principally on private properties. In national parks and any public space, they are really thratented because people will shoot them.

So we do real hands-on species protection, restoration projects, but we also have guiding principles that keep green spaces and limit our development.

When it comes to conservation, how large a part do moral or ethical concerns play for Puntacana's board?

Through our foundation; defensible foundation work; we always try to bring in the thread of tourism into this. We ask ourselves, how do we get people involved? The project with the birds, for example -- we've applied for funding and we got some from the USDA -- is to create this academy for bird tourism that teaches local kids about birds, gives them some kind of living besides working in a hotel kitchen. And there's a huge market for tourists to come in to countries to see certain species. And that creates local jobs. And in the process we look good. We get to bring toruists out to do something that's totally unique. And eventually it could be the kind of thing that becomes a guiding business. For a company like us, its a very low investment, with a really good plus for our image. And we're taking care of very charismatic animals, getting people to adopt the birds. With a little effort we can have a huge impact.

Page 2: Kheel on how luxury can be green, celebrity residents, and the need for deep changes in ecotourism

Tags: Celebrities | Coral Reefs | Tourism

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