Eco-tourism is a growing force in the travel industry. Here are some of the things that are driving that demand.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a well-known environmental activist, so it was little surprise when the world’s media publicized his plans to transform Blackadore Caye, his 104-acre unpopulated island off the coast of Belize, into a luxury resort.

Apparently, he first set eyes on the island a decade ago and bought it with a partner for a reported $1.75 million. Once work is complete in 2018, it will house luxury villas and all the frills associated with 5-star hospitality in one of the most beautiful corners of the globe.

But there appears to be more to this venture than financial gain. He said in news reports: “The main focus is to do something that will change the world. I couldn’t have gone to Belize and built on an island and done something like this, if it weren’t for the idea that it could be ground breaking in the environmental movement.”

Plans for Restorative Island, as it will be known, show a large raised platform that stretches in an arc over the water with artificial reefs underneath. The island will grow indigenous plants to support a manatee conservation area, and mangrove trees will be replanted. This vision is the result of 18 months of work from a team of designers, scientists, engineers and landscape architects but this labor of love extends beyond that. Following a decade-long search for the perfect hotel operator to partner with, DiCaprio settled on Restorative Islands, which is owned by Delos founder Paul Scialla, the company that founded the WELL building standard. Together, they are positioning this as a rating tool for wellness in the same way LEED/BREEAM, etc. serve environmental sustainability.

While the WELL accreditation is still new to the hotel industry—its implementation is a growing trend as developers, operators and consumers alike become more conscious of responsible travel—the concept of an environmentally sustainable hotel is not.

Aside from DiCaprio, Marlon Brando conceived something similar in Tahiti and, while relatively well known, we’ve also had the experience of Soneva and Six Senses in Asia for a number of years with their eco-resorts. Australia, Caribbean, Central America, North America, Scandinavia and the Alps are also markets where eco-resorts have been created; in truth, they can be found on all continents.

Who’s driving these resorts?
From luxury resorts championed by wealthy individuals, to the back to basics eco-lodges that promote community living, eco-travel caters to all budgets. Yet, it’s affluent travelers who are driving the larger scale resort developments. According to a 2012 Four Seasons survey of luxury travel trends, “the affluent put much more thought into their purchasing decisions to determine whether a product or service will intrinsically improve their lives.”

When it comes to developing such high-end resorts, funding often comes from private wealth. This obviously comes with risk for individual investors, so, in order to generate a buzz and ideally pre-sales, developers must secure a level of pre-commitment. A celebrity endorsement is one way to achieve this.

While there are some savvy entrepreneurs who remain true to the eco-friendly spirit, others will simply play lip service and are interested only in the commercial returns.

Ultimately, the hotel industry is driven by consumer behavior, and the green trend has swept the hospitality sector. What is clear is there is a growing consciousness of the need to protect these beautiful locations, rather than paving them over with cookie-cutter, or environmentally destructive, resorts.

Perhaps luxurious eco-resorts are a good way to avoid this destructive trend by developing beautiful locations in such a way that they remain special for years to come.

What makes a hotel ‘eco’?

A carefully selected site: It must take advantage of positive local features, such as proximity to sustainable transport, rather than requiring people to fly in. Eco-sites must not destroy areas with endangered species, high-value agricultural land, etc.

A holistic design and delivery: The process must consider the full lifecycle costs, not just up-front costs. For example, it might cost more up front to make the building efficient in terms of water, waste, recycling and energy, but these can pay for themselves over the lifecycle of the asset. Also, it’s something which takes into consideration other macro-trends such as climate change. What happens to your luxury resort if hurricanes, floods, coastal erosion or sea level rise continue? And the project must be managed well to maintain the design goals. For example, don’t design an eco-hotel and then serve unsustainably fished seafood in the restaurant.

A positive impact on the community: This might include helping to bring renewable energy investment to a remote area, which might not otherwise happen without the support of a developer. Or to create jobs for locals.

By Bob Merrigan and Matthew Clifford, HotelNewsNow columnists