Many major hotel firms with an international presence put a heavy emphasis on global standards of service, operations, amenities and rooms. Combined with product branding, what often results is a relatively indistinguishable hotel experience, instigating a sort of déjà vu effect in anyone who has seen enough of them. Globe-trotting business people find themselves waking up in a hotel room in London that is identical to last week’s hotel room in New York and eerily similar to last month’s hotel room in Buenos Aires. For those with enough experience in these big-box hotels, they all start to blend together, and even the feng shui starts to flow in the same rhombic way. My tone here might sound like one of aversion to this homogeneity, but it’s only out of preference for a different approach. The emphasis on standards is of course reasonable and has its benefits: guests are not thrown by inconsistencies; their comforts and preferences are reliably tended to; hospitality organizations can streamline project development and design. But an alternative approach, favored by travelers who seek to connect authentically with their destinations, is a tip of the hat to the immediate surroundings; a fusion of the salient hospitality experience with the more ethereal cultural and environmental elements of the host locale.
We call this a sense of place. It’s the practice of incorporating the local environment into the design, décor, products and activities of the property itself, through the use of local materials, for instance, or the integration of local styles and motifs. It means walking into that resort in Argentina and not forgetting you’re in Argentina, but rather being reminded, not of last year’s trip to that other hotel in that other town, but of this trip, here, now.
“Eco-tourism,” as I’ll label it here, lends itself most readily to providing destinations with a sense of place. In fact, if operating in earnest, tourism organizations that function with community and/or ecology at heart are inextricable from delivering a sense of place. Establishments that are built with the intent of genuinely participating in environmentally and socially responsible operations tend to showcase their destinations throughout the very fabric of their structures. Rather than coddling their guests in familiar replications of destinations past, they highlight the uniqueness of the immediate surroundings, grounding the guest in the present moment and environment. Tahitian resorts featuring stilted bungalows with glass floors through which fish can be seen; suites made of mud and thatch overlooking Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater; Kettuvalam houseboats in the Indian backwaters of Kerala where guests are rocked to sleep by the ripples of the backwaters themselves: These are all examples of places with a good sense.
It’s not the case, however, that maintaining a sense of place predicates responsible tourism activities. In fact, some establishments, beautiful embodiments of the places where you’ll find them, are in some way detrimental to the local peoples and environments. Pointing no fingers here, resorts and hotels that invite travelers to partake in and celebrate their exotic, species-rich locations can often degrade the ecology of their destination by virtue of their very construction. After this, their operations can be pollutant, wasteful and exploitative.
I’m reminded of an “eco-tour” I went on in Thailand – one of those island-hopping day-trips – where they actually provided travelers with food to feed the wild monkeys and trudged with motorboats through low-tide waters, damaging the very reefs people went there to see (and where, while snorkeling, I found a 50 baht note on the ocean floor: the only litter I’ve ever encountered that didn’t break my heart).
So it’s important to strike a balance between showcasing the destination of focus and maintaining a high degree of sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of that location. It’s in everyone’s interest – the traveler, the tourism establishment and the local community and environment – to preserve these exotic places in our attempts to put them on the map as desirable places to visit, although I’m probably preaching to the choir with that one. Organizations like Raxa Collective are ahead of the curve in recognizing this win-win-win equation. They foster exquisite experiences for travelers that, in educating said travelers, actually benefit the destination and the people who live there through conservation and sustainable enterprise. By connecting guests with the delicate environments that they’re celebrating in genuinely enriching ways, these organizations’ endeavors are permeated with a sense of place. And by contributing to the preservation of these locations and the lasting livelihoods of the communities who live there, they do it with a sensibility of place as well.