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Destination Taste: Subjective Top 12 Gay Honeymoon Spots

Greetings from Singapore where I just finished coordinating (and moderating) Condé Nast Traveler’s 4th Annual World Savers Congress.  This bustling and constantly changing city-state is a must stop over for a Southeast Asian holiday—#5 on My Supremely Subjective List for Destination Wedding on my new column at GayWeddings.com.  Check out what else made the list.  CLICK HERE.

Just a little gay in Singapore's Botanic Gardens

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Green Globe Trekker: Little Elephant that Could

Today on Green Globe Trekker: JP gets a lesson in the Power of One from a little South African elephant-hero named Jabulani.

Camp Jabulani Lounge

Several years ago I found myself in the midst of an elephant herd in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, part of a TV series I was producing for Condé Nast Traveler.  I was so mesmerized by the tender and sweet familial interaction of the giant animals, that we turned off the cameras, not wanting to interrupt their routine—or more importantly trigger big Mama’s protective instinctive over her babies.  It’s one of those powerful moments that stays with you for a lifetime.

Given the economic power of South Africa’s safari tourism industry, it’s no surprise then that innovative lodges, like the one I staid in Ulusaaba, are perennial favorites in the category of Wildlife Preservation in the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Awards.  But this year’s winner, Camp Jabulani, has a particularly sweet “birth” story involving a lost little elephant that went onto become the “breadwinner” for a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.

The wildlife center helps rehabilitate cheetahs

Adine Roode, Managing Director, of the property will be on the panel I am moderating on Oct. 20 called “To Preserve and Protect” at the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singpore.  She managed to take some time away from the bush to speak with me about how much she and her family and employees have learned about the importance of wildlife preservation.

“Thirteen years ago, an injured baby elephant came to our rehabilitation center, and we hand raised and tried to release him on reserve.  And it didn’t work.  He wanted to stay with the humans who were now his herd.  And then 8 years ago, we had the opportunity to rescue some other elephants, endangered by war.  When we brought them here from Zimbabwe—no easy task—our little elephant Jabulani took to them immediately.  It was beautiful.  Taking care of elephants is quite a heavy burden.  So we decided to build a separate camp around the elephants to generate income to support them–as well as our cheetah program.  And so Camp Jabulani was born.”

Much of the time we think of wildlife as being endangered by poachers and farmers, but this case was even more complicated.

“War instability was a part of the problem.  Zimbabwe war veterans took over the land there, and they were demolishing the land for the food.  They wanted to destroy the elephants.  We stepped in and brought them to South Africa.  It was a very tight schedule and complicated operation—no video or photos because the war veterans were quite tense.  The whole thing was controversial—a lot of people do say that there are enough elephants—why bring them over?  People say, ‘why don’t you just shoot the animals?  It’s easy to talk a lot, but you have to stand before that animal and make a decision.  And it’s not easy.  It’s difficult.  I have a passion and wherever there’s life, I will still fight for that.”

Today, the benefits of that fight are comng to life.  Camp Jabulani operates 2 safaris a day with the elephants, even though it would have easier to send Jabulani to one of the many zoos that initially wanted him.

“I love seeing Jabulani happy and a have a chance to have a herd.  An elephant doesn’t want to be on its own.  It wants a herd structure.  And that’s what we provided.  It’s funny, it’s supposed to be that humans must take of the earth and animals.  But here, the animals take care of humans—generating incomes for all the families here.”

Even the waste of the elephants is put to use in creating jobs.

“We use elephant dung paper.  And we sell that paper.  It’s part of the job creation—we have a lot of elephant dung but we’re able to put people to work to make it useful to us in so many ways.   I take that paper all over the world making sales calls because people can’t believe it when they smell it.  It’s part of the education program for schools and children to teach them about recycling how to make these things.”

The outreach to the local community doesn’t just stop at an education program.  Real decisions made on the property help create even more employment opportunities.

“Take for example on the reserve.  There are a lot of easier ways to do bush clearing, but we think it’s better to get farm workers and dig manually, that way you feed a family.  There are easier ways with machines that could do the work but at end of day you have to support the local community.”

Adine hopes her passion and enthusiasm spreads far beyond her reserve’s borders.

“It’s important to realize that one person can make a difference.  There are no boundaries for a person—everyone can make a difference.  Like now, we are bringing in the schools and locals, to educate them.  Once they see a cheetah in our endangered species program, they understand more.  The importance of wildlife becomes part of their daily life.”

And to think it all started with the power of one little elephant—who’s now a World Saver.

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Green Globe Trekker: Blue Bahama Mama

Today on Green Globe Trekker: Jon Paul dives into Bahama coral reef preservation with Kerzner Marine Foundation’s Debra Erickson.

I’ll admit that sometime in February—during the deepest, darkest of New York’s seemingly never-ending winter—I’m tempted by the advertisements to book an affordable getaway to Atlantis Bahamas.  But then I wonder how I can support such an enormous property operating near ecologically sensitive areas like coral reefs?  After speaking with Debra Erickson, Executive Director of Kerzner Marine Foundation, who will be part of the panel I’m moderating at the Oct. 20 Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singapore, I’m happy to report that environmental degradation is not an issue that the company is ignoring—but tackling head-on.

“All of our properties are built near beautiful marine ecosystems, and we realized that if we want them to be around in 20 years or so, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of them.  So the company established the Kerzner Marine Foundation five years ago to foster the preservation and enhancement of marine environments.”

 

Kerzner Marine Foundation's Debra Erickson dives deep in her support of marine preservation

 

Debra seems to be the right person to head up that mission—she has a long background in overseeing effective social responsibility programs for organizations as diverse as the San Diego Zoo and Anheuser-Busch.

“One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is that if you want to make a long term impact on ground, small discreet donations just don’t do it.  So, at the Kerzner Marine Foundation we fund a program for three years.  Right now, we’re in the second year of a three-year program to protect the coral reefs in the Bahamas.  It’s a multi-prong approach that involves doing scientific evaluation and education outreach.”

The program to which Debra is referring is ambitious—involving a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust.  The ultimate goal is to greatly increase the size of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) on the west side of the largest island in The Bahamas, Andros, which has some of the most spectacular and intact marine habitats left in that area.

Debra believes that the ultimate success of a preservation project depends on the partnership with a local NGO—she has definite take on what it means to “go local.”

“One of key things I ask when evaluating funding for a program is, ‘Who is going to lead the project?’  Before we give any money, I fly to the project site and spend at least two days, ask to speak to local government officials, making sure that NGO has support, interacting with community leaders to see who supports the project and their level of interest.  I can pretty much tell in the first ½ day if what the organization says their going to accomplish is going feasible.  The key is always how involved are locals in project?  A lot of Western NGOs go overseas, make a lot of promises, and then the project is done.  They go back to where they came from and didn’t develop an infrastructure or leave funding that phases out over time that’s going to keep the project going.  If I don’t locals, and if the plan has no one locally getting a salary, I won’t fund it.  You have to think about locals.”

Like many others in the travel industry, Kerzner and their properties are trying to figure out how to engage their customers in the challenge of preservation.  But Debra sees it as an opportunity.

“One of the advantages we have over others in the industry is our incredible aquarian interaction program that really changes people’s lives by putting them in contact with wildlife.  We’re trying to figure out how then you ask them to take the next step and contribute to a program that helps save the coral reef.  A lot of people want to contribute—I do get checks from guests who want to help.  We are working on a way to engage guests in a more structured way.”

We’ll dive—pun obviously intended—much deeper into these issues with this “Blue Bahama Mama” on our panel in Singapore.  For now, I’ll keep Atlantis on the list of possible last minute winter escapes.

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Green Globe Trekker: Shampoo Down Under

Today on Green Globe Trekker: Jon Paul travels Down Under to Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke to explore the travel industry’s dirty secret—shampoo.

I wear my love for Australia on my sleeve—literally.  An image of the famed Sydney Opera House forms part of a tattoo sleeve on my right shoulder.  So it’s no surprise that I’m thrilled by the cutting edge eco-luxe efforts of Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke.  The property won Condé Nast Traveler’s World Savers Award in the Preservation Environmental and/or Cultural category, and General Manager Gary Stickland will be appearing on my panel at the Oct. 20 World Savers Congress in Singapore.  We recently discussed a dirty little travel industry problem—mini-shampoo bottles.

Those little plastic amenity bottles of lotions and hair products are quite the source of conversation—and frustration—in the hotel industry.  While most recognize them as a detriment to the environment, many properties are unwilling to eliminate them for fear of upsetting guests and a claim that there are not better options.

 

Alto's soap dispenser has raised no eyebrows

 

Alto placed a nice dispenser next to the vanity and in the shower, but even the boss Gary was suspect when he took over as General Manager.

“My first thought as a hotelier was that’s not going to work. But surprisingly, there’s been no feedback about it.  The contents that we use are same grade and quality—so it’s not that we’re skimping on quality.  I think a majority of guests have their own.  And when you start to run the numbers, it saves a significant amount of waste.  With about 25,000 rooms in Melbourne, on average about 10,000 bottles of shampoo are going into landfills every month—filled with chemical waste content.  Multiply that across the globe and you get a sense of the problem—we can’t afford to ignore it.”

Still, the problem remains unsolved and complicated by issues of security—would some crazy person pour toxic chemicals inside the shampoo and the next thing you know you’re blonde?  We’re definitely tackling this issue on the panel.

In addition to the shampoo solution, Alto Hotel on Bourke has a number of other cutting edge eco-initiatives including being Australia’s first carbon neutral hotel and providing guest key cards made from biodegradable cornstarch.  No wonder Al Gore’s environmental team took note and used the hotel as base camp during an important conference.

Not to say they’ve solved every problem, including the off-color issue of toilet paper.

“Finding the right quality toilet paper that is sustainable and also appears nice and white and bright is a problem.  A lot of the recycled post consumer waste or bamboo sugar cane products still appear grey.  And guest perception is they want white and fluffy.  But we’re not giving up.”

So has being so eco-forward been a competitive advantage for the property?

“Maybe right now with some of our corporate clients who know about what we’re doing and want to be supportive as part of their policies.  But I don’t see it as a long term competitive advantage because I hope that other hotels will be doing same type of things or a lot more.  Think of it this way.  Would you stay anywhere where you can’t have Internet?  No.  Today, web access is standard practice.  But it wasn’t always so.  Sustainability will one day be the same.”

For the sake of the planet, let’s hope that’s true.  But first we have to find a way to wash that shampoo right out of the room.

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Green Globe Trekker: Trashy Thoughts

Today on Green Globe Trekker: The politics of global travel industry trash is trickier than JP imagined.

Grand Hyatt Santiago developed a innovative recycling program benefitting local non-profits

Lately, as I fall asleep, trashy thoughts have been filling my head.  For that, I thank Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.  Not because of any particular steamy hotel fantasies, but because of a conversation I had with their head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Brigitta Witt.  We spoke because Brigitta is part the panel I am moderating in Singapore at the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress on Oct. 20.  Our discussion is titled “To Preserve and Protect—Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  I wondered about the challenges a global operation like Hyatt might have vs. a smaller outfit like Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality that I wrote about previously.

What I got was a lesson in trash—the complexity of recycling, to be exact.

“We operate in 45 different countries.  Even in the United States, what a hotel in San Francisco can do is different than what one in Wichita can do.  Our hotels in San Francisco can recycle all of their waste, they can compost, because they have the support of the city and municipality.  Hotels in a lot of other places have a tremendous challenge in recycling—it takes a lot of infrastructure to pick up tons of glass.  Some cities don’t have a program, or even businesses to support us.  Even in California, we have hotels that physically must transport the waste on their own to a recycling center, because we can’t find someone to hire to do it.  Then the economy takes a dive, and it becomes too expensive to recycle because no one even wants it.  If we face that in just the United States, imagine what it’s like in other parts of the world.”

But all is not lost.  As Brigitta explained, even in cities or countries without a culture (or business) of recycling, hotel employees are coming up with inventive solutions.

“At our fairly large property in Santiago the employees were frustrated that they couldn’t recycle.  There was no recycling service spearheaded by city.  The hotel put out tons of glass and aluminum and paper every single week.  Our team there came up with a great idea—organize local charities that help children and families to come by once or twice per week and take the waste to local centers, and the charities get all the money.  It was a perfect solution for everyone.”

In fact, the team has been able to divert approximately 110 metric tons of waste from local landfills per year while helping local organization like Cenfa, which helps families in need, and Coaniquem, which works with child burn victims.  Now with a grant from Hyatt’s corporate office, the hotel is working with a non-profit called Fundacion Casa de la Paz to give the community a new waste management system and educate them about the importance of recycling.

At the panel, Brigitta will have much more to say about that despite the challenges of measuring carbon emissions and energy usage at various hotels around the globe—Hyatt is committed to reducing both by 25% (they even post their progress on their website).

For me, no more complaining about the extra clear recycling bag I have to drag to my NYC curb every Tuesday.

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Green Globe Trekker: Costa Rican Eco-Luxe

Today on Green Globe Trekker: A preview of upcoming Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress panelist—Hans Pfister of Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.

A few months after Chef and I started dating in 2000, we went our separate ways for winter holidays—family in Mexico City for him; beaches of Costa Rica for me.  It was my introduction to Chef’s overactive imagination.

“Ay, just be careful,” he worried as I kissed him goodbye.

“Costa Rica is a pretty stable, safe country,” I said.

“I’m talking about the dinosaurs!  That’s where the Jurassic Park Island is!”

“Honey, that’s fiction.  And the movie was mostly filmed in Hawaii.”

 

No dinosaurs at Cayuga's Lapa Rios property as far as I can tell

 

On the ground in the very busy Manuel Antonio area, I couldn’t figure out how to get a phone card to work and dial Mexico.  So when I finally did reach Chef, he had been stewing for days—convinced my puddle jumper plane had crashed and I’d been killed by velociraptors.  But I had other things to worry about.  Besides the challenge of reading the tide tables so I could figure out when to climb over the rocks to get to the secluded gay beach (of course), it was one of the first times I remember being worried about tourism development ruining the pristine environment.

If only I’d known about the wonderful small hotel chain company Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.  The group of six eco-hotels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua is the winner of a Condé Nast Traveler 2010 World Savers Award because they are implementing break through social responsibility initiatives in everything from environmental preservation to education programs.  Recently, I have gotten to know so much about them because the President and Co-Owner Hans Pfister is part of the panel I’m moderating at the upcoming Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singapore on October 20.  The title of our discussion is “To Preserve and Protect—Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  And I posed that question to Hans in a pre-interview.

We do have to make certain compromises—we’re not purists.  If you want to attract $500 per night there are certain amenities and comforts that a guest wants.  The challenge is to provide it in a way that’s sustainable and not go overboard.  More importantly, we educate the guest about why they don’t need this luxury thing they might be used to.  We explain to them how we are trying to give them the best of both worlds, and the best way we do that is through our “sustainability tours.”  We offer our guests complimentary tours through our installation—back-of-the-house tours of employee quarters and laundry.  Once they see how much effort goes into reducing water use, decreasing waste, increasing recycling, their appreciation of their stay increases a lot.  The best thing is they take back a lot of ideas that they can implement at home.

 

Jicaro property

 

In the travel industry world, Hans’ belief in talking to guests is more controversial than you might imagine.  Some companies don’t want to engage guests in these discussions for fear of offending or being accused of preaching.  Hans disagrees.

It’s crucial to talk to guests about sustainability; we have to get guests involved.  There should be times when you open that window and let the guests ask questions and get answers that they can use.  Obviously it has to be something interesting—you can’t show them light bulbs and changing sheets.  Show them how you create bio gas, or plant nursery, or take them to a local school to show them your education programs.  Sustainability becomes relevant, entertaining.  You don’t impress anyone by showing them how you change light bulbs.

Bio gas?  A light bulb went off in my head.

At our resort in Lapa Rios we create a lot of organic waste.  It’s in the middle of a rainforest, so hauling it back to a landfill was very inefficient.  One of the employees suggested we could do a simple set-up to create bio gas—so we let him build it.  Basically, the system takes the pig excrement, washes it in a cement area covered with plastic, and the methane gas gets trapped.  It’s connected to PVC tube to the employee kitchen that we use for cooking.  It saves us about $3000 per year in methane gas and we don’t have to transport organic waste to the landfill.  Employees appreciate it.  And believe me, the pigs love it—they eat all organic, like gourmet pigs!

One of the questions I hear over and over in conversations is “Will guests pay more for an eco-friendly luxe experience?”

I think yes, but the other stuff has to be right too.  If you have two equally attractive hotels, right in front of beach and they’re both on the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List or Gold List.  But one of the hotels is telling  guests that it’s doing things right environmentally, and for the community, then I think people are willing to pay more.  I’ve heard that in conversations from guests who visited our property in Manuel Antonio.  That in the end, they decided to stay with us because of our sustainability programs.  But I hope it becomes a different decision—that if you’re NOT sustainable you don’t even play.  Maybe the magazine could create The Black List—the World Trashers Awards.

I promised Hans to take that idea back to the magazine, and I know where Chef and I will be staying on our next visit to Jurassic Park.

 

Arenas del Mar Staff

 

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Green Globe Trekker (Series Premiere)

Today on Alphabet City: JP premieres the new series Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel; first stop gay & green Amsterdam

Sometimes it’s easy for me to overlook the seeds of my interest in green travel, because my bookshelf is filled with pre-teen travel journals that include these hilarious pronouncements:

Age 12, 20 February 1981, London Journal “Today was so exaspirating! (sp)  We got on the plane o.k.  But, they put us in the smoking section!  So, we traded.  The movies were Hopscotch & Raise the Titanic.  The food was awful!  It was a great trip!”

Age 12, 24 December 1981, Canadian Adventure “I was not as impressed with the Four Seasons in Calgary as I was with others.”

Age 13, 16 June 1982, Rhein (sp) River Adventure “I say, you seen one palace, you seen ‘em all”

Dad holding me down

But next to these riveting written accounts of my early life as a travel critic, there’s an old black binder of pictures from a family eco-adventure I will never forget.  Instead of our usual cushy stay at Point Clear, Alabama’s Grand Hotel, my family spent six days white water rafting down the Grand Canyon.  At the time, I was six years old and one of the youngest kids allowed to undertake the semi-dangerous excursion.  Because I was so light in weight (and probably the loafers), my father had to sit on top of me in order to hold me down when we passed through treacherous rapids.

Bio-soapy fun with my sisters

The thing I remember most about the trip is not my mother wrapping her legs around my sister Pam to save her from going overboard—but soap.  Biodegradable soap, mind you.  I was fascinated with the concept that there were special, glycerin cleaning products for use in the muddy waters of the Colorado River.  My sister Paige, a budding environmental advocate who now works for Whole Foods Market, explained to me how important it was to try and leave as little impact on the surroundings as we could—and that included sensitive detergent that didn’t harm the ecosystem.

Queen Rania pumps it up at World Savers Congress

It’s been 35 years since my first taste of green travel, and now I am right back in the thick of it.  For the past four years, I have been advising Condé Nast Traveler on issues of social responsibility and the travel industry, including the planning of the magazine’s annual World Savers Congress.  The conference is a gathering of over 200 leaders of the travel industry designed to celebrate, promote and encourage a range of efforts—from poverty alleviation and health initiatives to environmental and cultural preservation.  Speakers have included everyone from noted economist Jeffrey Sachs to musician-activist Wyclef Jean, from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Queen Rania of Jordan (talk about stylish—staring at her Versace pumps almost got me in security trouble).

At this year’s conference on October 20 in Singapore with keynotes by Academy Award-winners Mira Sorvino (UN Goodwill Ambassador advocating against human-trafficking) and Louie Psihoyos (environmental activist and Director The Cove), I will be moderating the panel  “To Preserve and Protect: Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  Joining me will be Debra Erickson, Executive Director of the Kerzner Marine Foundation; Hans Pfister, President and Co-owner of Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality; Adine Roode, Managing Director of South Africa’s Camp Jabulani; Gary Stickland of Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke; and Brigitta Witt, Vice President Environmental Affairs, Hyatt Hotels Corporation.  I’m excited to dig into some important questions like how can big corporation scale up the amazing green advancements made by small hotels and lodges.  And perhaps, more importantly, how does (or should) a company communicate to consumers their commitment to these causes?

Some question whether the travel industry, thanks to its expansion, is responsible for killing the planet.  But visionary Virgin mogul Richard Branson tackled this thorny question rather well at a recent luncheon hosted by Condé Nast Traveler at the Council on Foreign Relations.  “I don’t think asking people to hold back progress is the way to deal with global warming.  Rather, we should all invest a percentage of our profits in energy that is clean.”  Whatever my feelings about Branson’s braggadocio, he is an innovator that is leading the way on clean aircraft fuel development.

Fellow Brit Tony Blair backed up Branson’s belief in the tourism industry being a positive force, albeit from a completely different standpoint.  Mr. Blair made a very powerful and forceful argument for tourism development as being critical to the Middle East peace process in helping Palestine achieve a viable economic state.  Blair in-person has that Bill Clinton-effect of mesmerizing an audience.  I hung on his every word.  At times, I wondered if maybe I had seen Love Actually too much, equating the real Blair with Hugh Grant’s version.  Regardless, by the end of his impassioned plea, I was ready to write a check and become an investor in a hotel in Gaza—for the sake of the planet.

Given my interest and knowledge of sustainable travel issues, I thought maybe it was time to start writing about it on ABCityblog.  So when the Holland Tourist Board asked me if I’d like to find out if it was true what their ad campaign proclaims—Everyone’s Gay in Amsterdam—I queerly said yes.  I have had some memorable, sexy times in Holland’s eco-friendly capital.  So what a perfect place to combine gay style and green travel in my new series of columns I’m calling “Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel.”

So stay tuned while I try to prove Kermit the Frog wrong—in this day and age it should be easy and fun and chic being green.

Let’s just hope that throughout this journey there are copious amounts of biodegradable soap.

The dawn of the Green Globe Trekker

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