Village Nature: Reinventing Sustainable Tourism
Last October I was privileged along with my colleague Ms. Silvia Barbone, Founder of PM4SD (Project Management For Sustainable Development), and FEST Executive Director (Foundation European Sustainable Tourism) to attend the inauguration of Villages Nature.
Silvia and I had visited the site while under construction last May and experiencing the opening of the resort was a unique and unforgettable experience.
Following my first visit I wrote an article titled, ‘Villages Nature: A Potential Game Changer for Sustainable Tourism’ where I began to examine how Villages Nature was meeting the challenges defined in the science of the 9 Planetary Boundaries.
I was very excited to attend the inauguration. The resort had already received recognition by UNEP as one of the most sustainable tourism resorts in the world so I was curious to learn more.
At the inauguration I had the opportunity to discuss with Sue Riddlestone, the founder of One Planet Living and her colleague Julia Hawkins, the bioregional One Planet Living plan that guided the development of this project.
I also had the opportunity for conversation with Walt Disney Imagineers Joe Rohde & Frank Hetherton, along with Thierry Huau who served as the artistic co-director of the Villages Nature project.
As luck would have it Silvia and I actually had four different conversations with Joe Rohde that day running into him at breakfast, in line for the inauguration, having Frank Hetherton bring us over for a conversation at the event, and then another conversation at dinner.
I asked Joe “What were the key goals of Villages Nature and the key design strategies used to accomplish them?”, Joe responded:
“We were trying to create utopian ideal. Often sustainable architecture is executed in designs that are so modern spirited they do not necessarily connect with a broad popular audience. This is a danger, because sustainability will mean nothing unless it is adopted by the broad popular audience.
Our goal was to romanticize sustainability , to make aspirational, to make it approachable, to make it poetic.
We settled on symbolic language that infuses the entire site, One in which circles and fluid forms are used to represent nature, and angular orthogonal forms represent human enterprise. These two are woven through each other to create harmonic compositions. In addition we treated the entire site as a metaphor of a garden. Gardens require our stewardship and care. Imagining the world as a garden allows a picture of nature in which human agency is always present. So landscapes of the park all various exclamations of the idea of gardens, from vast natural forms like an english estate, to formality inspired by french classicism, the the narrative mystery of chinese gardens, and so on.”
From these conversations, I learned that despite no specific attention to the science or framework of the 9 Planetary Boundaries, that Villages Nature was operating with real promise to significantly address all nine of them. Using the One Planet Living Framework, along with the expertise of the Walt Disney Imagineers and other team members like Thierry Haua, it appeared that a new model for sustainable tourism for the world had been born.
From this trip I began to research more, work with the Villages Nature team to do further assessment of their sustainability, and learn more of their process that has achieved such remarkable success.
Last month, along with my colleague Rebecca Tobias, of the Four Worlds International Institute, I made my third, trip to Villages Nature to interview their staff and intentionally spend some time experiencing how their sustainable tourism operations actually worked. I also followed up on the assessment started during my October trip to further evaluate the resort with more objective criteria guided by the One Planet Living Framework, Blue Community strategies, and the GSTC criteria (Global Sustainable Tourism Council).
The following are my key findings and observations.
One Planet Living Framework
The Villages Nature team were guided by the One Planet Living Framework in the design, building, and now operation of the resort.
In short, the One Planet Living program observed that if every person on Earth lived like the average European, where Villages Nature is located, we would need 3 planets to provide the resources to sustain that way of living. If everyone lived like the average North American, we would need 5 or 6 planets. So the challenge to Village Nature was to design, build, and operate the new resort as if their were only resources from one planet. Now that the resort is in operation, the ten One Planet Living Principles and the metrics that are being used to measure success are as follows:
I asked Joe Rohde the question: “In implementing the One Planet Living Framework what successes are you most proud of and what were your greatest challenges in designing with this framework?” His response was:
“The sustainability of the resort itself wasn’t my responsibility per se. It was inherent in the proposal. My job was to transform the resort into a visual expression of its value system. To make it speak through design.
To make it clear to all visitors that they were in a place that was special and that was dedicated to these values of sustainability.”
I found this comment to perhaps be a key of the resorts success. By bringing the values into the design of the resort guests are engaged in the participation of these values with everything they do in the resort.
In regard to the greatest challenge Joe responded:
“It’s one thing to simply follow a vision. It is another to discipline vision with in the requirements of a very strict functional design standard such as that used to inform our sustainability program. The challenge is to not let functionalism overcome the poetics.”
When you visit Villages Nature and have a chance to walk through the Extraordinary Gardens, stroll through the Promenade, or take your friends or family to visit the Legends of the Forest or the BelleVie Farm, I think you will agree that Joe and his team succeeded in meeting this challenge quite well.
From the operational side of the Resort, at my visit last month to Villages Nature, my colleague Rebecca Tobias and I had the opportunity to meet with Marie Balmain upon our arrival.
Ms. Marie Balmain is the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). She explained from her perspective the greatest challenges in design building and operating the resort are one in the same. The challenge is sustaining a corporate culture committed to the sustainability goals as defined in the One Planet Living Framework. Listen to Marie in her own words.
Over three days, we had the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in Villages Nature as guests. I offer a few observations.
The Accommodations - There are a variety of accommodation types to choose from including the Country Premium, the Clan Comfort, and the Cocoon VIP, The accommodations vary in size from one to four bedrooms for anywhere from 2 to 12 people. All accommodations have natural earth tone decor and outdoor decks or patios with views of nature, be it in the woods, the lake, or gardens. They also have highly energy and water efficient appliances along with in room recycling to separate biowaste and packaging. Knowing that one’s accommodations require no air conditioning, are heated by geothermal energy, and that the energy, water, and waste footprint is low makes Villages Nature a great choice for as a sustainable tourism destination.
The Aqualagon -The geothermal hot springs water park reminded me a bit of the geothermal hot springs I experienced in Iceland a year ago. The main difference is that in addition to the outdoor hot springs, the Aqualagon also includes water slides from beginner to advanced levels, the opportunity to be either outdoors or indoors in the geothermal pool, lush indoor vegetation, a wave pool, cafe, and spa. The Aqualagon provides all of this luxury with no carbon emissions from the geothermal source.
BelleVie Farm - We found this to be a great place to have a leisurely breakfast. Whether you choose to visit for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it is truly a farm to table experience. If you time your meal right you can combine the visit to the farm with one of several featured activities including: organic vegetable gardening, animal care, bread and chocolate making, a honey workshop, and much more.
Forest of Legends - After our breakfast at the farm it was a short walk to Forest of Legends. This visit is a must see if you are traveling with children. Forest of Legends is a mythical themed playground which fosters connecting people with nature. It includes zip-line wire activities, rope bridges, and slides for play. There are also workshops to build tree houses and to construct decorative items inspired by nature. The Legends of the Forest interactive show is a fun program which immerses kids in the history of the Forest of Legends and introduces them to the characters who live there. The "Treasure Hunt" was not operating the day we visited but is something I look forward to coming back for. The description of the Treasure Hunt Reads:
"Once upon a time a gateway was opened in the forest. It connects the human world to magical world of the forest and the creatures who swell there. To keep the portal open, you'll have to grab your booklet and solve the riddles and games to gather the five keys. Did you solve them all? Then thanks to you, the gateway between human and the magical world will stay open."
The Lakeside Promenade - This is the heart of the Village where you find the Welcome House to schedule activities, groceries for your full equipped kitchen in your accommodations, a variety of unique shops and several restaurants. Nature and Discoveries was one of my favorite shops which specializes in a variety of nature oriented educational toys, outdoor clothing and equipment, items made from organic materials etc. From the shop, I was presented the gift of a solar system where a remote control turns on the Sun with one button and sets the planets in motion to travel around it with another. At home it is a great way to “space out”.
Lakeside Promenade also offers a variety of restaurants to explore. In fact we found so many good choices it was hard to choose which ones to visit during our short visit. Our solution one night was to share a meal at the gourmet Cepages wine bar known for its local cuisine, then to share a lobster pasta at Vapiano, followed by a dessert of our own making --created from a combination of wine and sweets from the FranPrix supermarket. Visiting the Meunier baker for coffee and pastry is always a good morning start or break later in the day.
The Lakeside Promenade hosts a variety of activities for all ages including a video and gaming arcade escape room and bowling alley. I hadn’t bowled in years but when Rebecca said she wanted to do it and that it was included as an activity in our guest reservation, there was no reason not to. The atmosphere was light hearted and welcoming and we had a great time as well.
The Extraordinary Gardens activity includes Earth, Fire, Air, and Water gardens. We took a tour of the Extraordinary Gardens and found that fruits and vegetables were featured in the Earth Garden. Volcanic rock and a spinning prism to reflect light from the Sun in the Fire Garden. Windmills, wind socks, and bird nests in the Air Garden, and streams and fountains in the Water Garden. In each of the four gardens there was land art and activities to assist children and those young at heart to connect with nature.
My research, experience, and testimonies of others from my first two visits all seemed to suggest that Villages Nature might indeed be one one of the most sustainable tourism resorts in the world.
As a professor, I wanted to get more objective verification than just my observations and good impressions. I invited Villages Nature to participate in a pilot program we had begun for hotel and resort certification. This way I could get some objective analysis as well as comparative data with other leading sustainable tourism hotels we had begun assessments back in Florida, Jamaica and Chile.
The Blue Community assessment includes several evaluation dimensions including:
- How the resort is doing the GSTC criteria (the gold standard for sustainable tourism certification)
- How the resort is doing with each of the 12 blue community strategies designed to protect, enhance and restore coastal habitats and marine environments
- How the resort is responding to the principles of One Planet Living
- How the resort is meeting the challenges of the nine planetary boundaries.
- There are four levels of certification that hotels and resorts can strive to improve.
The results are still being evaluated in more detail for this pilot program.
At this time it is safe to say that Villages Nature scored the highest of any hotel / resort in the pilot program. They met the minimum requirements or exceeded them for all GSTC criteria. While still showing room for improvement Villages Nature scored in the low end of level four of the four levels of assessment, and showed exceptional results in the areas of:
- Support for a Sustainable Culture
- Water Management
- Waste Management
- Responding to the Challenges of the Planetary Boundaries
In conclusion I offer you a few thoughts and impressions from my friends and colleagues who visited Villages Nature with me:
“Villages Nature lets you enter in the magical world of a sustainable park that is beautifully designed. It is a park planned to let you think and learn about sustainability while you have fun and experience individually as well as with your friends and family. It is very inspiring, and leave you something beautiful inside. The “Extraordinary Gardens” and the the “Aqualagon’ were my my favorite worlds. The BelleVie Farm, was where I had my favorite food experience: a unique breakfast sitting surrounded by tea pots.” - Silvia Barbone
“Villages Nature provides the perfect environment for family, friends and guests to explore ways to ‘power-down’ in meaningful and fulfilling ways without compromising comfort or enjoyment.” - Rebecca Tobias
“First of all, this is a place for a family to be together with each other, to experience the restorative calm of nature, and to have fun. After that, I hope people take the time to imagine that this world they have experienced for a few days here, could be built anywhere, in many climates, in many styles, and could become a model not for a utopian getaway, but for their own living communities.” - Joe Rohde
Villages Nature is nothing short of reinventing sustainable tourism.
For More On Villages Nature see the interview with Dr. David W. Randle on the Disney Parks Podcast