José Koechlin, founder and chief executive of Inkaterra, explains how his pioneering business model benefits everything from Machu Picchu to fans of Paddington Bear
Tourism is not only a source of inspiration; it’s a human right. We need to travel, to move, to experience the diversity of culture and nature abroad. Travel makes us wiser, and more sensitive. It allows us to feel free. And after months of lockdown due to COVID-19, everyone is anxious to set sail again. Bucket lists will survive the pandemic.
What will travel be like in the immediate future? Experts predict that travelers will look for meaningful experiences, keen to reconnect with nature and local cultures. There will be a need for solitude, and a commitment to positive social and environmental impacts.
A responsibility to conserve
Peru is an icon for nature travel, privileged with extraordinary biodiversity and a 55-century history crowned by the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. It has everything to fulfill the yearnings of the travel community. But it also carries great responsibility for conserving what it has for future generations.
We need to find innovative ways to awaken our spirit of adventure while raising awareness towards the magnificence and fragility of nature. Meanwhile conservation through ecotourism can also become a leading source of income for local communities. And it can preserve cultures through capacity building.
My company, Inkaterra, pioneered ecotourism in Peru when it was established back in the 1970s. It is in our DNA, the very core of our business. In an empirical way we have proved that ecotourism is a means towards nature conservation, sustainable development, and safeguarding the global commons. Most of our team members celebrate their local origins.
Soon after co-producing Werner Herzog’s classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) to promote travel experiences in Peru, we established our first eco-lodge in the Amazon rainforest, within the first land concession for research and tourism ever granted by the government. Since then, all our properties have found inspiration in traditional architecture and are built in an artisanal fashion using native materials, in harmony with the environment. Now 220,000 travelers venture in a pilgrimage to find comfort amid exuberant nature in Inkaterra hotel grounds every year.
Using a holistic approach, we produce scientific research as a basis for conservation and the wellbeing of local communities. Since 1978 we have carried out inventories of flora and fauna so as to measure our impact on nature. We have found, for instance, that 903 bird species (almost equivalent to Costa Rica’s entire bird diversity) are registered in our areas of influence, while our hotel at Machu Picchu hosts 372 native orchid species, which the American Orchid Society says is the world’s largest collection in a private setting. Fellow researchers from our NGO, Inkaterra Asociación, have described 29 new species to science found in our grounds.
Such scientific research is the essence of our ethos, enabling us to design all our conservation strategies. Biodiversity is the main source of inspiration for the vast array of experiences available in our properties, attracting such niche markets as birding, gastronomy, or academic tourism. Every travel experience, while being profitable, is modelled through the prism of conservation.
Saving the bears
Our canopy walkway, with platforms and hanging bridges 30 meters off the ground, provides a privileged view of the rainforest and is a magnificent tool for studying wildlife in the treetops. Our Spectacled Bear Center in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution may be a great activity for families who want to learn about the species that inspired the beloved Paddington, but our main goal is to save South America's only bear species.
The World Birding Rally hails Peru as one of the world’s hotspots for bird tourism, while promoting safe migratory routes and the declaration of local reserves to benefit endemic species. The Inkaterra Guides Field Station in Madre de Dios provides a close-up experience of our Amazonian conservation projects, welcoming guests to interact with organic orchards, palm tree nurseries, or the first DNA analysis lab in the Amazon basin, in hotel grounds.
Conservation not only influences our hotel grounds, but the destination as a whole, procuring healthier ecosystems and opportunities for societies. In this spirit, Inkaterra is steering a strategic alliance with the beverage multinational AJE Group and the Machu Picchu Town Hall, to make Machu Picchu the first Wonder of the World to be certified as carbon neutral. This involves developing a circular economy through an innovative strategy to sustainably manage almost all its solid waste.
We also work with the Smithsonian in restoring genetic connectivity in the Peruvian Amazon, with a Sustainable Landscape Corridor from the Low Madre de Dios River to the Peru-Bolivia border. And there is also an initiative to mitigate the effects of illegal mining through forest restoration and the development of sustainable entrepreneurship.
My hope is that Inkaterra may be perceived as a replicable business model by demonstrating a profitable path towards sustainable development.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.