Green lodges and resorts tap into tourists’ concerns about the environment

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by Elizabeth Cooper

Growing up in Lexington, John Roberts spent hours hiking and fishing. Today, the owner of A Bed and Breakfast at Llewellyn Lodge still enjoys the outdoors, guiding visitors on fly-fishing trips along Rockbridge County’s pristine streams. But unlike his boyhood expeditions, Roberts’ guests don’t return home with the catch of the day. Instead, once a prized trout is snared and keepsake photo taken, the fish is released back into the stream.

Roberts’ trips encourage guests to enjoy nature while preserving the environment. “We send guests to places where they just come back with a memory. You get a nice picture and turn the fish loose.”

Llewellyn Lodge is among a growing list of Virginia establishments that are rolling out a green welcome mat. By reducing their impact on the ecosystem, these hospitality destinations appeal to tourists whose vacation purchases reflect concern for the environment.

In fact, ecotourism has become one of the hottest trends in the travel industry. “They appreciate the environment,” Roberts says of his guests. “They’ve seen what development has done, and it’s nice to have some natural spots.”

About 100 bed and breakfasts, hotels, motels, resorts and other lodging facilities are taking environmental stewardship seriously by participating in Virginia’s Green Lodging program. A project of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in conjunction with the Virginia Tourism Corp., the non-regulatory program promotes pollution-prevention practices. At the minimum, green lodging facilities must provide optional linen service, recycling, water and energy conservation and green events packages.

“It’s a self-policing program,” explains Tom Griffin, Virginia Green Lodging coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality. “If you sold yourself as a green facility, and someone stays there and can’t recycle, they’ re going to let you know about it.”

Changes over eight years

Roberts implemented green practices at Llewellyn Lodge about eight years ago.  First, he replaced the lodge’s gas furnace with a modern, more efficient natural gas model, reducing monthly heating costs from $240 to $153. He also installed a central air conditioning unit with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 14. The Department of Energy set the minimum ratio at 13. The higher the SEER, the greater the energy economy. With the new unit, Roberts saves about $200 to $300 per cooling season. 

Another energy-friendly appliance is a front-loading washer and dryer which uses less water and electricity than conventional top-loading models. The lodge saves about $400 to $500 yearly in electricity costs, says Roberts, and $250 to $300 annually on water bills. 

Going green also translated into savings for the Oceanfront Inn in Virginia Beach.  Several years ago, the hotel installed low-flush toilets and low-volume showerheads. The change saved more than $10,000 on water bills the first year, says Andy Vakos, owner and general manager. He’s now putting compact fluorescent light bulbs in each room. Although the bulbs cost more than $2 compared with 40 cents for a standard bulb, Vakos figures the added expense will pay off because the newer bulbs are more efficient and last longer.

Virginia Beach is at the forefront of the state’s push to attract the growing ecotourism market. Environmentalists have given high marks to the resort city’s new convention center, the first in the state to be designated Virginia Green.

Last summer, the Founders Inn and Spa in Virginia Beach became the first hotel in that city to earn the designation of a Virginia Green Lodge. The inn uses well water in its irrigation system, automatic flushers in public restrooms, coreless toilet paper (no cardboard in the center), biodegradable cleaning products and a unique ice farm of storage tanks adjacent to the facility. The tanks freeze water at night when energy demand is low and use ice to cool the air flow during the day. The spa does not use mineral oils, opting instead for a product line containing natural elements.

Earth Day target

The Virginia Beach Hotel Motel Association, a certified green association, aims to have 12 properties affiliated with the state’s Green Lodging program by Earth Day on April
22.  “We have had to make a conscious effort to do things that are different and to be more careful with the environment,” says Nancy Perry, the association’s executive director. The city’s green hotels strive to conserve water and have switched to environmentally friendly laundry and cleaning detergents. However, Perry acknowledges that innkeepers will not always see immediate savings.  “In the short term, it’s more expensive to use environmentally safe products, but in the long run, we end up saving money because there is less wear and tear on soft goods like carpets and linens.”

Adhering to green practices is a challenge in areas where environmentally friendly products are not easily accessible. “We’re so remote. All our purchase decisions have to look at availability,” says Andy Prewitt, co-owner of the 1848 Island Manor House on Chincoteague Island. “Even though something might be available on the Internet, it may not be the best option considering shipping standards or if there is not immediate availability.”

Still, Prewitt’s bed and breakfast managed to become a Virginia Green lodge last year. He says today’s travelers expect facilities to be environmentally responsible. “They are sensitive to how polluting tourism is. They want to experience different things and different places, but they are conscious of leaving as little behind as possible.”

Wes Hetrick, a frequent Manor House guest, appreciates Prewitt’s efforts to reduce the inn’s environmental impact. “That place is super efficient,” he says. “Even little things like bringing a glass of water to the table. They prefer to bring you bottled water, so they don’t have to wash glasses.”  The Fairfax resident visits the Eastern Shore each winter to watch snow geese at Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. “The prices are reasonable, and it’s the perfect time of year for people who don’t like crowds.”

Wildlife watching

However, the multitudes are finding their way to Virginia year round as increasing numbers of visitors spend their vacations exploring the state’s attractions. According to state figures, Virginia welcomed 2.39 million wildlife watchers in 2006 who spent $268.8 million on trip-related expenses and $224.7 million on food and lodging. “If wildlife watching were an industry, it would rank 39th on the Fortune 500 list in 2006,” says Jeff Trollinger, watchable wildlife program manager for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Many nature lovers check out Virginia’s diverse natural habitat on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. The first statewide program of its kind in the country, the driving trail includes offshoots that link wildlife viewing areas with walking and biking paths. Others relax in butterfly meadows in Loudoun County, observe trout at the Montebello State Fish Hatchery in Nelson County, look for white-tailed deer and black bear in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge or watch bird migrations on the Eastern Shore.

Hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders can take advantage of trails throughout Virginia, including the 57-mile New River Trail State Park running along the New River from Pulaski to Galax. Ecotourism has taken off in the Southwest, since this part of the state boasts plentiful natural resources, including such havens as the 4,500-acre Breaks Interstate Park, known as the “Grand Canyon of the South.”

Visitors also enjoy Virginia’s 34 state parks, with the state welcoming a record 7 million park guests in 2007. Russ Baxter, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, points to a $119 million general obligation bond issue for parks and recreation that voters approved in 2002 as the impetus for the parks’ popularity. “There are more places to stay, and campgrounds are nicer,” says Baxter. The new facilities have incorporated green practices, including recycling and energy and water conservation.

In Virginia, the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy also is boosting ecotourism through preservation. A new state forest on the 4,836-acre Brumley Mountain near Abingdon and the Clinch Valley Program are enhancing the water quality of the Clinch River, the most biologically diverse river in North America. The organization also partnered with The Homestead resort in Bath County to give guided tours of Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, a nearly 10,000-acre mountain owned by the conservancy. “Ecotourism plays a valuable role in educating people about nature and how they fit in with our ecosystems,” says Michael Lipford, president of the Virginia chapter. “Engaging people to understand the value of
nature is more critical now than ever before.”

Whatever their preferred mode of outdoor recreation, ecotourists like to spend money. That’s a plus for state officials trying to convince localities that habitat conservation can be an economic boon. “Our visitors are fairly wealthy, empty-nester couples, who are well-educated and like unique experiences with local history and culture,” says Trollinger.

Amid growing concern about climate change and the sustainability of Mother Earth, demand for environmentally responsible lodging is on the rise.  “People are learning to appreciate nature, and the acceptability of green lodging is growing,” says Roberts of his Llewellyn Lodge. “Used to be when you said something about green, people thought it was a hippie sort of place, but there’s a new model. People are more into it nowadays.” 

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