Impact Tourism Handbook Case Study:

Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve

The Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort and Nature Reserve is a luxury eco-lodge in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. Situated within its own nature reserve and on the shores of Lake Atitlan, the lodge is reached only by boat. It is a Guatemalan company with New Zealand and Australian co-founders.

When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?

The lodge mission was to provide travelers a luxurious and authentic stay whilst contributing to and protecting the cultural and biological diversity of the area. Since its inception planned corporate responsibility with a commitment to sustainable management was the ethos of the lodge. Sustainable environmental policy and socially responsible business practice included impact tourism programs. Impact programs also aided in the attaining of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, to reduce suffering, hunger, and poverty.

Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.

The Laguna Community Care program provides medical aid and educational opportunities to improve livelihoods in the local community. It is funded by the lodge and by guests wishing to donate professionally, monetarily, or with donated items. The lodge management collaborates with skilled professionals to donate, or reduce rates, for appointments and treatments. Meetings and transportation are coordinated with medical providers, those receiving treatment, and their families. The lodge sends aftercare and plant-based meals to the ill and elderly. Funds are provided to individuals after hardship due to illness or death in the family. Services provided range from food deliveries, payment of electrical bills, home repairs, and funeral expenses. Funds support small interest free loans for micro-enterprises and lawyers to defend women not able to access the justice system. Surgical procedures procured range from cataract surgeries to tumor removal, surgery after accidents, and bone setting after breaks. Dental treatments and eye examinations with prescription glasses are provided. Reproductive health is addressed, and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, food supplies have been delivered to vulnerable families. Repurposed hotel supplies and items from refurbishments are given to local homes. 

The Laguna Lodge Nature Reserve conserves and protects biodiversity on 140 acres of mountainous semitropical dry forest. The reserve is home to many endemic animal and bird species including the near threatened Margay and the Belted Flycatcher. Indigenous people may visit the reserve freely, as guests will contribute to their entrance fees and may also volunteer and donate $20 to plant a tree. Guests become environmental stewards helping with habitat preservation and the reforesting of endemic species. Native seedlings for transplanting are organically grown in the lodge grounds and nursery. Proceeds are put back into the reserve for the maintenance of trails, training of guides, and removal of invasive species. Reserve staff protect fauna and flora from poachers and predators. Wood from fallen trees on the reserve and over supplies of organic produce grown in the lodge gardens are donated to indigenous families.

Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?

Visitor numbers have increased, as those tourists who wish to leave a positive footprint prefer our destination over others. Media interested in our impact tourism programs have also provided increased advertising and exposure to the lodge.

Vetting Process

How do you select projects?

Initially, the management and staff’s expertise, along with the resources available, were taken into consideration when identifying sustainable projects in areas that required environmental and social development. Two principle projects were selected, which are Laguna Community Care and Laguna Lodge Nature Reserve.

What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?

Local accountants keep donation and expenditures in order and provide monthly reports.

Employee Engagement

How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?

Laguna Lodge owns and manages the Laguna Lodge Nature Reserve. Laguna Community Care is administered by Laguna Lodge. Employees have active roles in both projects, as the staff are Mayan Kaqchikel and from the local village. Since Spanish is their second language, the staff supporting Laguna Community Care liaise between the local people and the care practitioners. 

What have been staff reactions?

The staff have been keen to get involved enjoying cross-cultural relations and the opportunity to be of service to others. Most of the staff have little formal education and these interactions have provided increased self-empowerment. We also ensure that the staff can maintain their authentic cultural identity with the use of traditional clothing and the native Kaqchikel language.

Have you provided staff training to support your impact tourism program?

Onsite training is provided to staff. For Laguna Community Care, lodge staff are trained in transporting patients by boat and car to appointments in the larger cities.

Nature Reserve staff receive horticultural training and visit other nature reserves for sharing of ideas. Construction teams learn to maintain the safety of paths and scenic viewpoints. Security patrols liaise with local police to protect the reserve from illegal wood cutting. Nature interpretation guides receive INGUAT certified training.

Funding Model

How are funds raised from travelers?

The lodge distributes a nightly per person donation for the protection and support of the Nature Reserve. Manuals are kept in each suite, which explain our best practices and impact programs, for guests wishing to donate. More printed materials are also given on checkout. An Interpretation Room provides detailed information about the reserve, and the Laguna Lodge website has further information.

How do you solicit donations?

The lodge website encourages guests to bring school supplies and medicines or to donate monetarily. The lodge donates stays to health professionals, who in turn donate consultations and treatments. It also donates luxury stays tocharity events that support social and environmental projects. Part of the proceeds from these auctions are returned to benefit Laguna Community Care.Guests are offered the opportunity to participate in tree planting programs by offering a $20 donation.

Are donations tax deductible?

No.

How are funds distributed?

For Laguna Community Care, funds are used primarily for medical purposes and then for education support. Guests sponsor children by directly sending to the family.

For the Laguna Lodge Nature Reserve, funds donated from the lodge suite stays are used for fauna and flora protection, reserve maintenance, and staff training. Guest tree planting donations are used for reforesting.

To date, how much has been raised?

Cash and equivalent donations in USD:

  • Educational donations: $25,360.00
  • Donations in items $8,400.00
  • Donations from auctions $32,000
  • Reserve admission by guests included in nightly rate $123,800.00
  • Tree planting $1,530.00

    Total $191,090.00

Value of non-monetary donations:

  • Medical, dentists, doctors and nurses $108,000.00
  • Donation lodge staff time $1,850.00
  • Donations of lodge transport, accommodation and food $24,200.00

    Total $134,050.00

Do project funds go into a separate account or to a foundation to ensure transparency and separation from business revenue? If not, what is your process to ensure financial accountability of donated funds?

Donated funds are kept in separate accounts. Parents of the children receiving sponsorship have their own bank accounts, to which the sponsor sends money directly.

Visitor Engagement

Do travelers visit the project sites? Why or why not?

To increase benefits to the programs, travelers are welcome to visit the project sites. At times, lodge staff will take guests to the local community to meet a child or family that they can sponsor. Before the visit, UNWTO brochures “The Responsible Tourist and Traveller” and “Tips for a Responsible Traveller” are provided and discussed to ensure respectful behavior.

Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?

Guests experience an immersive and authentic experience by visiting local Kaqchikel homes. UNWTO brochures outlining responsible and ethical interactions are provided to visitors and discussed in reference to their volunteer opportunity. They may wish to sponsor or personally deliver educational and medical supplies. Depending on their level of professional training guests may assist on planned project days. Medical procedures in hospitals and surgeries do not allow for guest participation.

Guests may also hike the reserve and visit the organic coffee plantation to pick coffee or help to maintain trails to old growth forest and areas of reforestation. They may choose native seedlings from the nursery and personally plant them on the reserve.

How is the impact tourism promoted or marketed to guests?

Laguna Lodge has been recognized by achieving finalist positions in the National Geographic World Legacy Awards and by the World Travel and Tourism Council environmental awards. Being published as one of the world’s 25 best lodges by National Geographic Traveler has further highlighted and promoted our environmental and social projects. These magazines, books, and awards are on display in the lodge public areas. Projects are also presented in suite manuals and websites.

What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?

Guests may take copies of suite manuals, which explain the lodge mission and impact programs. Books and DVDs may be purchased. The Interpretation Room has an abundance of local social and environmental information.  Guided tours may be taken to the nature reserve, and hiking maps offer more ecological information.

Community Perspectives

How do you ensure that your values and approach align with the community supported?

Our indigenous staff are sensitive to the age and understanding of their fellow village inhabitants, as they are part of the traditional village system themselves.

To create further understanding for the reserve and its mission, we encourage indigenous people and school groups from the local area to visit free of charge. Village elders may collect sticks and fallen wood from the reserve, as they have traditionally done.

How are you ensuring that your projects meet the most relevant needs of the community?

Guatemala is a developing country, and the health care system is often inadequate and unavailable to many people. School education is basic, and children require books, pens, and uniforms. They require funds to pay small, but compulsory, fees. Higher education has further costs unattainable to many families.

On the environmental side, slash-and-burn crop farming and the use of firewood for cooking has caused large scale deforestation. Global warming has further caused further loss of biodiversity. The reserve conserves the tropical dry forest ecology of the Tzantizotz area whilst sequestering carbon.

Do you engage in ongoing dialogue with the local community? If so, how?

Overall, improving local lives and livelihoods have created positive responses and feedback from the community. Lodge staff are from the community and visit the local council for meetings and updates.

Has there ever been a time when adjustments to your approach or project have needed to be made as a result of community feedback? Please explain how you were able to adapt.

In the past, we have had to make adjustments for the Laguna Community Care program. Community feedback had asked to notify the local council earlier about intended treatment dates, so that families and relatives living further away in rural areas could be informed and plan accordingly.

Lessons Learned

Why do you feel your impact tourism program has been so successful?

With the Laguna Community Care program, guests personally meet local families and can personally decide on their level of donation to sponsor a child’s education. The sponsored children go on to become educated leaders of the community. Laguna Community Care also connects medical groups that want to help with the people that need the most help.  Medical visits and treatments by doctors have reduced pain and long-term suffering, and the treated patients go on be productive members of the work force, often bringing home the only income for an extended family. In the reserve, guests may leave a positive contribution to the ecology of Guatemala through planting a tree and reforesting. The reserve has rebounded with increased flora and fauna since the inception of the nature reserve 15 years ago. For both initiatives, we monitor reviews in our in-house comments book and read our online reviews for feedback and positive responses.

What challenges has your company faced in developing a successful program?

The confidence and trust of the local community was slowly and progressively attained only after positive outcomes. This allowed for foreign medical teams to treat individuals at the lodge and for the local people to accept benefactors into their homes. During the development of the nature reserve, we have had overcome the challenges of the poaching of trees for firewood, fire threats from slash-and-burn land clearing, and the effects of global warming causing newly planted trees to struggle to survive.

Why do you feel it is important for the tourism industry to not only promote a product but to provide environmental and community support?

Providing environmental and community support helps us mitigate the negative effects of promoting tourism to our area. Host communities with improved opportunities and benefits in turn protect their cultural assets and environmental diversity. Tourists have the ability to give back in a positive way when presented with projects which help create flourishing communities and ecology.

What would your advice be to another company that is hoping to establish a successful impact tourism program?

Identify and evaluate areas that require aid and development, and which also fit into the expertise of staff and the available resources. Projects need to be reviewed regularly and kept in a parameter where the most good is done in an economical way. The projects do become larger in scope, requiring increased networking with a flexible approach.

For more information contact: Mayah Brandon, info@thelagunalodge.com
Website: www.thelagunalodge.com


This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.