INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 6 - Issue 66 - Dec 04
What brought you to Ecuador and Chugchilán in particular and what made you stay there? And what is the story behind the "Black Sheep Inn" name? Moral or Practical?
We discovered Chugchilán in 1992 while on a six-month backpacking trip through South America. We were slow travellers and we liked to explore one step beyond what the guidebooks suggested; always trying to get off-the-beaten-path. The 1991 South American Handbook described Chugchilán as "a very poor village in one of the most scenic areas of Ecuador" but it listed no hostels or accommodation. We thought this would be a nice way to get into the countryside on our way to visit the Quilotoa Crater Lake.
We rode on the roof of the bus winding through rural roads and canyons and we marveled at the spectacular scenery and the fact that people lived way out in the boonies. We stayed in Chugchilán for 2 weeks and did not want to leave. We had been looking for work outside of the USA, but had never considered buying land until the family we were staying with offered it to us, "If you like this place so much, why don't you buy our land?" Our guests agree that this is one of the most beautiful areas in the world.
The story behind the name? We created the name, "The Black Sheep Inn" for many reasons. 1) There are many sheep in the area, but we wanted to stand out from the flock as being different; 2) The children's fable "Baa Baa Black Sheep" is well known around the world in every language; 3) We both had worked for the Green Tortoise, and knew that animals made a good logo; 4) Many travelers are Black Sheep, because they choose to see the world, while the rest of the flock stays at home and does the ordinary; and of course 5) We are rebels and therefore BLACK SHEEP.
Moral and practical blend together... We created an Ecolodge by consistently making decisions that conserve the environment instead of destroying it. The result is that we have very little negative impact on the land we occupy/own. We say, "occupy" because, although we legally own the property, we know that it will outlast us… we will die and the land still be here in the future.
What were the main challenges you faced when setting up BSI, and what did you do?
Everything was learning experience and a challenge; starting from confusing Ecuadorian bureaucracy to electrical shortages to political strikes. When setting up the BSI, we did not know if tourists would come to this area. The guidebooks now eloquently call this area "the Latacunga Loop" or "the Quilotoa Circuit", but it was not an established tourist area… nobody knew of Chugchilán. We were pioneering new ground in Ecuador. As experienced travellers we had a good idea of what potential clientele wanted… such as hot showers, comfortable beds, and great food.
From the beginning our goal was to exceed clients expectations. We established hiking routes, contacted guidebooks, and worked without stopping. We learned from guests how to build furniture, install electrical fixtures and design plumbing systems. We used books and a bit of trial and error. We had the freedom to experiment and to learn valuable lessons from our mistakes. We are self-taught in virtually everything, even in creating our website.
You have deliberately and methodically studied and applied all possible ecological solutions in the design and operation of BSI, this is apparent to all your guests and it was clear to me when I visited. Certainly you do not need to be certified as an Ecolodge by anyone? You are now teachers not pupils. But what about others calling themselves "Ecolodge", in Ecuador and beyond?
We are not the only Ecolodge in Ecuador or the world. There are a lot of very good operations out there. Certification could be a tool for uniting true Ecolodge and conveying a message to the general public as well as a mutual sharing of best practices. We are masters of composting toilets, but could use some expert advice in sustainable food production. So far we have not seen certification being used in this way. Eco certification seems to be a popular label without clear definitions to the general public or to the lodges themselves. It is unclear if there is consumer demand for eco certification. As far as other operations calling themselves Ecolodge when they aren't, we are pleased that clients find satisfaction in experiencing the eco aspects of BSI.
So what is the main quality distinguishing an Ecolodge from all other tourist accommodation?
Ecolodges have a conscience. Ecolodges are educational and care about the environment, the local community and conservation; Ecolodges are sustainable. Conventional tourism may or may not bother with these issues.
Are luxury and high rates in your view compatible with an Ecolodge? Should Ecolodges be affordable for all, or should they charge as much as they can get away with, so that they can better support local projects?
All businesses seem to charge whatever they can get away with. that is the nature of business. We feel that EcoLodges do not have to be prohibitively expensive nor should they be exclusive. It does not cost more to operate a lodge with an ecological conscience, in fact, it is most likely cheaper in the long run. "Eco" should not be an excuse to jack up prices. Even when catering to backpackers (low budget travelers), it is possible to make ecological choices in your mode of operation and still turn a profit.
The true key to find out if an Ecolodge is charging inflated prices is to compare the nightly per person rate to the monthly local wage. Why should a tourist be paying $100 per night each if the local salary is often less than $200 per month?
What are the main problems currently facing Ecuadorian Ecolodge owners?
We cannot provide much insight as to the general problems facing Ecuadorian Ecolodge owners. Perhaps the lack of government funding to promote Ecuador as an Ecotourist destination is one of the main problems. Another challenge is that there is not a national recycling program, nor a national environmental education program that promotes conservation.
Our biggest problem does not have to do with owning an Ecolodge, but is based on being a small business owner in the hospitality sector. Small business owners often experience difficulties letting go of responsibilities while maintaining high quality of service. In the hospitality business this is even more difficult due to very little separation from work and home. We are in the process of solving this problem and anticipate a long sustainable future for the Black Sheep Inn.
Ecotourism calls for the local community to be involved in decision making, as long as it wishes to do so. But what in practice is the "local community" in your case? A mayor? A neighbour? Your employees? And to what extent is or can the local community be involved in your own business?
We are owner/operators and have personally made most of the decisions here. Yet we are a part of the local community because we live here permanently, we have no other home and we have no plans for leaving. We work closely with the mayor, the town council, the water council, the local clinic, the local schools and our neighbors.
You have single-handedly put a whole area of Ecuador on the tourist trail. How has the tourism that you spearheaded, changed the lives of your local community and neighboring areas?
By moving here and establishing the Black Sheep Inn, we have created a new economic vein in a very poor region of Ecuador. There are many people in this area who now benefit from tourism. We were the first hotel/tourist facility in the area, but now two local families have opened their doors to tourists and have built small hostels. We helped establish locally managed horseback riding excursions. With our help, the five vehicles in the village take turns providing transportation for tourists. We have six full time employees and spend locally for most of our products. This area is now written up in most guidebooks as the "Latacunga Loop", or the "Quilotoa Circuit". The province of Octopi has experienced an increase in tourist revenue in the last 10 years. Over the past year we have been training local guides, but we are waiting for them to take the initiative to create their own guiding association.
With help from our guests we started a small Spanish language public library and computer-learning center. We have also donated computers, phone lines and other equipment to the local school, health clinic and police. We have sponsored several workshops on women's health and tourist guiding. Michelle has taught in the local high school as a volunteer since 1997. Phone service was finally installed in the area in 1999 after several years of pressure from us!
Ecotourism Financing: What was your approach, did you depend at all on Government, NGOs, Banks or private investors?
We self financed the creation of the Black Sheep Inn, but HARD WORK -not cash, was the biggest investment. When we started in 1995, we were lucky to be young and foolish. The Black Sheep Inn was created and has always grown in a grassroots fashion. We started small with a hot shower, shared accommodations with good mattresses and a great repertoire of vegetarian recipes. We learned things as we went along. We personally did all the cooking, cleaning, buying, designing, building and promotion. We personally took the entire risk to become established, but now we have a fulltime staff, most of whom have been working with us for 7 years plus. We reinvested the profits, and have continually made our facility better and better. Our dedication paid off.
Who is your typical guest and what, if anything, does he/she understands by "Ecotourism".
Our guests stay an average three nights at Black Sheep Inn. Sometimes people stay for a week+, yet we occasionally get one night stays. Over the last three years we have had approximately 40% European, and 40% North American, although North Americans are on the increase for us. Age? Not sure… but probably mid-thirties. We get a variety of individual travelers, couples, backpackers, families and 3-week vacationers. In general we do not work with tour groups and shy away from agency bookings. We deal with our clients directly, and have been very lucky that we have enough independent inquiries (mostly via internet) to keep us going. In the future, if our number of guests decline, we may have to resort to working with agencies. So far we have only experienced growth.
The typical guest at the Black Sheep Inn is forced to participate in Ecotourism. We do not have private bathrooms, so guests must use our famous composting toilets; which are located just outside the rooms and have great views over the canyon. In all our rooms we have three receptacles for recycling, which means guests must think about what they consider trash, as they themselves have to separate it. We have small signs and booklets all over the property explaining what we do and why… so that even the smallest steps towards conservation are transparent. Our goal is that our guests learn something here and appreciate the 'true' small-scale ecotourism we provide.
What is the funniest incident that has so far happened at BSI?
Several… We took our black ram to a local festival in Chugchilán so that both children and adults could "bullfight" with him. He was known to charge and ram people, which he did for an hour straight! He was better than the local torro!
The Swiss traveler who taught us plumbing when we first started out didn't speak English or Spanish and barely spoke German. Needless to say it was very difficult to communicate with him. He always started drinking beer at noon, usually finishing off a case + a day. Nonetheless he was very helpful, and we learned invaluable plumbing from him. We later learned that he had recently been let out of jail in Switzerland and plumbing was the trade they had taught him while he was doing time.
- A guest accidentally locked her husband in his room during dinner; he was quite upset when he couldn't get out to go to the bathroom.
- Another guest asked us if we had a black and white cat, because he saw one in the bathroom… it turned out to be a skunk!
- A mother was standing on the platform ready to receive her daughter at the bottom of the zipline/cable swing, but the daughter was going so fast at the end that she knocked her mother off the platform, who then rolled down into a streambed.
- The black sheep rammed a friend of ours and knocked her off her feet while she was visiting us from the states.
- Guests telling us that they "held it" the whole time they were here because they couldn't bring themselves to use our composting toilets.
- A guest while on a property tour exclaimed, "Oh you dry roast your own coffee!" while pointing to a pile of llama poop on the ground.
There must be thousands of couples in North America and Europe thinking of doing what you did. You are one of the fortunate few to have followed your dream and to have also succeeded! What advice would you give to all those envious readers? Is it easy and they should just do it, or is it hard work and they should keep thinking about it?
It is incredibly hard work. We are in the process of hiring fulltime managers so that we can have a bit more freedom. This will also enable us to focus on completing some of our ideals: renewable energy systems, higher food production, llama trekking, more community work, and perhaps even ecotourism consulting. But after 10 years of hard work we mostly want more freedom. It was not easy, it was extremely difficult, a huge challenge. But it was not impossible. A determined, highly motivated couple could do the same thing.
Can you do it? YES, you should live your dreams and your ideals. We are lucky, but no, it was not easy. Anybody, in any field, in any job can make ecologically positive decisions in their lives.
Finally, would you ever consider leaving BSI, so that you could repeat the whole exercise, even better, even wiser, somewhere else?
NOPE! We don't want to leave here, nor would we do it again somewhere else. If we can get the Black Sheep Inn managed properly, we would consider consulting. But we would not do it all over again.
Our question to you and the ECOCLUB readers is can people afford to start out small? Can people afford to remain small and stick to their principles? We've managed to do it, but it is a constant struggle. Care to reply? Click here
Thank you very much
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