Ecotourism successes: 2. Creating heaven in the Virgin Islands

Posted: 2 July 2001

Stanley Selengut is a 68-year-old New York developer and civil engineer who, 24 years ago, decided that it would be nice to slow down and build a few tourist cottages in the United States Virgin Islands where he could live simply and invite a few friends. John Rowley reports.

Today he is acknowledged as one of the fathers of 'ecotourism', the founder and owner of four ground-breaking eco-friendly beach resorts on the island of St John, and a partner with the US National Parks Service in developing models and designs for future ecotourist resorts. Stanley SelengutStanley Selengut© Maho BayIt began at Maho Bay where Stanley Selengut put up 18 tented cottages, cantilevered over the hillside, with walkways to the beach to protect the vegetation, and with solar powered lighting, wind generators and vegetables grown from treated sewage.

In a sparsely populated island, half of which is a national park, the need for sensitive development was clear. But with the hardwood already felled and much of the soil eroded, Selengut began a process of ecological restoration: bringing back native species and aiming to create a balanced ecosystem. There are now 114 units at Maho Bay and the environment is in better shape than when he began, says Selengut.

Next came Harmony, a cluster of studio apartments that were built with recycled materials, using wood scraps to make composted beams, recycled newspapers for floor decking and waste cardboard and cement for roof shingles. Floor tiles were made from ground-up glass bottles and outside decking from recycled car tyres. studioEcotourism studio at Maho Bay© Maho BaySubsequent developments have been a touch more luxurious than Maho Bay, but the latest, The Concordia, is completely self-contained in its use of energy and waste. Guests monitor the composting lavatories to make sure they are topped up with vegetable waste or with sufficient water.

The tented accommodation is clustered in different groups depending on the availability of wind, water and sun, and divided by green fingers of vegetation.

In the design guidelines for ecotourism resorts developed with the National Park Service, the long term aim is to minimize resource consumption on a global scale and to become a model for global education. It follows that the sustainable building design must be to 'lead through example' to heighten environmental awareness. So education is part of the tourist package.

That all sounds very worthy, but as Selengut remarks: "Our visitors must love it: they keep coming back."

Stanley Selengut was awarded the 1997 American Society of Travel Agents/Smithsonian Magazine Environmental Award for his ecotourist resorts.