Eco-Friendly St. John Dazzles

Tiny St. John is ahead of the curve on environmental issues 
No one would ever put the Caribbean on the list of "usual suspects" when it comes to contributing to global warming, but that hasn't stopped the islands in the region from implementing rather aggressive sustainability programs. In fact, since 2000, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) has been hosting the Annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development to make the islands even more eco-friendly.

Over the years, the conference has established three criteria for sustainable tourism in the region: environmentally friendly operations; support for cultural and natural heritages; and direct, tangible social and economic benefits to local people. At the conclusion of this year's conference, held in Guyana in April, all 33 member states of the CTO were urged by the organization's secretary general, Hugh Riley, to continue to put a strong focus on safeguarding the sustainable use of resources in the Caribbean Basin.

Though there are numerous examples of great initiatives in sustainable tourism throughout the islands, perhaps the most impressive is the hotbed of sustainable activity occurring on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Tiny St. John is a shining example of how to create exciting and sustainable travel experiences fit for small meetings and incentive groups.

An American Paradise
St. John is just 20 square miles in size. Villas perfect for executive meetings amd small incentive groups are sprinkled among the hillsides - one of which also serves as one of the island's most interesting sustainable options.

Eco Serendib Villa and Spa, an eight-suite eco-friendly luxury villa, opened on St. John last summer. It is the brainchild of Harith Wickrema, CEO of the Philadelphia-based event production company Harith Productions, an incentive planner who has won numerous Site Crystal Awards for his programs.

He has created a luxury environment with a minimal carbon footprint by incorporating sustainable practices, while also providing an educational experience for guests. "The villa demonstrates that it isn't necessary to sacrifice luxury and modern conveniences to live a greener existence," Wickrema says.

He put together a team of environment-conscious vendors to create the resort. One partner, ESA Renewables, installed Suniva rooftop solar panels, which significantly reduce the villa's carbon emissions and energy costs. Eco Serendib also features three 20,000-gallon cisterns to collect rainwater, a saltwater resort pool, and outdoor furniture produced using sustainable plantation management systems. Further sustainable practices include energy-efficient kitchen appliances, water-conserving bath products, and a gray water irrigation system.

This spring, Wickrema launched the Eco Serendib Beach Restoration Project to re-introduce indigenous trees and shrubs, such as sea grape, at beaches throughout the island. The program is also maintaining one tree per day of each reservation in the name of guests who stay at the Villa. The guests have the opportunity to become involved hands-on with the green project and may also contribute directly to the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park Fund.

Resort Options
There isn't room for mega-resorts on St. John. Much to the credit of the development community, most of the island's acreage is devoted to national parks that feature some of the most beautiful beaches and inspiring snorkeling experiences in the world.

But there are three resorts: the 166-room Caneel Bay Resort, the 60-room Gallows Point Resort, and the Westin St. John Resort & Villas, which has 175 rooms and 146 villas.

The Westin's efforts illustrate how this class of accommodation is approaching sustainability. The resort, which includes the 3,500-square-foot Great Cruz Bay Ballroom, has a three-pronged approach to going green: reducing impact, developing sustainable products and services, and creating a culture of sustainability. All rooms, suites, and villas have low-flow showerheads. Green transportation options are available, and the resort offers paperless check-in and paperless meetings.

The Westin also participates in programs that help groups staying at the hotel to get offsite into the countryside to work with the community to help maintain the eco-system and restore indigenous ruins.