Interview: Inside a Panamanian Ecotourism Development

By Alexis Wagnon

Where can you find an unspoilt 400-acre private island filled with wildlife, and only a few dozen highly-serviced rooms and homes on it? Amble Resort’s Isla Palenque in Panama is not your average  luxury resort. Benjamin Loomis is not your average entrepreneur or outdoorsman. Oh no, there is nothing average about this place and the people behind it.

It is responsible entrepreneurs like Ben Loomis and his team that are setting new standards and raising the bar for both industry and traveler expectations. We had to find out more about this visionary and natural-born explorer, and so without further ado, today’s interview is with Amble’s president and founder. Meet Ben Loomis.

TriplePundit: How did you become involved in Eco-Tourism?

Ben Loomis: Although I don’t really consider myself an environmentalist per se, I founded this company with the goal of creating travel experiences that allow privileged access to, and deep understanding of, a destination’s natural environment. This is something I felt was lacking in resorts I’d visited in my own travels.

It was a natural step into sustainable resort development, because our passion at Amble Resorts is to bring people to places of spectacular natural beauty – and this is only possible long-term if you’re sustaining the ecological makeup of the destination. This sort of travel experience is currently categorized as “ecotourism,” – while this is a trendy, loosely-defined term, our purpose in resort development will stay the same no matter what it’s called.

We want our guests to be able to fully immerse in this wilderness we cherish, for generations to come. So offering a variety of site-specific tours and embracing sustainability at the very core of all our operations are two of the main ways we’re working to accomplish this on Isla Palenque.

3p: What influences in your life helped you or guided you down the path of sustainability and travel?

BL: Well, thinking about influences broadly, I could trace this back to my childhood in Alabama. I spent a lot of time exploring the woods and caves. Back then, I thought the wilderness behind my house went on forever – I’ve since learned that it was only about a square mile. It was also pretty early in life that I discovered my interest in architecture – leading me to study it during my undergrad at Auburn. This grew into a passion for understanding how design can bring people closer to nature instead of separating them from it.

I first noticed this gap in the travel market during my three months backpacking through Europe while in college. It bothered me to think that the start of my career would be the end of this kind of wandering getting to know the true character of a place. It seemed really backwards that professional advancement meant spending your precious vacation time in walled resorts, closed off from nature, from authentic culture, from true experiences. The luxury travel experiences then available seemed not to be the best experiences, but were instead all the same experience, no matter the destination. This luxury-as-homogenization felt totally wrong to me.

When I landed on the shores of Isla Palenque in Panama, I knew I had found a place I wanted to protect, preserve, and share in a way that redefines luxury as intimate connection with your surroundings. Sustainability is an obvious component of this – when you discover a place this incredible, you work to keep it that way, you don’t harm it.

3p: What is the most important aspect or factor of eco-tourism?

BL: Maybe this is a bit of a predictable answer, coming from a sustainable resort developer who shies away from the environmentalist label, but of all the various components of ecotourism, the most important lies is fostering positive experiences for both visitors and hosts. It is through unforgettable moments of true connection with a place and its people that ecotourism achieves its most enduring impact. Ecotourism gives travelers the opportunity to have intimate experiences in nature and to explore their destinations with help from local guides; these positive experiences have the power to inspire a lifelong commitment to responsible travel, something that will long outlive the popular infatuation with tacking “eco” onto words to create the latest fad.

3p: What steps are you taking to make Amble more sustainable?

BL: When you’re building something from the ground up, whether it’s moving into a new space in Chicago (our corporate HQ), or developing The Resort at Isla Palenque, every tiny detail comes with an array of options. Concerning materials and practices, we practice energy efficiency, using natural lighting and cooling when possible, sustainably-sourced and reusable products. If you’re speaking to sustaining the places where we’re building resorts, I could go on for a long time about the various elements: the environment, the economy, the local community and culture – we prioritize in our development goals. Environmental sensitivity is obviously of chief importance when planning a resort… employing locals and teaching them new skills contributes to the economy… developing relationships with the people and listening to their stories so that we can celebrate them preserves their culture…

3p: How are you keeping up with the newest sustainable practices?

BL: Actually, I would say that I don’t. I studied sustainable building practices extensively in undergradutate architecture school, and the reality is that the things which have the most impact vis a vis sustainability – passive cooling, water conservation, and siting buildings in response to the local climate – are almost all ancient practices and/or common sense. The vast majority of what we are doing on Isla Palenque are things that I learned about over fifteen years ago, and they weren’t new then.

3p: How does Amble Resort support and/or help to promote the local businesses?

BL: Amble Resorts has relationships with several local tour operators and will be sourcing its resort staff among local citizens from the Chiriqui province. We’re working with the local communities to promote education and help them make their part of the world more sustainable, and we will empower our resort staff to take pride in their Panamanian heritage and share it with guests. What produce we can’t grow ourselves we’ll buy from local farmers. We also plan to work closely with organizations currently stationed nearby to ensure that the involvement of indigenous Ngobe-Bugle tribespeople in our tours is beneficial to their culture so they can sustain it for future generations.

3p: What is a typical “work” day in your life?

BL: One of the nice things about being in charge of a development like this and being involved in many of the details of design and operations is that I don’t have a “typical day.” Sometimes I might be working on the same things for a few weeks at a time, but from one month or year to the next, I’m always doing something different. Right now, though, while I’m on Isla Palenque, my days usually consist of a couple or three visits to the construction sites to inspect work and answer questions, spending a few hours online coordinating the work of others, and a few hours doing “solo” work to help define and direct how the resort will be designed, marketed, and run.

3p: How would you describe the accommodations?

BL: As an architect I could go on for days, but I’ll try to keep it economical: our buildings are composed primarily of sustainably-sourced hardwoods, bamboo, and steel; you can imagine the resort as one big building – each room or space separate from the next – its “hallways” actually covered open-air walkways – and all of it seamlessly interwoven with the surrounding jungle. We’ve worked very hard to build respectfully within the natural environment of the site.

Even though only a few of the structures will be over two stories tall, you will always feel much higher up because the island slopes upward from the coast – this means sweeping ocean views from nearly every room.

Our building designs utilize passive cooling techniques, angling floor-to-ceiling windows that can slide open to catch optimal breezes – it will be easy to live comfortably immersed within the jungle.

My personal favorites (and I think many guests will feel the same) are our tented suites. These take jungle immersion to a new level. With their hardwood floors and canvas walls, it’s like taking a luxury hotel suite and setting it in the middle of the jungle – the scene is complete with a hammock you can climb into right in your living room and gaze out at the ocean or the canopy. It completely blurs the line between indoors and outdoors.

3p: As a typical guest at an Amble Resort (someone who does not have a lot of knowledge of sustainability), what would stand out to me to help me realize this is truly an eco-resort?

BL:This may surprise you, but the “typical guest” of an Amble Resort will likely have some knowledge of sustainability – they will know it is necessary to the kind of experience they seek. You can’t get close to nature from the 17th floor of a megaresort on the beach.

For those that don’t, however, this is a good question. We’ll have tours highlighting the sustainable design, organic farm, and other ecologically-sensitive features for visitors who are interested in learning, but what will probably show our guests far better than we could ever tell – the feeling of living in complete harmony with their natural surroundings, which we have worked very hard to preserve on Isla Palenque.

3p: How do you leave a lasting impression of sustainability once your guest leave?

BL:Well, we’re very lucky in that sense – it’s hard to stand on a beach three-quarters of a mile long by yourself without a boat in sight or stand among the old growth forest and desire anything other than for this place to remain pristine forever. The best way to encourage others to think about sustainable practices is to allow them to get to know an environment worth sustaining, and lead by example.

Even though the eco-resort won’t be complete until later this year, we’ve already welcomed a handful of guests to our island. People always ask questions about our sustainability efforts, sometimes curiously and sometimes critically, but everyone who visits cares that we protect the island. I think we’re on the right track as far as leaving a lasting impression.

Watch a short video of Isla Palenque here:

About the Author: Alexis Wagnon is a writer for Outdoor Minded Magazine, a snowboarder, long distance runner, and crazy about all things mountain. Her love for the outdoors and exploration never grows old. She has lived and traveled in Europe and the Caribbean. She is also an avid promoter of sustainability and has always had a passion for protecting the environment.

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