At 10 years old, an impressionable Jose Koechlin went on his first school mission trip with the Jesuits into the remote Amazon rainforest and fell in love with the wild terrain. Little did he know then, much of his life would eventually revolve around rural Peru and protecting its biodiversity.
His journey has been almost magical, judging by the biodiversity statistics the founder, chairman and CEO of Inkaterra, a hotel brand distinguished for its eco emphasis, is wont to share. Within Inkaterra’s hotel grounds and their surroundings, 814 bird species, 365 ant species – a world record according to biologist E.O. Wilson — 313 butterfly species, and over 100 mammal species have been inventoried.
Koechlin’s passion for the Peruvian wild and foresight and business acumen in using ecotourism as a conservation driving force is not only evident in South America but also recognised internationally. The fourth-generation Peruvian born and raised in Lima is heralded a visionary and expert in sustainability in Peru’s precious ecosystems and frequently sighted at hotel and tourism conferences and awards.
The last year has been a busy one for both Koechlin and Inkaterra. The company turned 40 last year and had carried out a year-long anniversary commemoration that stretched out over most of 2016, including the release of the Inkaterra: Celebrating 40 Years short film in collaboration with GLP Films.
Koechlin, who has helmed the Sociedad Hoteles del Perú (SHP), the national guild of hotels in Peru, for 13 consecutive years, was also re-elected President for another three-year term through to 2018. And in September, the elegant Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas was inducted into the Virtuoso network, joining sister property Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel to represent Inkaterra in this prestigious luxury travel circle.
Following the Virtuoso nod, Koechlin shared with Quotient his thoughts on the development of ecotourism in Peru and the up-and-coming sustainability initiatives in the land he loves.
Quotient: How did you become involved in conservation and ecotourism? What influences in your life have guided you down the path of sustainability?
Koechlin: The main inspiration has been to conserve Peru’s natural and cultural values, in order to share them with the world. In 1975 we established Inkaterra, pioneering what is now called ecotourism. Three years before, I had co-produced Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God; we worked with such an efficient film crew in Machu Picchu and the rainforest was so captivating that I ventured into this endeavour, looking for a way to conserve natural landscapes through sustainable development.
Since then, Inkaterra has worked under a holistic approach to improve the quality of life of every living being. Scientific research is performed as a basis for biodiversity conservation, education and the economic growth of local communities.
What are some of the environmental changes you have noticed in Peru over the past few decades? What’s one thing that has considerably improved?
There is more awareness on environmental care, especially on the need to follow the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and to respect international agreements made at the COP-20 held in Lima, Peru. The effects of climate change are more visible than ever — both governments and the private sector are considerably more committed with innovative ways towards economic development. Ecotourism and other sustainable endeavours play a key role to achieve long-term solutions in this scenario.
Where do you see ecotourism in Peru headed?
Nowadays a significant part of the travel industry in Peru is veering towards sustainable practices. In a near future, there should be greater awareness on the value of biodiversity and eco-luxury might become a leading industry worldwide, generating more income and better quality of life for local populations than many extractive industries today.
What are you currently working on? What is a typical day like for you?
Along with Inkaterra Asociación’s technical proposal to establish the first marine in Peru, Inkaterra is developing a new sustainable tourism project in the Cabo Blanco Pacific Ocean and desert. This cove in Northern Peru became the sport fishing mecca in the 1950s after Alfred Glassell landed the all-tackle world record — the 1560lb black marlin, still unbeaten – on board the iconic fishing boat Miss Texas (restored by Inkaterra). John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway stand out among illustrious guests who have visited Cabo Blanco.
The initiative aims to marine restore biodiversity, promoting the reproduction of commercial species, the creation of new fisheries for artisanal fishermen and the mitigation of illegal fishing in reproduction areas. Inkaterra is currently working with local communities, organising workshops on hospitality and eco-friendly activities, such as marine life observation — especially humpback whales, green turtles and pelagic birds — surfing, sport and artisanal fishing.
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Inkaterra is also developing the Sea to Table traceability certificate with the Peruvian Gastronomy Society (APEGA) to guarantee good practices and high product standards, creating added value for artisanal fishermen. At the same time, the use of ancestral watercrafts such as raft and sail are being recovered to bring back to life Cabo Blanco’s cultural heritage. Tourism infrastructure with a positive social impact is being developed: running water service disrupted since the 1983 El Niño phenomenon has been recovered and the implementation of a new dock is currently in progress.
What steps are you taking to make Inkaterra more sustainable?
Inkaterra conserves 7,000 hectares of rainforest in Madre de Dios and has restored 15 hectares of Andean cloud forest in Machu Picchu. The value of biodiversity has been confirmed through workshops and seminars promoted by the Inkaterra team for local communities, who currently consider ecotourism as one of their main sources of income. We have trained over 4,000 locals since 1975, including three generations of a family, and this has helped to reduce migration in order to preserve native cultures.
Our initiatives on biodiversity conservation are managed by NGO Inkaterra Asociación. These include the Inkaterra Canopy Walkway, a bridge system at 100 feet (30.5 metres) above the ground designed to study wildlife in the rainforest canopy; the Spectacled Bear Rescue Center at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, in benefit of the only bear species native to South America; the world’s largest native orchid collection found in its habitat (372 species); and the Inkaterra Birding Cup, an international competition unique for its non-stop modality, which aims to confirm Peru as a top destination for bird watching.
What is your favourite Inkaterra lodge, and why?
Each property has its own personality, defined by design inspired by traditional architecture and local materials, sense of place and in-house activities that allow travellers to discover local biodiversity and culture. Inkaterra hotels belong to prestigious alliances such as Relais & Châteaux, Virtuoso and National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.
I believe there would be an ex aequo between Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, our most recent addition to the Inkaterra portfolio, and Inkaterra La Casona.
How can Inkaterra guests make a difference when visiting Peru and the Amazon?
We are about to launch Inkaterra Explorer Guides Field Station. This lodge is designed to train Inkaterra Explorer Guides and to host scientists, students, volunteers and travelers willing to engage in diverse research and conservation projects in the Peruvian Amazon. A fascinating experience in the midst of the Amazon rainforest, which inspires ecotourism leaders to excel in guiding skills, manage ecological initiatives, and gain knowledge of various ecosystems in the Madre de Dios region.