Eco-resorts: are they really as green as they claim to be?

Green retreats are the last word in luxury – but do their claims add up? Laura Latham puts rainforest resorts and wildlife havens to the test
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Can you own a far-flung second home and still retain your eco-credentials? Upon first consideration, it seems unlikely. The purchase of a prime patch of Pacific paradise implies a jet-set, carbon-burning lifestyle. Unless you're thinking of travelling by pedalo.

This hasn't stopped a swelling tide of overseas developers marketing their resorts as eco-friendly. But are all of these green projects to be dismissed? One such developer, Someplace Else, claims to be building a resort in Belize, Central America, that is as environmentally sound as a development can be.

The 730-acre, hilltop site is adjacent to a 7,000-acre rainforest, and the 350 properties will be constructed using sustainable timber and palm-thatch roofs. Electricity will come from solar and hydro power, while the natural thermal springs will be harnessed to provide hot tubs.

The company is involving the local community in the project, and the site will aim to only use fair-trade products. There will also be a research and conservation centre.

The single-storey villas will certainly help sell the dream. They start at £45,000 for two bedrooms and £58,000 for three. "We're hoping to showcase what can be done in harmony with nature," says Ben Mason, the company director.

So can Mason justify offering second homes in an area that necessitates an 11-hour flight? "The reality is people are always going to want second homes, so we need to recognise that and make property as eco and carbon-neutral as possible."

One solution is to buy somewhere nearer to home. In Mata de Sesimbra in Portugal, the government has just given the go-ahead for the long-planned transformation of a vast industrial wasteland into a sustainable eco-town.

The project is endorsed by organisations such as Bioregional and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Developer Pelicano is building the properties, which range from apartments costing £70,000 to villas priced at around £700,000.

Spokesman Eduardo Goncalves says: "The site will offer a chance to live somewhere with a massively reduced carbon footprint, where recycling and sustainable transport is important, water and energy use is minimal and all materials and construction methods are as carbon neutral as possible."

Experimenting with environmental property has also paid off for Turkish company Nirvana. The developer decided to build one eco-aware villa in its otherwise standard Agustus Hills resort a few months ago. It has won awards and inspired a bidding war.

Villa Caesar originally cost £795,000 but is now pushing £1m and this, says Robert Nixon, is because there's so much interest in environmental projects. In addition to a stylish use of natural timber and stone, the home is designed using principles of thermal mass to reduce energy use; an on-site windmill provides power; air-conditioning comes via natural evaporation from ornamental water features.

Interest in the villa is likely to drive the company's future plans, though buyers should be prepared for higher prices. "Ethical technology is costly to implement," says Nixon. "Once built, though, eco-properties are cheaper to run because the resources are sustainable."

Qualta is a company aiming for ethical as well as environmental brownie points. Alongside its Reef Club resort in northern Brazil, it will offer 4,000 villas, costing from £75,000, in an area of outstanding coastal beauty, and it is building them with sustainable materials, installing solar power and rainwater harvesting. But this isn't what makes Reef Club notable. The area may be beautiful but it is also poor. Over half the population of the local town of Barreiros is unemployed.

The Qualta foundation aims to integrate local people into its plans by offering training in construction, carpentry and plumbing, so that they can build the resort, while educating those who want to eventually work there.

Geraldine Arnaud, who is overseeing the project, says: "We don't want a 'them and us' situation. We hope visitors will eat, shop and socialise in the local area and mix with people. We want economic regeneration not a rich ghetto."

On the impact of long-haul flights, Arnaud says, "Everyone here is excited about the opportunities overseas visitors can bring. If people stop travelling, poor communities such as Barreiros will really suffer."

Qualta:, 0808 234 4061; Nirvana International:, 0845 621 00 22; Pelicano:, 00 351 21 782 64 40; Someplace Else:, 020-7731 2200

Questions to ask before you buy

1. Where does the on-site power come from? Is it generated by renewable sources such as solar, wind or water?

2. How much waste is recycled on site? Rubbish shouldn't be going to landfill and the sewage shouldn't be going in the sea.

3. Do you work closely with surrounding communities? Large, new resorts can adversely impact on local society and its economy.

4. What water preservation measures do you have? Rainwater harvesting, grey-water recycling and water-saving devices should all be in evidence.

5. How carbon neutral is the resort? Items such as building materials and food should all be from local sources to reduce CO2 generated by shipping things from overseas.