Eco-tourism and responsible travel are the new mega trends of the decade. In this first of a new column, Emma Parry, provides a look at the major hotel and resort operators who are taking steps to reduce their impact, and why.
If green is no longer the buzz word it once was in the commercial property sectors, eco-tourism, sustainable tourism – call it what you will – is the latest megatrend, with billions of dollars being invested by hotel groups and tour operators around the world to appeal to an emerging segment of eco-conscious tourists among the estimated one billion people travelling the world as of December 2012, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
As we consumers become more discerning and demanding about where we put our hard earned travel dollar and precious holiday time, more and more of us are seeking travel options that tread lightly on the environment and make a positive contribution in turn, both to the local communities and to our own “feel good” factor.
There will be some that say no tourism is good for the environment, particularly when it involves carbon guzzling flights to long haul destinations. But revenue from tourism is one of the world’s major industries, supporting more than 260 million jobs and approximately 9 per cent of worldwide GDP. In developing countries and coastal regions, such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Maldives, tourism plays an even more important role, being a major revenue source and essential to community prosperity.
And it is often the fear of losing the tourism dollar that can galvanise governments and communities to resolve long-standing environmental issues such as sewage run-off, as well as enhancing building regulations to address overdevelopment. The old adage of travel broadens the mind applies to both tourists and local communities and our lives can be enriched by the simple exchange of cultures we encounter on our travels, as well as the undisputed benefit to our wellbeing of taking a well deserved break from the daily grind.
This new column, Responsible travel, sets out to uncover the true gems of sustainable tourism. From the largest hotels driving real progress to boutique eco lodges and eco-volunteering where you can directly participate in sustainable projects, this column seeks to inspire and inform from around the globe and closer to home from popular resorts and cities tounknown locations off the beaten track.
So what’s in a name?
Google “responsible travel” and it brings up myriad websites and definitions.
One definition that sums up the diverse aspects of responsible travel is from Ecotourism Australia: “Ecologically sustainable tourism [has] a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation”.
In this column we will be seeking out operators that address not only environmental issues but also social responsibility practices, from community initiatives to how they treat staff. The tourism sector can be a fickle employer, particularly in the developing world but hotel groups, like many other employers, are catching on to the fact that happier staff equals more satisfied customers. Never is this truer than in a service industry such as tourism, where the service and interaction with hotel and tour staff can make or break a trip.
Tourism authorities worldwide are also taking this trend very seriously. In Thailand, for example, the Tourism Authority has been actively promoting the development of sustainable green tourism for many years with the development of the Green Leaf Foundation, which sets environmental standards and assesses and promotes best practice amongst hotel groups, to annual awards for Green Excellence.
Hotel groups are taking real action
While green tourism is not yet fully mainstream, more and more hotels are developing sustainable policies and practices and applying more than the standard suggestion to “reuse your towel/bed linen”.
In fact, not unlike the significant investment of the Australian real estate investment trusts into sustainable property practices in the commercial sector, it is the largest hotel groups that are charging ahead with energy efficiency, sustainable procurement, community engagement and a focus on waste management.
While large chain hotels may not be the first choice for discerning eco-travellers, many of these international groups have made a real commitment to operating sustainably and can be the most sustainable choice, particularly in cities.
Last year global hotel group Accor Hotels (which recently bought out Mirvac’s hotel interests) launched “Planet 21” an integrated sustainable development program for all its hotels in over 90 countries. Initiatives include replacing plastic room key cards with FSC certified wood cards in its Pullman Sydney Olympic park hotel to eco-designed rooms in its budget Ibis hotel in Ko Samui. Westin Hotels & Resorts, has a sustainable policy for its hotels and deducts money from the room rate to incentivise reduced housekeeping. The InterContinental Group – the largest hotel group in the world incorporating diverse brands such as the Intercontinental, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza hotels and resorts – has comprehensive environmental and socially responsible practices including a US LEED rating system aligned “Green Engage” program for its properties. And the size of these groups means that their action is driving significant benefits and behaviour, often without tourists noticing.
Green travel needs research
While some tourists are certainly oblivious to environmental initiatives, it doesn’t help that few hotel groups actively promote sustainable innovations in their individual hotel marketing. You need to look carefully on their corporate websites to find environmental information, but how many of us have time to do that?
Another deterrent is that few of the popular tour operators highlight a hotel’s sustainable commitment in their 100 word write-ups, so you do need to hunt out information. Encouragingly, some travel websites are making the search a little easier, for example global online travel agent Expedia now provides a Green/Sustainable search criteria.
Eco Tourism Australia is a local Australian organisation spearheading sustainable tourism and provides a useful source for certified hotels and travel experiences around the country.
In Australia groups such as boutique luxe group Baillie Lodges are making a concerted effort to reduce their environmental impact. At Baillie Lodges eco luxe reaches new heights at the acclaimed Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island and Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island. Sensitive development and passive design enables Capella Lodge to run without airconditioning and take advantage of the temperate climate and cooling trade winds of this South Pacific located, but NSW denominated, territory. At its Kangaroo Island lodge, there are 225 solar panels, saving around 42,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide a year and waste management is addressed by a Nature Bin organic compost system which treats up to 100kg of waste a day.
- Baillie Resorts, which operate Southern Ocean Lodge, above, recently flagged
Indeed, those with a penchant for luxury brands will spot that responsible travel goes hand in hand with luxury resorts.
The über hip hotel groups such as the Aman Resorts, the Six Senses Group, and Como Hotels and Resorts have eco-friendly principles at the core of their philosophy, albeit in an unashamedly six-star approach (fair trade sugar in the mojito made by your villa butler perhaps?). Sensitively designed to fit into the local environment with comprehensive environmental and social initiatives, these resorts offer luxury you can enjoy with good conscience intact. Do, however, expect your pockets to suffer, as these luxurious resorts usually command upwards of A$1000 per night.
For those who eschew major hotel chains and resorts, there are many independent and family owned hotels making a real difference to the local environment. And if you don’t mind a bit of rustic in your travel experiences, these can also be a great choice for the cost conscious. Ranging from eco friendly hostels – such as Sydney’s acclaimed YHA in the Rocks (yes your dorm sharing days may be behind you but the ensuite rooms can be surprisingly comfortable!) to smaller bungalow outfits and eco-camping. All tastes and preferences are covered if you hunt them out, so there’s really no excuse not to choose the greener option on your next trip.
Are hotel groups jumping on the bandwagon? Is there a hint of green wash in their claims? As with all sectors, sure, but if this action compels the tourism sector to operate sustainably, even at the edges, let’s not knock this progress. Not dissimilarly to the commercial property sector, the tourism industry is another major contributor to the world’s carbon footprint – so change here can really make a difference.
Emma Parry has over 15 years’ experience in brand, marketing and communications for major listed companies in Australia and Europe. Most recently she was general manager marketing and communications with Dexus, based in Sydney.