Interview: EWS - WWF's Laila Mostafa Abdullatif

Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, the director general of Emirates Wildlife Society - WWF, talks about the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Awards, and UAE's sustainability goals

Laila Mostafa Abdullatif
Laila Mostafa Abdullatif

Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, the director general of Emirates Wildlife Society — WWF, is one of the judges at the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Awards. She tells Hotelier Middle East why this is important for the travel and tourism industry.

Tell us about why you’re involved with the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Awards, and why it’s important for the travel and tourism industry?

We found that there was a great synergy behind the context of the awards and our raison d’etre. EWS-WWF is a science-based civil society organisation, and our role in the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Awards will see us lend our expertise as both a jury member on the Dubai Tourism Awards, and for the development of educational tools, such as the hotel energy and water board game.

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The travel and tourism industry is important to EWS-WWF. The industry is extremely reliant on the natural environment, and has a consequent ability to cause a direct and significant environmental impact — whether that be positive or negative. It also has potential to drive large-scale change, through both hotel guests and suppliers.

These awards are important because they celebrate and encourage UAE hotels that are taking charge in finding innovative solutions that actually work, and to publicly share — and celebrate — their efforts to inspire others and learn from their peers.

In fact, the awards encourage hotels to take sustainability beyond their own operations and engage with the community and high impact conservation projects led by local environmental NGOs.

What advice would you offer the industry in terms of how to be sustainable?

As a first step, we encourage all entities involved in the travel and tourism industry to understand their unique material impact on the environment and build a plan to reduce any associated negative risks while also saving on costs.

For example, hotels can perform a comprehensive audit in and around their premises to assess the full scale of their relationship and impact on the environment, taking into consideration the complete life cycle of the hotel: from design, to siting, construction, and management.

We’ve witnessed a growing international trend towards nature-based adventure, conservation and ‘eco-holiday’ tourism in recent years; this is an important shift that we believe will be an important driver of tourism for the UAE’s future, given its own diverse biodiversity offerings. For example, the UAE boasts beautiful deserts, mountains, wadis, coasts, islands and seas — all of which are teeming with life.

Furthermore, the marine environment is an integral part of our cities (mangroves, for example, are protecting our houses) and is undoubtedly supporting the diversification of the tourism sector, with popular activities such as snorkeling, diving, fishing, and water-based activities like kayaking and sailing.

Unfortunately, while we have enjoyed the coast and seas, we have also taken it for granted. The UAE’s coastline has been modified or developed — and increased coastal activities can have a detrimental impact on water quality, as well as critical marine species and habitats, which in turn can have a negative effect on recreational activities that the tourism sector relies so much on.

This makes it all the more important for the industry to operate and promote sustainable practices directly affecting the coast and seas, and to ensure that the industry as a whole plays its role to conserve and protect our marine environment for the benefit of society, visitors and the economy alike. A healthy marine environment is essentially an ‘asset’ for the tourism industry, and nature conservation is at the best interest of a successful and sustainable business in the tourism sector.

Thus, we recommend that hotels help raise awareness about sustainable practices by engaging the wider community about these broader issues, including the sustainable practices that have been incorporated into a hotel’s products and services.

Additionally, hotels and other entities can support local organisations, such as EWS-WWF, which are driving large-scale sustainability and providing the tourism industry with the tools needed to advance their own sustainability.

When judging these awards, what are you looking for?

The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) has established a set of criteria by which to judge entries. However, in addition to ensuring that participants meet these assessment KPIs, we are always on the lookout for entries that go above and beyond the minimum standard of their own hotel operations to become inspirational stories from which their peers in the industry can learn from. We hope to see hotels and other entities involved in the travel trade raise the bar higher and higher with each passing year.

Can you share your journey in this industry, and why sustainability is important?

I joined EWS-WWF almost 10 years ago, and today serve as the organisation’s director general. As an Emirati, I am especially grateful to be in a position to make a real difference to our nation’s wildlife and natural resource conservation efforts — two things I am passionate about.

Environmental sustainability is important to me, as it should be to all of us, because everything that supports the survival of humans is dependent on the environment. The wellness of the environment directly relates to our wellness and health, as well as every other species on the planet. Our local heritage is also deeply rooted in the physical environment, which provides us with remarkable beauty that we can all appreciate, and which we need to preserve. Sadly, we face an issue when it comes to consuming resources. Our demand has increased so greatly that we would need 1.5 Earths to sustain it and if no action is taken, we will soon require two Earths well before 2050. We are blessed to live in a country where we have the capability and capacity to make a real difference in the lives of those around us — and the millions of tourists who visit every year. 

How does EWS-WWF engage with the travel industry, and what more can it do?

We work hand-in-hand with the UAE’s hotel and tourism industry to ensure that its constituents are leading by example in setting a global standard for sustainable practices, while engaging stakeholders and supporting local conservation as they increase their own value and integrity.

For example, EWS-WWF provides resources for the industry to advance their own sustainability objectives — such as offering energy and water conservation toolkits, staff/guest engagement guides, speakers, and hands-on activities to engage their employees and guests across their operations — creating value for their brand while building motivation and loyalty. Additionally, we provide opportunities for hotels to demonstrate their commitment to supporting government initiatives and we engage with them through our various existing partnerships, such as the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Initiative. Taking an active role in environmental stewardship has become a golden opportunity for the wider business community to create innovative, smarter, more cost-effective and sustainable ways to succeed in increasingly competitive markets. The merits of this approach are being demonstrated by many brands such as global leaders Unilever, Ikea, Coca Cola, IBM, Panasonic Microsoft and, HSBC; but also by many of our own UAE brands, including Majid Al Futtaim — a well-recognised conglomerate working hard to reduce its own footprint while supporting civil society. These, and many other organisations, are already reaping the rewards and showing a positive ROI from a variety of angles including revenue, stock performance, product-level profitability, brand reputation, accounting for externalities, reduced risk exposure, employee and consumer engagement, and more.

Moving forward, we aim to further collaborate with the hotel and tourism industry on transformational change through long-term strategic partnerships with key players that can eventually become leaders in sustainable practice. We will be working closely with WWF international who are pioneers in conservation travel, sustainable travel that supports the protection of nature, wildlife, and local communities.

Additionally, as a non-profit organisation, EWS-WWF requires a consistent stream of financial support in order to continue to carry out its many valuable conservation programmes. We have thus created various avenues for the hotel and tourism sector to be able to contribute towards the sustenance of these programmes.

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