Shaping responsible tourism
As the Middle East travel and hospitality industry booms, inadvertently, all stakeholders — hoteliers, owners, tour operators and natives and travellers — are embracing the need for the tourism industry to be a responsible one.
Responsible tourism, as the words suggest is, “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities,” according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
While access to different parts of the world has rapidly grown through increasing modes of transportation, social media has shrunk the world with exposure to some of the remote places on Earth via perfectly curated, filter-infused Instagram photos. However, being aware of and examining the consequences of tourism growth, and over-exploitation of indigenous cultures and the environment, has started to take centre stage in the recent years.
Following the 70th session of the UN General Assembly held in 2015, 2017 was proclaimed as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development” with UNWTO as the leading agency to coordinate all the related activities globally, according to a Colliers International report titled Introduction to Responsible Tourism.
Some of the key reasons for the push behind responsible tourism, the report says, include accelerated growth in international travel to developing nations; rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and urbanisation which negatively impacts the local culture and heritage; the need to preserve cultural values and diversity, and the growing need for acceptance and tolerance between visitors and hosts during cross-cultural encounters.
UNWTO estimates that tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, and accommodation accounts for approximately 20% of emissions from tourism, including energy and water demand and waste management.
The tourism and hospitality industry, especially here in the GCC, through collaboration with established government authorities and non-profit organisations, has started to take note and is trying to implement strategies and changes to minimise the impending damage.
“Sustainable tourism is absolutely important for the survival of the tourism industry, as it is about refocusing and balance,” Carlton Hotels and Suites CEO Hosni Abdelhadi points out.
However, he notes that responsible tourism isn’t limited to environmental conservation alone. Colliers International highlights two other principles under responsible tourism — economic viability and cultural awareness, community involvement and empowerment.
“We’re committed not only to the environment but also keen on creating a positive impact on the community. We ensure the best possible experience for our guests by letting them experience warm hospitality and traditions,” Abdelhadi adds.
The Arabian Travel Market 2018 — Focus on Responsible Tourism
Hospitality and tourism in the GCC, one of MENA’s fastest growing sectors, attracts millions of visitors from across the globe annually and is a particularly resource-intensive industry, points out Simon Press, senior exhibition director, Arabian Travel Market (ATM).
Dubai, which was ranked fourth as an international travel destination in the world according to the annual Mastercard Global Destinations Cities Index, welcomed 15.79 million international guests in 2017, a 7.7% growth from 2016. It was also named the city with the highest international overnight visitor spend, amounting to US$28.50 billion in 2016.
“It is important to highlight that the GCC is one of the fastest growing regional hospitality markets on a global scale and is a resource intensive industry. Its impact on the environment is multi-dimensional, ranging from CO2 emissions, water and energy demand, food waste, and noise and light pollution,” Press notes.
ATM, for its 25th edition, has adopted responsible tourism, including current sustainable travel trends, as the official show theme. The event, which is slated to take place at Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) from April 22-25, 2018, will aim to unite travel companies, organisations and key players from the hospitality interested in spreading sustainable practices and ethical methods within the travel industry.
Travellers too are becoming self-aware about the long-term impact of tourism and are revisiting some of their travel decisions while being mindful of the consequences they subject the destinations they travel to.
“The idea that tourism can be responsible seems at odds with the core idea of travel—after all, most leisure travellers want to travel to escape their responsibilities—but in the context of a sustainable industry, responsible tourism presents a strong business case,” Press states.
This change in travelling behaviour is now pushing owners and hoteliers to work together towards cushioning the impact as well.
“Travellers have become very conscious of their carbon footprint and now look to their hotels, tour companies and airlines to do more for the environment,” Press explains. “This growing trend has meant the entire industry has had to look long and hard at how sustainability and a credible social conscience must drive business strategy by reducing for example their water consumption and their greenhouse gas emissions,”.
ATM 2018 will also showcase some of MENA’s commercially successful businesses that have made the rich heritage of the region accessible to tourists, bringing economic development to local communities and helping to preserve their cultures.
Trends in Consumption
“Energy costs alone in UAE hotels represent approximately 6% of total hotel revenues, so even small savings could have significant financial benefits, underscoring the business case for sustainability,” Press says.
Touching on a previous point Press made about the hospitality industry being resource intensive, Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah general manager Alan Stocker agrees. But he points out that for his hotel’s energy efficiency policy to be effective, guests at the hotel need to pitch in too.
“There is a huge amount of what we can do as a property to support this global trend,” Stocker says, “for the hotel’s energy efficiency policy to be fully successful and accomplished, guests should be encouraged to contribute actively during their stay. Our goal is to make them aware that sustainability is high on the agenda and that the hotel cares for the environment. Most of our guests will be happy to learn that the hotel is committed to reducing its impact on the environment.”
To reduce hotel energy and water consumption as well as increase local outreach, hotels are starting to put initiatives and other CSR plans in place that will not only help the community and the environment, but also help the properties benefit from cost savings in the long-term.
Currently, in an effort to streamline usage and consumption and to produce an environmentally conscious footprint, hotels are adopting and incorporating standards to achieve certifications set by globally recognised bodies such as Green Globe, Green Key Certification and Earth Check.
At the time of the report by Colliers International, 70 properties in the UAE were certified environmentally compliant: 41 hotels by Green Globe, 25 by Green Key and four by Earth Check. However, more properties such as the Steigenberger Hotel Business Bay Dubai and Times Hotels have also joined the compliant list since.
“In a bid to reduce their carbon footprint, an increasing number of hotels are using LED lights, recycling their food waste and cooking oil and using grey water to irrigate gardens and lawns,” explains Press.
Furthermore, Press says that in terms of transportation, countries are increasingly looking towards electric or hybrid vehicles and Tesla charging stations are now becoming a more common sight outside hotels.
Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort in Oman has purchased its own fleet of seven Nissan’s Pathfinder SV 4WD Hybrid vehicles, to transport guests to the resort and take them for out-of-the-ordinary experiences in the surrounding region.
Governmental bodies are also stepping up to take necessary action to level the playing field when it comes reducing the county’s carbon footprint. Dubai Sustainable Tourism initiative (DSTI), formerly known as the Green Tourism programme, launched by Dubai Tourism in an effort to position Dubai as one of the world’s leading sustainable tourism destinations.
The DSTI, in collaboration with the UN, has created a ‘carbon abatement’ strategy to reduce the emirate’s carbon emissions by 16% by 2021, which will make Dubai the city with the lowest carbon footprint in the world, a statement from Dubai Tourism said. Other local initiatives include UAE Green Growth Strategy and Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050. To follow in line with the 2021 vision, the proposed Hotel Indigo in Dubai Sustainable City plans to use only solar power for all its energy needs while also recycling all waste water and waste generated.
Besides Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah is also working with regional hotels to implement sustainability practices.
“We are following Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) request to recycle our rubbish and therefore we have our food waste, which is differentiated from other items including glass and plastic. We have been looking at ways in which to remove all plastic water bottles around the property and replace them with glass bottles where relevant and where possible,” Stocker adds, commenting on the hotel’s collaborated efforts with RAKTDA.
Besides being environmentally friendly, Carlton Hotel and Suites’ Abdelhadi says sustainability is also a good business practice: “At the hotel, lighting control, optimising room and water temperatures, and raising energy awareness among staff are some of the measures that have been undertaken. We believe that, having energy efficiency measures not only proves to be economically valuable but is also beneficial to the reputation of our brand.
“In terms of electricity usage, we ensure good control of your heating system by using timer switches and thermostatic radiator valves. Boilers are serviced regularly to help save on annual heating costs. Leaking taps are repaired promptly, and we’ve considered fitting spray water taps, as it uses less hot water and energy. Daylight and occupancy sensors have also been installed in all our properties to conserve electricity,” explains Abdelhadi.
Besides environmental conservation, to promote and preserve local culture in the GCC countries, each of the countries have taken steps to highlight local traditions and history through government sponsored tours and initiatives for tourists visiting the country.
For example, in the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai offers cultural meals and encourages tourists to join in for a traditional Emirati breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea and also chat with the local hosts about UAE culture, customs and religion.
In Abu Dhabi, The Pearl Journey, an initiative by the Abu Dhabi government, highlights the emirate’s pearl diving history. The experience allows visitors to sift through live oysters in search of a pearl. Last year, at ATM 2017, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) and Al Khaznah Tannery signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) allowing visitors to learn about the process of producing hide leather goods, a practice integral to UAE's cultural heritage.
Oman’s various souqs offer insight into traditional Arab market places and provides a place for visitors to buy Omani handcrafted souvenirs, jewellery and even livestock. The old forts, watchtowers and several UNESCO World Heritage sites like Bahla Fort and Land of Frankincense also offer unique cultural experiences for the visitors to the Sultanate.
To include socio-economic and cultural aspects such as preservation of local heritage, Abdelhadi says Carlton Hotels and Suites properties have taken to implementing culture through food. “We’ve already started infusing local traditions by
having Arabic-themed buffet dinners in our restaurants. Guests are welcomed traditionally with dates and Arabic coffee. We also organise tours for guests to be immersed in the local culture.”
In Jordan, the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), along with the American non-profit organisation, Tourism Cares, has launched the ‘Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan.’ The map, comprising 12 touristic experiences, is aimed to benefit both travellers and the local communities. Available on GoLocalJordan.com, the map offers visitors experiences conducted by Jordanian non-profit organisations and other local enterprises. The aim of the map is to provide tourists with quality cultural experiences while also benefitting the underprivileged local population.
With awareness on the importance of responsible tourism on the rise, the future looks bright. “Sustainability is rapidly gaining visibility and importance, especially in the hospitality industry. To enhance this concept, the government has been committed towards identifying new regulations, to ensure standards are met. Implementing sustainability initiatives can be challenging, however it also brings along various benefits such as new guests, increased profitability, and enhanced efficiency,” Abdelhadi states.
However, lack of data, Abdelhadi notes, could lead to problems: “It is important to set benchmarks in terms of creating sustainable measures. The problem arises when there is both lack of information about resource consumption patterns and a lack of standardisation for resource consumption. Green customers increase the profitability of the properties since it reduces consumption, but each hotel needs to find its own path to sustainability.”
Tourists, Stocker says, are willing to pay the premium prices for eco-tourism packages in an effort to consciously control their carbon footprint.
Implementing sustainability measures for long-term benefit, Stocker adds, is an everyday process. “Everyone needs to think every day what they can do to save energy. As a part of our sustainable measures we will be doing an energy audit this year. At the moment, we have two companies which are profiling to work with us and hopefully help us to find the ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the hotel beyond what we have considered,” Stocker points out. “Overall, advances in technologies and systems for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of recyclable plastics are creating new opportunities for recycling, and with the combined actions of the public, industry and governments it may be possible to divert the majority of plastic waste from landfills to recycling over the next decades,” he explains.
But Press cautions that as we head towards a digitised tourism experience, it’s important to heed the consequences as well. “As we propel towards a more responsible, tech-driven future, it’s important to explore the impact ultra-modern, innovative travel technology is having on tourism in the UAE and wider GCC region.”
However, Press elaborates, hoteliers are readily applying the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ principle to many aspects of their operation. Sustainable travel in the Middle East requires the buy-in from all stakeholders — hoteliers, operators, local communities, governments, tourist boards and tourists. “Hoteliers understand that making their operation as sustainable as possible is the right thing to do, for the environment, for future generations and their bottom lines,” Press concludes.