Eco Logic: The Rise of Sustainable Tourism

Hotelier Middle East editor, Claudia De Brito heads to Finland to see sustainable tourism at its finest and discusses the benefits of eco-travel to businesses beyond just social responsibility

It’s time for the hospitality industry to implement and normalise practices that are aimed at protecting natural resources
It’s time for the hospitality industry to implement and normalise practices that are aimed at protecting natural resources

From the growing efforts against single-use plastic, to green energy and lowering carbon footprints, sustainability continues to grow in importance for travellers and the hospitality industry. As GlobalData experts put it: “Sustainability is a watchword in the tourism industry as a whole at the moment.”

Still, laws that regulate sustainable practices vary tremendously across the globe. The European Union’s plan for 2021 is perhaps the most extensive, but even so, it targets the use of specific plastic items like cutlery, plates, straws, and cotton buds.

Nordic norms
The Nordic countries are among the most developed economically and ecologically. Finland’s approach to sustainability is to nurture, conserve and preserve nature and the lifestyle that is so strongly rooted in it. The country that, for the second year in a row was named the happiest in the world, elected a new government last year, headed by the world’s youngest prime minister. The agenda that was put forward was to foster an "inclusive and competent Finland with a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable society."

In light of this, Visit Finland is using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) introduced in 2015 by the UN member states to encourage companies to evaluate their projects both from a business and sustainability impact point of view.

Speaking about the organisation's aims, Business Finland manager regional partnerships Liisa Kokkarinen said: “We want to encourage all tourism providers to reduce their impact on the environment through their social, economic and cultural footprint in order to preserve and protect the pristine Finnish countryside for future generations.

“With this new Sustainable Travel Finland programme, we will be able to reward companies and destinations that act in a conscious fashion as well as easily allow travel trade to recognise companies that are serious about protecting the environment, both constructed and natural.”
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that a survey among Finnish tourism actors, carried out by Visit Finland in Autumn 2018, revealed that 83% of the respondents supported the idea of a national sustainable tourism programme.

Nestled in the Nuuksio National Park, Hawkhill Villas and Wilderness is a small business providing guests with an escape into nature. After 15 years of working in IT, Matti Ala-Outinen joined the family business, bringing with him technological expertise which the company uses to attain its ecological goals. He explained: “We take sustainability and the environment into account in every decision we make and they are one of our key values. Our company was awarded the Green Key sustainability certificate in 2019 and we are committed to following the Finnish State Forest Enterprise's Principles of Sustainable Tourism. We guide and encourage our guests to act likewise. As an example of our actions, we are now CO2 neutral.”

Local leaders
Built with sustainability in mind, Six Senses properties are perhaps the pioneering brand in the eco-luxury segment. The operator’s Oman-based property, Six Senses Zighy Bay has a number of initiatives to offset guests’ carbon footprint, each led by an onsite sustainability manager.

Initiatives to conserve energy include LED timer sensor lights, rechargeable batteries as well as sustainable beds and linens and hybrid cars. The resort manages its own reverse osmosis plant and crystal water refi nery to produce water and has its own onsite sewage treatment plant. There is an organic garden onsite and a farm close by with plants and trees that support the resort’s in-house production of cheese, eggs, milk and honey.

Six Senses Zighy Bay takes part in regular internal and external audits and reports for sustainability related data, to benchmark against its sister properties and with 3,000 other resorts of the world. In addition, 0.5% of the property’s revenue along with 50% of sales from water in F&B outlets and soft toy sales go to a dedicated sustainability fund.

Speaking to Hotelier Middle East last year, Victor Chalfoun, the managing director of the Waldorf Astoria DIFC, underlined Hilton’s commitment to CSR initiatives. The organisation, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, recently launched its Travel with Purpose programme. The initiative aims to redefine sustainable travel on a global level. Chalfoun explained that by 2030, no plastic straws or plastic bottles used across the hotel group. He added that his team is continuously looking for opportunities to reduce waste and save energy at the property.

 The hotel’s sister property in Ras Al Khaimah has done away with plastic key cards in favour of wooden ones. The initiative has been successful and Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah, Hilton Al Hamra and Al Hamra Residence and Village managing director Alessandro Redaelli explained further: “Education about our sustainability initiatives is an important part of our guest experience. In general all our initiatives have been well perceived by our guests. They understand that we are committed to cutting our environmental footprint and support us in doing so.” 

Redaelli continued: "Sustainability needs to start early, when we’re building the hotel. It’s not just plastic, it’s solar power, it’s how you use energy, the kitchens, water consumption. A lot of things need to be taken into consideration."

Over in Saudi Arabia, Hyatt Regency Riyadh Olaya has launched a series of sustainability initiatives. The property has taken measures to reduce their energy consumption by 5% during the first quarter of 2020.These new initiatives represent a significant step in Hyatt’s global sustainability programme, underscoring its landmarks of wellbeing – Feel, Fuel, and Function – and its values of care.

“We always listen to the challenges faced by our guests, associates, and the environment we live in, and are constantly creating solutions to bring a positive impact," said general manager Walid El Awadly. "The biggest environmental challenges cannot be solved alone. Hence, we are involving our guests and clients to contribute towards a common goal: preserving our environment."

Part of Emaar and Meraas Hospitality Group, Rove Hotels is Green Key eco-label certified and has taken the Pearl Pledge which aims to reduce the brand’s environmental footprint to align with the UAE Vision 2021.

Winnow technology in kitchens has led to a reduction in food waste of 40% and the hotels no longer produce paper invoices. Guests are also being encouraged to take part through a ‘Check-in with Plastic; Check-out with Dinner’ promotion where they receive a 50% discount on food across all Rove Hotels by bringing in 20 plastic bottles to be recycled.

Hygiene factors
Last year, InterContinental Hotels Group announced plans to replace its single use plastic toiletry bottles with “bulk-size amenities" by 2021 globally, in an effort to curb plastic waste. Not all of IHG’s new toiletry containers are refillable, but the goal is for the majority to be refillable and thereby more sustainable, according to Barr. He identified Six Senses as ahead of the curve in using ceramic refillables and pressuring its supply chain to use less plastic. Barr expects it will take one to three years to recuperate the initial cost of these new containers and acknowledged that there is more housekeeping labour involved in maintaining refillables, but does not expect this extra labour to make an additional negative impact on the bottom line.

Andaz Dubai The Palm general manager Kifah Bin Hussein echoed the sentiment saying: "We’re trying to eliminate single-use plastic and focus very much on environmentally friendly products. This is usually a much more expensive exercise but for us it’s a commitment in the way that we operate the hotel. We’re going to see this through until it’s 100% achieved."

When it comes to in-room amenities, mini bottles and single use plastic are nowhere to be seen at the property. Bin Hussein added: "We are using dispensers but this was a huge point of discussion because people were saying that we had to choose between luxury and looking after the environment. But we can be environmentally friendly and at the same time be a luxury property. There’s no harm in removing the mini bottles and introducing these systems that are sustainable and nicely designed. They will look sleek and elegant."

The property has gone to great lengths to ensure that the products (shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion among other things) in those containers meet the standards of its discerning guests: "We work with a master perfumer from Universal Beauty FZE whose job is to create the products. He’s a fourth generation perfumer and we’ve done a lot of trials on the products and the feedback has been fantastic."

Still, there has to be a measured approach. Diversey vice president, hospitality, Africa, ME and Turkey Alp Aksoy spoke about the risks associated with dispensers: "Some of these efforts may bring more harm, then good. The concept of sustainability is actually wider than many perceive at first. It is a balance of maintaining and protecting for the concepts of 'People, Planet and Profit' at the same time, and compromising on one actually may lead to trouble on the other.

"In the case of amenities, if an operator chose to refill the bottles or dispensers, while trying to protect the planet and the environment, the hotel may be risking the wellbeing of their guests, due to possible cross contamination in time. The move from smaller amenities to larger bottles should entail a bit more study. Reduced plastic could already be a good option which also leads to reduced chemical waste. Having larger bottles which can be replaced with a safer disposal and recycling mechanism may be a good option. With that, guests still can enjoy fresh products and bottles, with no risk of cross contamination.

"If hotels will venture into the refilling option, they have to make sure that there are processes and audits to make sure that the liquid in the bottles will still be safe for their guests after some time, or multiple refills."

Conscious consumers
In a recent survey conducted by Censuswide, it was reported that 90% of consumers are making a conscious effort to reduce their own plastic waste consumption. Nearly four in five say they recycle more now than they did five years ago, and one in four people say they're encouraged to recycle more by corporations championing plastic free initiatives.

It’s safe to say that ecotourism, wellness, adventure and agritourism (EWAA) is on the rise. According to data from Colliers, 70% of global travellers are now more likely to book accommodation that is eco-friendly, with 52% prepared to alter their behaviour on holiday to become more sustainable. Travellers now are more aware of the environmental cost of tourism and thus try to book holidays that are more sustainable. Activities such as ‘glamping’ are gaining more traction due to its relatively low environmental impact.

At the Arabian Travel Market last year, exhibition director ME Danielle Curtis said: “Glamping has become increasingly popular in the Middle East over recent years, mainly as a result of the region’s varied landscapes, with various glamping sites opening throughout the UAE, Oman and Jordan including Hatta Sedr Lodges, Hatta; Bedouin Oasis Camp, Ras Al Khaimah; Desert Nights Camp, Oman and Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp, Jordan.”

Environmental awareness has gained serious momentum in the last couple of years, but IHG CEO Keith Barr sees the real pressure coming from guests, not government legislation.

In fact, a property's approach to sustainability and environmental initiatives is increasingly becoming a deciding factor for guests when choosing where to stay. Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort implemented a ban on single-use plastics across the property as part of its OZONE initiative to safeguard the world’s oceans and island environments. The property’s OZONE ambassador, Leah Matters, said the initiative, still in its first phase, is to hold management and hosts accountable and eliminate single-use plastics from the resort. She said: “Guests choose the resort based on its commitment to the environment and our efforts in trying to eliminate single-use plastic.”

Green governments
The UAE has set KPIs targeted at a sustainable environment and infrastructure by 2021. It’s the first Gulf country to start on a new energy strategy, which involves nuclear power and solar energy in addition to natural gas, which covers the majority of the UAE's needs.

The country is looking to increase its target for power generation from clean energy to 30% by 2030; it aims to achieve 25 to 30% of its electricity to be generated from both nuclear and solar. This year, 7% of the country’s total power generation will be from renewable sources.

Leading the way in the region in terms of development, Dubai and Riyadh have ambitious infrastructure plans. Dubai’s infrastructure impetus is in part being driven by Expo 2020, while the scheduled opening of the Riyadh metro network in 2021 is expected to transform the city’s mobility.

Both cities were included in JLL’s City Momentum Index 2020 which identifies the world’s most dynamic cities from a real estate perspective. JLL MEA CEO Thierry Delvaux commented: "It is great to see the MEA region represented in the top 20 ranking of the Momentum Index, driven by government initiatives.

These cities are leading the way by successfully addressing infrastructure needs to further enhance mobility, while creating thriving, inclusive, safe and affordable communities. Moving forward, we will see real estate play a more important role in smart-city futures, driving greater energy efficiency, and promoting sustainable, scalable and smart developments."

The cities included in the top 20 stand out as they transform their urban environments in pursuit of a low-carbon future. Dubai, which was ranked 14th this year has committed to ambitious sustainability goals of reducing water and energy consumption by 30% by 2030 and using 75% clean energy by 2050. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority’s ‘Green Dubai’ initiative is also promoting more sustainable energy use.

With frameworks being set by governments and overwhelming support from consumers, it’s time for the hospitality industry to implement and normalise practices that are aimed at protecting natural resources and ultimately, are good for business.

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