Ecological Impact of Tourism & Hotels
Many people strongly doubt that eco-friendly hotels could ever have a net-positive environmental impact.
Hotels are traditionally viewed as extremely wasteful businesses, while tourism itself and the associated air-travel, is seen as one of the most polluting activities that individuals can engage in.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) classifies ecotourism as containing five elements:
1) it is nature based, the main goal being to experience a natural environment whether characterized as nature or culture,
2) it features educational components that explain the resources,
3) it is usually a small-scale operation serving few tourists,
4) it has no adverse impact on the sociocultural or natural environment, and
5) it supports conservation of natural areas; i.e., it generates money to sustain an area.
Although the emphasis is on the harmony of activities with the environment, hotels and accommodation providers are a huge part of the tourism industry, and therefore a significant part of the equation in judging whether tourism can be considered environmentally friendly.
Development and promotion of sustainable tourism destinations creates a big enough niche to allow eco-conscious hotels to flourish, as they serve the needs of customers who’ve chosen to holiday somewhere considerate to the environment, and will probably choose to stay somewhere aligned with those values.
Two Huge Game Changers for Hotels
It’s widely accepted that human activity has been the main driver of climate change from the mid-20th century onwards, two strong changes have emerged in the hospitality industry – regulations and a new clientele.
The first change, brought about by governmental bodies and regulators, as well as international agreements on emissions targets, has had a profound impact on hotels.
Non-compliance with regulations is increasingly detrimental for business growth and a brand’s image.
Secondly, as people became more aware of their personal responsibility for the environment, habits have begun to change; creating a group of potential customers too numerous for hoteliers to ignore.
Once the necessity of going green became obvious, powerful hospitality entities needed to respond. But just opening branches in remote and unspoiled locations wasn’t a viable option; they wouldn’t bring hefty returns, and over-developing those locations would reduce their value in the eyes of eco-travellers.
These self-imposed limitations created an opportunity for independent hotels, making them dominant hospitality providers in remote locations.
In order to break into this new market dominated by independent competitors, two initiatives were launched: 1) ecohotels (eco-friendly subsidiaries of hospitality giants, often with a very limited presence in remote areas) and 2) self-assessment platforms that monitor performance to increase sustainability.
Ecohotels are starting to successfully tackle three key areas; energy use, carbon footprint, and sustainability.
Many hospitality enterprises established their own environmental departments, a much more credible and effective way to prove accountability than relying on the initiative of individual hotels.
These initiatives have begun to use technology in order to inform their environmental decision making. For example, Hilton properties use the LightStay platform which tracks historical energy and water consumption data to forecast future usage levels. It even considers variables such as occupancy and weather conditions and sends alerts if performance falls below expected levels.
Many hospitality giants run their own initiatives, such as reforestation of endangered areas, on a grand scale. According to the UN, reforestation is the only certified way to compensate for carbon emissions. For instance, AccorHotels planted five million trees between 2009 and 2016.
Internally, real ecohotels cover every little detail, from self-grown fruits and vegetables and zero-waste-tolerance to using eco-friendly products and items made of recycled materials, which, once obsolete, are donated for re-use.
The five elements defining ecotourism provide a good sustainability threshold to aim at. Given sufficient motivation, even the biggest hotel chains can, and do, use their financial might to effectively reduce their environmental impact on a huge scale. Regulators and governments around the world should make every effort to encourage businesses in adopting eco-friendly practices.