The fall and rise of China's green hotels

Despite copying a Canadian model, the Chinese domestic green hotel programme never fulfilled its promise. Seeing the writing on the wall, the central government is now introducing stronger, regulation-led standards. Elius Levin reports from China

In June, the Chinese press reported (citing a Beijing hotel manager) that the Chinese domestic-hotel industry's environmental-protection programme had "failed". This Green Hotel Action (GHA) programme would be discontinued "after less than one year of operation".

Consequently, the domestic star-rated hotel industry - focused on Chinese-speaking clientele - would resume provision of free, non-recyclable guest amenities, offering toothbrushes, razors, combs, shampoo, toothpaste and very thin PVC slippers.

With green hotels worldwide regarded as a significant component of broader sustainable tourism, the announcement would seem to have dealt a serious blow to China's own sustainable tourism efforts.

However, by 2010, China aims to have 10,000 green hotels as part of an effort to improve ecological awareness in the hospitality industry, and provide stronger energy conservation and environmental protection. This is in order to meet the central government's 11th Five Year plan (2006-2010), which targets a 50% reduction in energy use in commercial and domestic buildings.

While apparently a contradiction, the Beijing hotelier's comment conceals the introduction and tortuous implementation of China's voluntary, industry-managed green hotel programme. And it conceals the central government's decision to remove the green hotel programme from industry self-management and impose its own stricter green hotel standards.

As a component of sustainable tourism, the Chinese hotel industry is both a great consumer of resources and provider of waste. For example, in Beijing, 630 star-rated hotels reportedly consume 80% of the total electricity used by the entire hotel sector. They account for 10% of Beijing's total water consumption. And they generate 4,000 tonnes of waste from disposable guest amenities. Correspondingly, Shanghai's hotels (including restaurants) produce 10M tonnes of rubbish a year.

According to the China Hotel Association (CHA), since the 2002-2003 launch of the Green Hotel Action programme, there are now a total of 387 accredited green hotels throughout China. These are concentrated in Beijing and include domestic star-rated hotels, commercial hotels, holiday resorts, and restaurants. If the CHA's 2003 target of 1,000 members attaining green accreditation has fallen far short, it is indeed a formidable task that now confronts central government.

Domestic GHA
The GHA programme closely modelled the Canadian hotel industry green hotel programme. In turn, the Canadian GHA was part of considerable developments and momentum in the early to mid-1990s in Europe, the US and Hong Kong. These brought the concept of a green hotel to China. This, then, took root in the 1999 Zhejiang provincial government bureaux local green hotel guidelines and industry standards, and the CHA's official national guidelines in 2003.

The CHA's green hotel system incorporated an A rating system of one A to five As, with one A being the lowest. A green hotel was adjudged on its environmental performance in terms of energy use, water, waste gas emissions, air quality and prevention of fire and food poisoning.

CHA executive assistant Zhang Minghou indicates that "a number" of hotels in Beijing and Guangzhou "have done a good job and made great progress in saving resources and energy, and reducing gas emissions and waste".

Yet, despite the progress made, the announced resumption of provision of disposable items by the Beijing domestic hoteliers, coupled with the present number of accredited green hotels, clearly represents failure. Is the CHA merely trying to save face? What went wrong? A number of factors are implicated.

Implementation struggles
The GHA is a solid and comprehensive programme. It represents a systematic process to building a green hotel. And it is a management concept encompassing improvement of work procedures, equipment, and possibly extending to the hotel's location. "After several years, the energy savings can offset expenditure on energy improvement and technical projects," says Zhang. "It goes far beyond only the removal of disposable items."

Also, from its very earliest announcements, the CHA emphasised cost-cutting, branding and public-image enhancements. With a gradual shift of public sentiment and perception, the CHA appeared to be out of step with its public pronouncements, providing possible fuel to the local media's fire.

Certainly, there is a question of management, nationality, commitment and the effectiveness of the GHA in European and North American hotels. According to a 2002 study of barriers to environmental best practices in the Philippine hotel industry by the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a strong correlation was found between the nationality of the owners of the properties and their environmental practices. With European owners (in this sample, German and Norwegian), the commitment to environmental best practices was much higher than that found among the local (Philippine) manager/owner.

However, more significant was the removal of non-recyclable guest amenities. Since the official launch in 2003, and even unofficially in years prior, this small but important first phase in implementation eventually led to a 2006 public-relations debacle for the domestic hotel proprietors - and ultimately signalled the death knell for the GHA.

The public derided the Beijing domestic hotels for not providing these amenities. For many guests, a stay in one of these hotels was a major expense. And they expected these as what they saw as their right.

Flabbergasted guests and commentators expected compensation in the form of reduced hotel charges or gifts for what many perceived as a blatant profit making by the hotels.

In turn, Chinese media commentators accused the domestic hotel operators of resorting to a public-relations campaign and an effort to introduce "a short-cut to reduced management costs".

In defence, the Beijing domestic industry hoteliers, reacting to criticisms by offering compensation in the form of gifts, stated that initially their compensatory gifts had actually increased costs over that of the amenities. Other commentators implied that such Chinese domestic hotel clientele were "backward" and "did not understand the nature of environmental protection".

Zhang is unperturbed, indicating that he considers the brawling between the domestic hotel industry operators and the public only "a storm in a tea cup" due to the public's "misunderstanding". And the Chinese media commentators "did not understand the comprehensive nature of the GHA programme".

Territoriality issues
Subsequent government restructuring in the early 2000s also introduced considerable complications. These resulted in the provision of what is now two separate but competing and parallel sets of industry standards.

The first is by the CHA. The second set is by the China Tourist Hotels Association (CTHA). The latter was released in 2006, and designed specifically for the domestic star-rated hotel industry. The domestic star-rated hotels once were the domain of the CHA. According to Zhang, the standards are entering into their fourth phase, and five government departments are now preparing these. There was "no sense" in maintaining competing standards, and China's Standardisation Law requires a new standard to replace them.

The scope of the incoming standard has been reduced from the CHA's five As to the CTHA's concentration on environmental protection; transfer from industry level to the state level permits provision of legal requirements and regulations, and far stricter standards - but which will still be voluntary in character, Zhang stresses.

Vis-à-vis these changes, some domestic hoteliers have pointed out that a great many technologies and systems are simply not feasible, are costly and provide a questionable return on investment.

For some hotels a considerable investment is required for the digging of holes throughout the buildings to install new pipes for using recycled water.

Despite the difficulties throughout, the Chinese authorities are pushing for the golden figure of 10,000 green hotels, the Beijing (and central government) authorities' green Olympics pledge notwithstanding. Perhaps sensing the change in the direction of the political and legal winds, recent reports indicate that currently 112 Beijing star-rated hotels have toed the line and, pledging to honour the Beijing Municipal Government's Green Olympics commitments, have signed on for provision of services.

Part of the agreement is to be audited for energy consumption among hotels hosting guests during the Olympics.

Elius Levin is a Shanghai-based business writer

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