Hotels call for responsible tourism

The hotel industry and tourists themselves are growing increasingly aware of the negative impacts that tourism has on the environment. In the past twenty years a number of hotels have started improving their environmental policy and this is likely to become more widespread in the future.

At a conference organised on 17 July 2002 by the International Hotels Environment Initiative (IHEI) to celebrate the tenth anniversary of IHEI, hotel managers, journalists and academics discussed the recent changes in the hotel industry and the ways of making tourism more environmentally-friendly.

IHEI, a non-profit, non-competitive platform designed for industries to share expertise, works with industries to develop information for hotels around the world. Its latest development is a web-based environmental benchmarking tool (see related story), which enables hotels to compare their performance with respect to water and energy use, with that of other hotels of the same size or in a similar location.

Hotels and their guests are heavy consumers of water and energy and generate large quantities of waste including toxic waste, which is hazardous to use or dispose of. Hotel guests also degrade the environment, as is, for example, seen by the dying back of coral reefs in tourist areas. David Nicholson, a freelance journalist, highlighted the paradox of environmental tourism: hotels often use natural resources to attract tourists, but the more people come the more such resources are damaged.

Concern about tourism’s negative impact on the environment first emerged in the 1980s. According to a recent survey conducted by IHEI in the UK, US and Australia, 87% of British tourists believe that tourism development is in danger of destroying the environment. This figure compares with 72% of Australians and only 30% of Americans.

There have been considerable changes in the hotel industry in the past 10 years as the expectations in the market place have evolved. This change, driven by a compound of factors, is part of a larger shift to be more environmentally and socially aware, as is also seen in the increasing popularity of fair-trade products and ethical investments, says Karen Fletcher, Director of IHEI.

There are both ethical and financial motivations underlying this change in attitude. Reducing energy and water consumption and waste generation saves money. Having a greener policy also improves a hotel’s image, motivates staff and generates guest loyalty. According to IHEI, the pressure to become more environmentally-friendly comes more from corporate accounts than from individual holiday makers. Investment funds are also interested in green issues and IHEI receives a growing number of calls from investors enquiring about the environmental policy of different hotel chains.

For the moment, there is no overall standard for hotels, so initiatives come from individual chains of hotels or from governments. Unfortunately, according to Fletcher, it seems unlikely that there will be a “greencode” or universal set of environmental standards in the near future – however, agreement is a long way off.

Pia Heidenmark, Director of Environmental and Social Affairs for Radisson SAS Hotel and Resorts, explained that in her chain all the hotels have the obligation to improve their environmental standards each year, but it is up to each individual hotel to determine which measures it will implement because the best practice depends very much on the hotel’s location and construction. These measures vary from small changes such as using energy-saving light bulbs, to huge investments such as installing more efficient boilers.

This is where IHEI can help hotels design action plans. With the help of IHEI, the Four Seasons Hotels have created guidelines to minimise waste, increase awareness, save energy and use products with less packaging. The direction has established an environmental action team, consisting of a group of employees in each hotel, which deals with issues ranging from recycling to energy awareness.

According to Fletcher, the factors that affect a hotel’s environmental performance the most are its design, location and construction details, all of which are determined at the planning stage. In practice these factors include considerations such as whether a hotel is facing into the wind or whether it is located in the sun or in the shade. Once a hotel is built, there is not much that can be changed to increase the environmental benefits.

In the past, tackling environmental aspects of tourism was enough, but there are now much larger issues being recognised, such as corporate social responsibility, and it is becoming increasingly necessary to integrate social and environmental issues. Environmental awareness is also increasingly being built into education, whether at hotelier schools or in engineering courses so that it will be easier to deal with these issues ten years down the line. As Nicholson concluded, “The most environmentally-friendly that any of us can be is to stay at home.”

Edie recently reported on the Trafalgar Hotel in London, which has had 3,500 trees planted in order to offset its greenhouse gas emissions (see related story).

Story by Amelie Knapp

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