A brighter shade of green: the growth of eco-tourism

In the new breed of green urban hotel, chandeliers and plastic wrapping for guest laundry and dry-cleaning are out while reusable bottles, recycled water and ubiquitous luxuriant plants are in.

Take Singapore's scene-stealing Parkroyal on Pickering. It has no fewer than 15,000 square metres of hanging gardens spread across 16 storeys with its rooms accessed by open corridors. The hotel harvests rainwater and uses automatic sensors to regulate energy and water, has a plastic-free policy, and is designed to maximise natural light.

"We want to offer accommodation that is tranquil, that alleviates the stresses of travel," explains Matthew Tan, vice-president, technical services with Singapore's Pan Pacific Hotels Group, which operates the Parkroyal on Pickering.

"[But] we also want to speak to the hearts and minds of our guests, to engage with them about preserving and protecting the environment. It is the most energy-efficient hotel we have, and it is also one of our best-performing hotels in terms of occupancy.

REACHING FOR THE SKY GARDENS

The five-year-old Parkroyal on Pickering, which is enjoying renewed relevance in the new era of sustainability, is set to have some serious eco competition when Pan Pacific's next hotel, the Pan Pacific Orchard, opens in 2021. Designed to be zero waste and zero impact, the hotel will not only set new standards for sustainability, but also for visitor experience.

"We have a whole series of environments in the building that the rooms look into," says Richard Hassell, the Australian-born co-founding director of WOHA, the Singapore-based architects behind both the Parkroyal and the Pan Pacific Orchard.

"The arrival level is called Forest Floor, then we have a Beach Terrace and a Garden Terrace. The highest level, the Cloud Terrace, is where the ballroom is.

"You can literally have a misty wedding in the clouds: we have worked with a company in Germany that has found a way to create a superfine mist even in Singapore's high humidity environment. It is really nice to pull things together that are both romantic but also intensely practical."

As with the Parkroyal, the total area covered by the new hotel's gardens, spread across several levels, will be larger than the plot on which the hotel stands. Hassell stresses that incorporating plants into the fabric of the building is about more than aesthetics and wellbeing; it is about helping cities function more effectively.

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"Plants are just about the only thing that you can put out in the sun and they don't heat up; anything else that you put on a building facade will either heat up or reflect the sun onto something else. So plants are the only thing that really solve the urban heat island effect," he says. "In a climate like Singapore, lowering the temperature by just a few degrees, say from 38 to 32 degrees, is the difference between being unbearable or feeling comfortable.

"Plants also improve air quality by removing industrial pollutants, and having wet soil is also the only thing that gets rid of dust."

Hassell is optimistic that his company's green hotels will have flow-on effects to other forms of architecture. "We have seen the migration of ideas from resort architecture into residential architecture. When people get to experience a lifestyle in hotels, they start to say, 'Why can't I have this every day?'."

ECO TOURISM: THE SECOND COMING

Singapore's green hotels are one manifestation of a trend that is reshaping the travel world. Over the past few years, increasing numbers of operators are investing in sustainability in a meaningful way. In some cases, the changes are driven by guest demand.

In other instances, they are a considered response to the ever-more-evident effects of climate change. What the leaders in this field share is a willingness to grapple deeply with the issues, and an awareness that going green is about more than only changing guests' sheets every third day.

There are, of course, still plenty of companies eager to cash in on a trend, as proven by the flood of announcements by properties around the world announcing that they are banning plastic straws.

However, many companies are taking a broader view, evaluating their wider impact on the world around them using an approach that Andrew Fairley, who has helped shape strategies for organisations including Tourism Australia, Zoos Victoria and Ecotourism Australia, calls "the quadruple bottom line".

Fairley says his first experience of it came when he was part of the team responsible for developing Fiji's Turtle Island resort. "Obviously, every decision has to make financial sense; that is the first bottom line," he says.

"Every decision also has to have environmental integrity, and it also has to benefit the local people – that is where you get your social licence from. And we also had to look at our purpose which, being in the Yasawa Islands, was to celebrate the heritage and culture of the place."

Some of the leaders in this area are boutique companies. Take Echo Resorts, which has a portfolio of three eco-resorts in Sabah, one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Although the company has long emphasised sustainability in its operations, owner Gillian Tan says guest response has changed dramatically over the past decade.

"When we started, people didn't understand the eco-resort idea," Tan says, adding that guests were reluctant to do without amenities such as airconditioning. These days, however, guests are not only more aware of environmental issues, but also eager to get involved.

"When the company introduced invited guests to help remove the rubbish that washed up on the beach during monsoon season, it was overwhelmed by the response. We have had so many requests from our guests that we are now doing it right through the year."

THE GREENING OF LUXURY

One company that has been at the forefront of eco-conscious luxury over many years is Soneva resorts. Sonu Shivdasani​, chief executive of the company and co-founder, with his wife Eva, of both Soneva Resorts and Six Senses resorts, opened Soneva Fushi in the Maldives in 1995.

Soneva resorts are designed to interact with the natural environment. Soneva Fushi's residences are hidden amid dense tropical foliage, and at the company's other Maldives resort, Soneva Jani, the villas have retractable roofs that let you lie in bed and gaze up at the night sky.

Shivdasani is heartened by the recent growth in luxury eco-tourism. "The demand for environmentally and socially responsible travel is increasing [as we realise that] our earth's resources are finite," he says. "Owners and directors understand that it makes a lot of business sense to be more focused on sustainability."

Sustainability does not have to be expensive, according to Shivdasani; in fact, it can help a company save money. "Waste management is a huge challenge in the Maldives [and] at Soneva we recycle 80 per cent of our waste, which is quite remarkable when one considers that the city of Hong Kong only recycles about 45 per cent.

"At our Waste to Wealth Centre, our cardboard and leftover food is turned into compost, the branches that fall off the trees are put into a pyrolysis oven where we create charcoal. Eighty-three per cent of our non-structural building blocks are made from waste materials.

"We are producing a very fine cold-pressed coconut oil from our waste coconuts, and of course in Glasscycle, our state of the art glass blowing workshop, we recycle all our waste bottles and turn them into works of great of art. This is why we call it the Waste to Wealth Centre as it is now self-sustaining in that the cost of its operation is refunded by the savings we generate."

Even small changes can bring big results, Shivdasani says. "Producing your own bottled water is good for the environment as you eliminate plastic bottles. It is also good for the business as you reduce your cost of sales of the water. A win-win situation."

However, not all of the benefits of sustainability are so easily quantified. "[Our commitment to sustainability] renders us with a core purpose, making us a company that goes beyond being primarily for the profit of the stockholders," Shivdasani says. "This is highly motivating and engaging for our employees. They come to work each morning passionate about their company and what we are doing."

Shivdasani says quantifying the effects of the company's operations is essential. Soneva's annual Total Impact Assessment (TIA) looks at environmental, human, social, economic and fiscal impacts not only of the company's arrangements, but also those of its supply chain.

Soneva is not the only company using statistical analysis to improve its operations. Many of the world's largest hotel brands, including Marriott, InterContinental, Hyatt and Hilton, have committed to big-target sustainability programs.

While many are adopting inventive approaches – including Spain's NH Hotel Group, which has recycled has several thousand kilograms of wine corks into floor and wall coverings used in hotels – it is often more traditional techniques that bring big savings.

"At Hilton, we have an ambitious goal to cut our environmental footprint in half by 2030, and doubling our social impact, and we have already reached $US1 billion in cumulative savings since 2008," says Heidi Kunkel, vice president, operations, Australasia.

The company has used a range of measures from installing solar panels, rainwater catchments and low-flow taps to recycling soap, which is provided to disadvantaged communities, and replacing plastic pens with so-called paper pens, made with a sturdy form of cardboard.

"We are also doubling our investment in sourcing goods from minority- and locally owned companies, and working to reduce plastic," Kunkel says. However, she points out that in a company with 5300 properties across 14 brands, making changes is rarely a quick process.

"Take slippers. We are moving away from having them wrapped in plastic to having them wrapped in a paper band. We have 26 properties across Australasia and we want to capture as many of those hotels as we can, so we need to look for suppliers who are able to provide services at least across the majority of hotels, which include Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Port Moresby and Bora Bora," she says.

"Then we need to make sure we do not conflict with any existing agreements, that it can be delivered in line with all expectations, including price, and then negotiate the agreement."

So far, many of the savings have been made in the back-of-house area. However, Hilton is looking at getting its guests more actively involved in making sustainable choices.

"Our Hilton Honours App will soon give guests options to control the temperature and lighting of their room, which includes options to conserve energy consumption," Kunkel says. "If you set your temperature control for 22 degrees instead of 20, that actually gives a tremendous amount of energy savings."

TURNING GREEN: BE OUR GUEST

The process of encouraging guests to become more involved in sustainability is something that is long overdue, according to Dr Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director of Griffith Institute for Tourism at Griffith University.

"The hotel industry is often too afraid to confront their customers with the issues, but I think people are actually very understanding," she says, pointing to the way that hotel guests no longer expect to have towels and sheets changed daily. "No one wants to be a bad human being."

Becken would like to see travellers encouraged to be more water-conscious, particularly in countries where water availability is a problem. The issue was highlighted earlier this year when drought hit the city of Cape Town – among other measures, the city removed tap handles in its public bathrooms, instead providing hand sanitiser – and it remains a pressing issue in many less developed countries.

"When you look at the water footprint of tourists compared with locals, you will find that in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Europe, water usage per head in hotels is a bit lower than in the general population, particularly if hotels are using water-efficient showerheads and ensuring there is no leakage in their pipes," Becken says.

"In the countries with the least water, however, it is a different story. You might get tourist resorts using 1000 litres per head, when locals are using just 40 litres a head. If you make visitors conscious of that issue, you may find they take shorter showers."

IT STARTS AT THE TOP

Getting governments at all involves involved, rather than relying on the initiative of individual companies, is essential to in order to achieve meaningful results, according to Dr Xavier Font, Professor of Sustainability Marketing at England's Surrey University.

"In Copenhagen, more than 80 per cent of all [hotel] beds are certified as sustainable, because only certified hotels and restaurants are allowed to be part of the supply chain for the city's conference business. Many of those hotels also serve the leisure market," says Font.

Governments also have a role to play in managing another of the most pressing eco-tourism issues around: over-tourism. "With tourism growing at a rapid rate, we have to find ways to ensure that we don't exhaust the good will of the local community and that we don't destroy the capacity of the attraction to deliver the experience that visitors want," Andrew Fairley says.

While over-tourism in European cities such as Barcelona and Venice has made international headlines, Fairley says some parts of Australia are facing the same problem, including Victoria's Great Ocean Road.

"It is such an iconic part of Australia's tourism offering, but the facilities down there were built 10 years ago to cater to 1.5 million visitors a year, and they are now attracting 2.5 million visitors a year," he says. "The crowds that gather at particular times of day make it difficult to soak up the magnificence of what you are looking at."

For Fairley, part of the solution is for taxpayer funded tourism marketing boards to promote a greater variety of attractions. "People want to go and see particular places because that is what they are fed," he says.

Font agrees, saying that cities in particular need to change their marketing campaigns to attract a different kind of tourist, one that is willing to stay longer and explore more. Repeat visitors, he says, also make more sustainable tourists.

"You don't want people who come to Sydney for one day and all they want to do is have their photo taken beside Sydney Harbour," he says. "They are the ones crowding your peak tourist spots. Visitors who are coming for the second or third time are much more likely to integrate, to explore the culture and the food rather than tick off sights.

"If any industry really needs to get its act together, it is tourism," Becken says, pointing to the ongoing growth in global tourism. "If we keep growing at five per cent a year, we are going to need to find five per cent efficiencies every year just to stay in the same spot."

GOING GREEN: HOW TO BE AN ECO-AWARE TRAVELLER

THINK ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE GOING

Some destinations are inherently less sustainable than others, with desert cities among the worst offenders. Dr Susanne Becken is also concerned about the tremendous growth in Antarctic tourism. "Flying so far makes it extremely energy intensive; then you also have the risks that come when ships travel into a pristine area. It raises all sorts of considerations."

CONSIDER STAYING LONGER

"Whether you go to Paris for one day or seven days, your carbon footprint is the same," says Professor Xavier Font. He adds that visitors who stay in a destination longer are less likely to clog up the most popular sights. "They behave much more like locals, which reduces the impact of tourism on the residents."

GO LOW-IMPACT

Think about how you use resources. Do you really need to keep the airconditioning at 20 degrees, or could you keep it at 22 and reduce your energy expenditure? From turning off the lights when you leave the hotel to taking shorter showers, small steps add up quickly.

BRING YOUR OWN

If you are heading to a destination with drinkable tap water, don't buy bottled water; instead, pack your own water bottle and refill as needed. If you are travelling in Asia, consider packing a pair of chopsticks, to avoid using the disposable versions on offer at many eateries, which go straight to landfill.

MAKE SMARTER MEAL CHOICES

Make like Richard Branson, who has banned beef from some Virgin flights in an effort to combat the greenhouse gas emissions and rainforest deforestation associated with beef production. Choosing to make some of your meals vegetable-based reduces the impact on the planet.

ECO-WARRIOR: ZENUL KHAN, ARCHITECT, NORWAY

Zenul Khan, a senior architect at Norwegian architects Snohetta, helped design an energy positive hotel in the Arctic.

Q: TELL US ABOUT THE HOTEL.

A: Svart, which will open in 2021, will be located at the foot of the Svartisan glacier in northern Norway. The circular shape of the hotel provides panoramic views of the pristine natural surrounds. It is built on top of weather-resistant wooden poles, to minimise the building's footprint.

Q: YOU DESCRIBE IT AS A 'POWERHOUSE HOTEL'. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

A: Over the course of 60 years, a powerhouse building will generate more renewable energy than the total amount of energy required for daily operations and for the construction and demolition of the building. In this hotel, we use geothermal wells for heating, and clad the roof with solar panels produced with hydro energy.

Q: WHY WAS USING BUILDING MATERIALS WITH LOW EMBODIED ENERGY IMPORTANT?

Embodied energy is the amount of energy that is required to produce, transport, build and replace materials and products. Materials produced with fossil fuel energy have the highest rates of embodied energy. By using wood in construction and cladding, and avoiding energy-intensive materials such as structural steel and concrete, we have minimised the building's environmental impact.

ECO-WARRIOR: GILLIAN TAN, ECHO RESORTS, MALAYSIA

Borneo's eco-friendly Echo Resorts owner Gillian Tan encourages her guests to get their hands dirty.

Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR ECO WARRIOR PURSUITS PROGRAM AT BUNGARAYA ISLAND RESORT IN SABAH.

A: On our island, the monsoon brings a tidal change which sees a lot of plastic waste wash up onto our beach, posing a great hazard to marine life within our bay. Combatting this problem is a huge job. This year we invited our guests to join us in tackling the problem; plastic is a global problem that we all need to get involved in collectively.

Q: WHAT WAS THE REACTION?

A: It took on a life of its own. We have had so many requests from our guests that we are now doing it right through the year. Guests also have the opportunity to work in our marine centre, doing everything from fixing food for baby clams to helping clean the reefs.

Q: HAS THE ECO-TOURISM MARKET CHANGED OVER THE LAST DECADE?

A: Definitely. When we started, people didn't understand the eco-resort idea. They used to say, "We can't come if you don't have airconditioning". Now it's a lot easier to tell our story. People are interested in sustainability, they love hearing about how we built the resorts to be eco-friendly. At Bungaraya, for instance, we built villas around trees, and worked with the contours of the land rather than levelling the site, which would have changed the eco-system.

ECO WARRIOR: CHRISTIAN PEDERSEN, CHEF, SIX SENSES ZIL PASYON, THE SEYCHELLES

Pedersen, the executive chef at Six Senses Zil Pasyon resort in the Seychelles, shares the secrets of how he and team cut food waste by almost 25 per cent in one month

Q: HOW DID YOU CUT FOOD WASTE SO DRASTICALLY?

A: Working with the resort's sustainability manager, we started by looking back at the food that was coming back from the table to see what portion sizes our guests actually wanted. We made adjustments wherever we saw food coming back. That even included downsizing our butter moulds, as the portions were too large for our guests. We educated our staff in waste control, how to utilise the products to the full. We now use leftover cucumber seeds for our gazpacho, and vegetable peels, which are full of vitamin and flavour, are being added to our stocks.

Q: WHAT WAS THE NEXT STEP?

A: A lot of the waste reduction came from the back-of-house canteen, where we feed 200 people every breakfast, lunch and dinner. We made our menus more connected, so that if we're offering spaghetti bolognese today, tomorrow we'll offer lasagne, which lets us use up the leftover sauce. If we have grilled chicken today, we'll have sweet and sour chicken tomorrow. We also focus more on what the staff wants to eat, reducing the wastage heavily. By year end, we are aiming to reduce food waste by 43 per cent.

Q: DID YOU MAKE ANY OTHER CHANGES?

A: It really inspired us to find other ways to become more sustainable, which included everything from looking at what sort of paper our menus were printed on to looking at how much information we really needed to print out. We are also focusing a lot more on our organic garden, harvesting a little each week then working out the menus around those products.

ECO WARRIOR: DORIS GOH, ALILA HOTELS, SINGAPORE

Doris Goh is the chief marketing officer for Alila Hotels, a company which has long embraced sustainability.

Q: TELL US ABOUT THE WORK THAT ALILA DOES WITH LOCAL COMMUNITIES.

A: Sustainability is crucial to the Alila story, and that includes working with the local community, getting to know them, and hiring community members to work in our resorts. Each hotel general manager also gets to choose a local cause which the resort supports. In Jakarta, for example, they have been planting trees with local schools.

Q: YOU DON'T USE A DESIGN BLUEPRINT, BUT START FRESH WITH EACH RESORT. WHY IS THAT?

A: The idea is to supercharge each site, using canny design and local materials. At Alila Villas Uluwatu, for instance, the villas are oriented to the wind direction so guests don't need to use air-conditioning. We also use local volcanic stone to insulate the villa roofs. As the site is very arid, the landscaping uses indigenous plants that don't require watering.

Q: YOUR RESORTS IN BALI ARE NOW SENDING ZERO WASTE TO LANDFILL, RIGHT?

A: That is correct. At each hotel, all waste streams are transformed into high-value products. Glass is crushed into aggregate and used as a green building material, metal and high-value plastics are recycled into light crude oil which is distilled down into kerosene or diesel, and organic material is turned into compost and used in our organic gardens.

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