Slow to wake up to climate change, hotels sector vows to tread more lightly

  • More than 500 travel companies have signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, which aims to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050
  • Energy and water use, food waste, sourcing of materials, and cutting single-up plastic use big focus areas
  • World Travel & Tourism Council Hotel Sustainability Basics initiative aims to leave no hotel, however small, behind in push for sector to tread more lightly
  • Sustainable Hospitality Alliance’s Pathways to Net Positive Hospitality offers more advanced help to big brands

August 4 – Perhaps one day all hotels will be built like Svart, a sustainable haven at the foot of the Svartisen glacier in Norway. Due to open in 2024, it is billed as “the world’s first energy-positive off-grid destination”, and comes with an exceptional sustainability pedigree.

The circular hotel will sit on stilts above a fjord, explains Ivaylo Lefterov, Svart hotel’s managing director of hotel developments. Its roofscape will make the most of the long Scandinavian summer days, with solar panels harvesting enough energy to power the 94-room hotel, as well as the adjacent farm and fishery. Surplus energy will be fed back into the local grid, ultimately offsetting the energy need of construction.

The hotel is part of the Six Senses brand, a long time, high-end leader in creating sustainable hotels, and will operate as a total circular economy, with technology that captures waste heat to create energy, and its own waste management and recycling facilities . Ninety percent of everything the hotel needs will come from within a 20-mile radius, explains Lefterov.

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The company is also looking at ways to offset guests’ carbon emissions by investing in local environmental projects, and guests will also be given the opportunity to find out more about the importance of sustainability, says Lefterov, and hopefully change the way they think.

“Unless the consumer has a change of mindset, it doesn’t matter what we do, we are never going to progress,” he says. Ultimately, he hopes that the ethos and the technologies at Svart will be seen as a blueprint for others to follow.

While tourism may have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to sustainability, there are now attempts to galvanize the sector into action. Last year’s COP26 climate conference in Scotland saw the launch of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, with the now familiar mantra of halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

More than 500 travel-related businesses have signed up to the World Tourism Organization (UWWTO) initiative, which is designed to accelerate climate action at every level of the industry, with the emphasis on collaboration between stakeholders. Five priority areas include curbing energy use and water usage, cutting food waste, sustainable sourcing of materials, and cutting single-use plastics. The declaration falls within the framework of the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Program, and its goal is to increase sustainable consumption and production (SCP) in the sector.

Tourists on the island of Gran Canaria, Spain – ‘changing consumers’ mindset’ is part of the pathway towards sustainability, say hoteliers. REUTERS/Borja Suarez

As tourism grows, partly on the back of a post pandemic bounce, says Dr Dirk Glaesser, director for the sustainable development program at the UNWTO, “we are aware of the needs of the tourism sector to transform significantly faster”.

“(But) sustainability is a process, it is not just something you can certify,” he continues, which is why the non-competitive sharing of information and best practice, which has grown over recent years, is such an important part of tourism’s sustainability push.

Paloma Zapata, chief executive at Sustainable Travel International, agrees that when it comes to sustainability, travel and tourism is “late to the game”, but things are starting to change. “There is a lot of pressure from all sorts of directions,” she says, including clients, employees, government regulations and investors who want to see their money create more than just economic value.

Sustainable Travel International partners with hotels to help them recognize and address their impacts, explains Zapata. Bigger brands are already conscious of their sustainability obligations through accreditation schemes and the bigger ESG (environmental, social and governance) picture, she says, and while smaller luxury hotels may have a higher footprint: “they have the means to be able to innovate” .

That leaves a large rump of medium-sized, often family-run hotels in the middle, and it’s these properties that struggle taking the first step towards sustainability, she says. “We are getting a lot of inquiries from people running hotels saying: “I know I need to do something in sustainability, but I don’t even know where to start,” she explains.

This is the problem that the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) has set out to solve with its Hotel Sustainability Basics initiative. Launched in April, it is based around a set of criteria that all hotels should implement as an absolute minimum, explains Christopher Imbsen, director of sustainability at the WTTC. The idea is that no hotel, however small, is left behind in the push to introduce sustainability, he says.

The WTTC’s Hotel Sustainability Basics initiative includes measures such as using green cleaning products. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

The driving forces behind the project were some of the world’s leading hotel brands, he continued, who saw the need for a program that created consistency across the industry and helped hoteliers from smaller properties, many of whom were their franchisees. Making up 80% of the sector, many are overwhelmed by the initial demands of starting a sustainable journey, he says

Although the program takes three years to complete and involves 12 separate areas, the first eight actions have been designed to be relatively simple, the last four much harder. They include actions to measure and reduce energy, water, waste and carbon emissions, along with measures around reusing linen, using green cleaning products, and eliminating single-use plastic. So far, more than 50,000 hotels have signed up.

“These are criteria that everyone could and should be doing as a bare minimum,” says Imbsen. “These are the non-negotiables that can raise the level of sustainability within the whole industry.”

He expects more regulation to come in as governments set about meeting their own sustainability targets. “It’s about getting ahead of the game. It’s much more costly to react to these things than to be proactive.”

The initiative is seen as a stepping-stone to more in-depth programs such as the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance’s Pathways to Net Positive Hospitality, which takes a holistic view of environmental sustainability and is again focused on collaboration and sharing tools and resources. Based on industry insights and best practice, the pathway lays out the sustainability journey as four key stages with varying levels of ambition.

The alliance represents 25% of the global hotel industry by rooms, and Claire Whitely, the organization’s head of environment, believes that the sector, “has woken up more to both the impacts that hotels can have on the environment but also the potential impacts that issues like climate change can have on them”.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, apart from Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Mark Hillsdon

Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles.

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