Tourism industry gets green light

As environmental concerns heighten, particularly in primary European source markets, hotels and other tourism suppliers need to be seen to be green if they are to win the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s tourists. Kathi Everden reports

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By  Gemma Hornett Published  August 7, 2006

|~|Al-Maha---large.gif|~|Al Maha, owned by Emirates Hotels & Resorts, is the epicentre of the 225km² Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, accounting for some 4.7% of the emirate’s total land area, where native flora, fauna and animals are preserved.|~|It’s an anomaly that the green and occasionally pleasant land of England is currently suffering a water shortage while that liquid is running free and unrestricted in the parched environs of the Gulf. But one consequence of the changing weather patterns is that consumers in Europe are becoming more aware of the environment, and beginning to understand the dynamics of sustainable tourism. Indeed, big European tour operators such as Kuoni and TUI have issued guidelines advising customers how to save water, be economical with air-conditioning, avoid unnecessary use of plastic bags, clear up rubbish and care for flora and fauna by shunning activities such as ‘swimming with dolphins’ or ‘motorbiking in deserts’. Kuoni Switzerland has extended its good citizenship to incorporate suppliers too, offering its own Green Planet Award to beach resort hotels that meet specified ecological standards and flagging them up in brochures. “We intend to make substantial demands on our partners in particular to live up to our high environmental expectations, to help meet a growing and spreading customer demand,” explains CEO Thomas Stirnimann. In addition, Kuoni’s own research revealed sales staff actively ‘pushed’ resorts with Green Planet accreditation, although this statistic was not matched by sales, with just 15% of customers citing environmental concerns when making their travel purchases. TUI too operates an Environmental Management department and annual reports from representatives in each region in which it operates help in monitoring and, eventually, preparing consumer information for use in brochures. This environmental reporting covers all areas, from bathing water quality and beach quality, to waste water and energy management, traffic and other noise irritants, local developments, regional conservation and environmental strategies. With such colossi raising the bar for green tourism, it raises issues for the fast-paced expansion of tourism infrastructure in the Middle East where the environment seems to have played a less than leading role in the blueprint for growth.||**||Public and private concerns|~|Le-Royal.gif|~|At Le Royal Meridien Dubai, steam from the laundry is used to heat the swimming pool water and waste water is recycled and used for the landscaped gardens.|~|While green tourism is climbing rapidly up the agenda of both government and private enterprises, concern remains that travel itself impacts strongly on the natural environment, particularly in those destinations where the very unspoilt quality of beaches, jungles and oceans are themselves the main attraction. One new item on the green agenda is aviation and the increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere that are now labelled as one of the fastest-growing causes of global warming. In Europe, the European Parliament has recently voted in favour of tougher rules for airlines, including an aviation fuel tax, which would no doubt be passed on to the consumer in the form of a carbon surcharge. The taxes initially would apply to all domestic and intra-EU flights, but proposals are in hand for their introduction worldwide. While such arrangements are still pie-in-the-sky, several airlines are taking the issue seriously with British Airways already operating a voluntary scheme where passengers can calculate the cost of their journey in green terms and make a donation to Climate Care to offset this that will then go to sustainable energy schemes worldwide. Under these calculations, a return journey from Dubai to London would emit 1.24 tonnes with an equivalent offset cost of $16.83; London to Australia would be 3.68 tonnes or $49.86, while a local Cairo-Abu Dhabi hop tallies up to 0.54 tonnes and $9.04. Lufthansa, analysts have claimed, has also “managed to decouple strong growth from its environmental impact by significantly limiting fuel consumption and aircraft noise through fleet modernisation and co-operation with manufacturers”. The German carrier has implemented measures ranging from replacing paper route manuals for pilots with electronic versions, to cutting holding patterns at Frankfurt Airport to save journey time and fuel consumption. The World Cup in Germany this summer was the first carbon neutral tournament, offsetting emissions for fans and players travelling to the country by funding a green energy project in Africa and buying up carbon credits. But while the consumer can only sit and wait for governments to decide who pays the bill in the skies, on the ground it is very much in the hands of hotels to lead the play for the green tourism dollar. There have even been a few stirring examples of good citizenship in the Middle East, with some credible operations emerging in resort playgrounds as far-reaching as the Maldives and the Red Sea. But there is a need for a real sea change in operations, moving on from those towel-saving measures mostly trotted out as a commitment to the environment from hotels worldwide. According to Guido de Wilde, regional director of operations for Starwood, the protection and enhancement of the environment is a fundamental and critical pre-condition for healthy and long-lasting tourism growth. “For tourism to deliver the economic and social returns expected, the industry has to pay more attention to the triple bottom line, ensuring the balance between the social, economic and environmental,” he says. However, the UN-backed Green Globe benchmarking and certification for sustainable travel and tourism currently boasts only 14 accredited hotels in Egypt and one in Dubai, among its global members. Most hotel groups do have their own environment policy, but with concrete development winning most of the headlines worldwide, there is a danger the region will be labelled as one that focuses on numbers, rather than responsible tourism. Perhaps Dubai’s established Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa and the new Six Senses Evason Hideaway at Zighy Bay on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula can claim real credentials, although International Traders in Jordan did kick-start the trend with its Taybet Zaman village resort near Petra, winner of several prestigious green awards. A shining example of just what can be achieved is Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, winner of several DEPA and MENA awards for the environment as well as a member of Kuoni’s Green Planet network. Spearheading the 25-strong green task force is business development director, Siggi von Brandt, who says the hotel was the only one in the Middle East to be audited for its environmental credentials by TUV Rhineland, winning a 93.5% rating. Acknowledging that a green policy is not a particular ‘sell’ at the moment, von Brandt says it was a combination of good management and education for the staff that drove the measures. Initiated by the hotel’s chief engineer who came up with the idea of a water treatment plant, the resort now runs a variety of schemes; steam from the laundry is used to heat the swimming pool water, waste water is recycled and used for the landscaped gardens, and paper, printer cartridges, bottles, plastic, cans and oil are all recycled. As well as receiving financial rewards for new ideas, employees are encouraged to recycle materials used in their offices and in the hotel. “Each department gets audited on everything, from training and attendance to green measures and if they fail, staff do not attend the awards night,” says von Brandt. “Training is compulsory, but we add in fun things like sports events and quizzes.” Another hotel group that has identified staff involvement as key to the implementation of green strategies is Hilton International, where human resources director David Leman is rolling out a regional environmental policy, much of which will be directed through the Hilton university programme. “Eco learning is available online and so far, 1600 out of 5000 staff in the region have undergone the programme,” he says. “The basics involve promoting awareness of the environment, cost savings, hotel operations using less energy, chemicals, plastics and paper and more renewable materials, as well as simple things like using the stairs rather than a lift where possible.” For the management, Leman says there was awareness of efficient staff rostering to eliminate half-empty bus transfers, use of low-emission vehicles, as well as time/motion measures such as the scheduling of consecutive meetings to eliminate unnecessary travel. “From the customer point of view, we are looking at an eco room. Our Scandic brand has been very successful here, reducing water and waste consumption by more than13% as well as energy saving of 24% through initiatives such as energy saving light bulbs and eliminating individual packaging.” Leman says the successful policy at Scandic proves hotels can attract business through green measures. “People coming to Dubai, for instance, might look for price and brand, but if they see a green policy in a resort, it might impact on their preferences for a return visit,” he says.||**||Ground breaking hotels|~|Old-men.gif|~|At Six Senses Evason Hideaway, Zighy Bay elderly villagers will meet guests and talk about their culture and life experiences.|~|For hideaway resorts such as Al Maha and Evason, there is more opportunity to build in environmentally friendly operations from the outset, even at the premium end of the market, and the former has amply demonstrated that sustainable tourism is not just for the sandal-wearing, vegetarian hippie stereotypes of yesteryear. Opened in 1999, Al Maha today is the epicentre of the 225km² Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, accounting for some 4.7% of the emirate’s total land area, and the focus of efforts to re-establish flora and fauna as part of a project encompassing sustainable tourism. The desert resort has received several accolades including the 2004 World Legacy Award for Natural Travel by the National Geographic and Conservation International, the Eighth Arab Cities Award, as well as a nomination from the World Travel & Tourism Council as an outstanding case study in the blueprint for future tourism. According to Tony Williams, vice president for Emirates Hotels and Resorts, the region’s first nature park protects both the environment and one of the prime visitor attractions for Dubai, namely the desert dunes themselves, ensuring the longevity of the ubiquitous 4WD sundowner barbecue. Solar power, water recycling and use of natural materials are all part and parcel of the operation, but for the guest, the emphasis remains on luxury, underlining the potential of marrying premium travel with sustainable tourism ethics. “Initially, it is the effect of going in to the desert and participating in the activities that attracts people; subsequently, particularly for repeat guests, I think people walk away with a much better idea of things like conservation, as they are exposed to the reality of it having seen it in action,” Williams explains. “It is a luxury lifestyle, but guests also touch the environment and experience the peace and tranquillity of Al Maha and this makes them open to the concept in future.” It’s a view echoed by Bernhard Bohnenberger, managing director of Six Senses Hotels, Resort and Spas, who is about to introduce the company’s tourism-with-a-conscience ideal to Oman with the opening of the Evason Hideaway Zighy Bay in February. Six Senses’ concept of intelligent luxury was inaugurated with the first resort, Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, some 15 years ago. “Owners Sonu and Eva perceived that for luxury and travel, the future would be a pristine environment and people would pay a lot for that,” says Bohnenberger. “Commercially, if you destroy an environment, it will not be there to sell in the future.” At the time, it was new and radical, but the incipient popularity of the ideal was soon seen with the hotel winning the ‘Best Resort in the World’ award from Conde Nast Traveller in its second year of operation. “Statistics have shown that people are prepared to pay a 10% premium to visit a consciously green resort,” says Bohnenberger. “We can see this aspect becoming more important in years to come as it enhances the whole relaxation process, offering a back to nature concept.” For Six Senses, the holistic approach to the environment encompasses energy efficient design with limited air conditioning, wood taken from renewable resources, groundwater protection, home-grown vegetables, limited food imports, use of sheets in the spas to minimise laundry weight and much more – including a new scheme to offset carbon flight emissions from guest travel. “Soneva Fushi is our guinea pig, but our aim is by 2010 to have zero carbon emissions throughout the group,” claims Bohnenberger. True to Six Senses’ philosophy of involving the community and designing properties in keeping with local architecture, the company has employed local villagers to build the Zighy Bay resort in Omani style. It is hoped the elderly villagers will meet with the guests and talk about their culture and life experiences.||**||Think global, act local|~||~||~|In the Middle East, there are some shining examples of environmental good practice. Abu Dhabi’s late president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was at the forefront of conservation of desert species, establishing the federal environmental and conservation agencies and named as a ‘Champion of the Earth’ by the UN Environment Programme. Wetland and marine protected areas have been established to limit fishing, and efforts made to reduce gas flarings at oilfields, while US $100million has been spent on breeding projects and new tourism developments such as Saadiyat Island have underlined a firm commitment to green tourism. Elsewhere, Oman’s ruler too has led a flurry of environmental protection legislation, while Saudi Arabia is spearheading conservation work in the Red Sea through the inter-government PERSGA organisation. Egypt also has its green warriors and now boasts more than 20 protected areas such as the Ras Mohamed national marine park. New resort complexes such as Port Ghalib carry out complete environmental impact assessments before turning a sod of soil, concerned to limit the negative impact of construction on both land and sea. The Four Seasons has introduced environmental training for staff and instigated research and breeding programmes at its Marine Research Centre and the InterContinental is beefing up its environmental practices in 2006, aiming to set benchmarks and new targets for recycling and conservation of resources. Marriott has its Environmentally Conscious Hospitality Operations (ECHO) strategy, while Rezidor SAS operates Responsible Business to head green issues, and local hotel groups too are prioritising green policies. Spearheading Rotana’s environmental committee is the company’s Abu Dhabi area vice president, Freddy Farid, who says their motto is ‘seen to be green’, focusing on recycling and reusing, encompassing operations, staff training and suppliers. “This enables us to create an environmental awareness culture, practised by all staff, and further implementing a standard operating procedures practised by most of our hotels,” he says. Operational details are finely scrutinised at the Sheraton Deira Hotel too, where paper products, bathroom amenities and kitchen chemicals are all eco-friendly, garbage is segregated and recycled and beach clean-ups are part of its social responsibility policy. Its sister hotel, the Sheraton Dubai Creek also prioritises recycling, and has installed water-saving gadgets in bathrooms as well as utilising a Building Maintenance System to conserve energy. “In our daily routine, we remind our associates on the importance of energy conservation and the preservation of the environment,” says general manager, Thomas van Opstal. “This is our small way of giving back to the community we serve.”||**||GREEN CONTACTS|~||~||~|The International Hotel Environmental Initiative evolved into the International Tourism Partnership Organisation as part of the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum. Key publications include Sustainable Hotel Siting, Design and Construction and the quarterly publication Green Hotelier ( Benchmarking indicator for the Green Globe programme ( United Nations Environment Programme ( Holidays with a conscience ( The Travel Foundation lists responsible travel options ( The International Eco Tourism Society ( Carbon emissions ( News and best practice case studies (||**||

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