The green revolution and the brands committed to change
As global tourism booms at an unprecedented rate, the environment
is straining under the pressure leaving many of us wondering,
are we loving our planet to death?
I dip my snorkel-topped head into the crystal-clear water and brace myself for the flurry of colour about to cross my goggled vision. I tread the water and look every which way, blow some water out of my snorkel, ungracefully attempt to defog my goggles and try again, but it’s no good. It’s not the snorkel. The reef below and all around me is as beige and bland as a stale loaf of bread.
I’m at the Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, and the coral here has lost most of its colour. It is not dead, but it is starving as rising water temperatures force the coral to expel the algae – its food source – that usually lives in its tissues. Since an extreme El Nino event hit the Pacific Ocean in 2015, water temperatures have risen so much – up to 34 degrees in some areas – that 60 per cent of all assessed coral colonies and up to 90 per cent in some areas of the Maldives, have been bleached.
Closer to home at our beloved Great Barrier Reef, that figure hit a devastating 93 per cent in 2016 while the XL Catlin Seaview Survey has found that in the past 30 years alone we’ve lost as much as 40 per cent of the world’s total corals.
Three ‘global coral bleaching events’ have occurred since 1998, and the most recent is considered to be the longest and possibly most damaging on record. As global warming worsens, extreme El Ninos – which weren’t even seen before 1982 – and coral bleaching events are occurring more frequently, and low-lying countries such as the Maldives are suffering the most.
After less than 10 minutes of bobbing in the sea, I leave my more persistent snorkelling companions and swim back to the boat. I’ve seen enough. As I look back at the out-of-this-world-aqua ocean, I can’t help but be overcome by a sadness totally at odds with the sunny perfection of my surroundings. I also feel guilt. As an avid traveller, I know I contribute to this devastating global problem.
Sustainable tourism and zero-waste travel are big conversation topics at the moment. Tourism, and in recent years the problem of over-tourism, is inextricably tied up in the environment, and while it may not be the root cause of our planet’s woes, it certainly doesn’t help.
Take the idyllic Maldivian coral reefs, screaming out for respite from the water that is cooking it, while hordes of tourists in holiday mode exacerbate the problem simply by doing the very thing they travelled to the Maldives to do – swim in the ocean. Oxybenzone, an ingredient found in most sunscreens, is highly toxic to coral and marine ecosystems, yet 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are dripping off of our bodies and into the ocean annually. It’s not hard to see the irony; my very presence at Dhaalu Atoll is partly to blame for my disappointing snorkelling experience.
And then there’s the issues associated with getting to our destinations in the first place. Fossil fuel-heavy airplanes not only contribute to climate change but also create unspeakable amounts of waste.
In 2017, the figure was 5.7 million tonnes, according to the International Air Transport Association, which also predicts that figure could double by 2027.
As journalist Tim McDonnell so bluntly put it in American magazine Mother Jones:
It’s harsh, but he has a point, and it makes me view my Gold Frequent Flyer status in a whole new light.
Thankfully, there is movement in the right direction. In February, Qantas announced the most ambitious waste-reduction target of any major airline, aiming to become the world’s first airline to reuse, recycle and compost at least three-quarters of its general waste by the end of 2021. This mission will effectively eliminate single-use plastics, and remove more than 100 million items per year from flights and lounges by the end of 2020. Separate targets exist for fuel, water and electricity consumption.
“Airlines burn a lot of fuel, which has an impact on the environment, so we have a responsibility to play our part,” explains Andrew Parker, the Qantas Group Executive, Government, Industry, International & Environment. “As the national carrier, we also want to ensure that national treasures are here for generations of Australians and international visitors to enjoy.”
“The natural environment is such an important part of life in this country, and we would be doing the spirit of Australia a disservice by not acting stronger and sooner.”
Other airlines have been slower on the uptake. Many are jumping on the no single-use plastic train, but is that really enough in 2019? Perhaps not when you consider Airbus’s prediction that the number of passenger aircraft in our skies will double in the next 20 years.
“Airlines burn a lot of fuel, which has an impact on the environment, so we have a responsibility to play our part...As the national carrier, we also want to ensure that national treasures are here for generations of Australians and international visitors to enjoy.”
Andrew Parker, Qantas Group Executive, Government, Industry, International & Environment
Our Most Vulnerable
As tourism booms, the world’s more fragile regions are buckling under the pressure. How much pressure, exactly? Something to the tune of 1.8 billion international tourist arrivals will be clocked by the end of 2030, and the world’s most vulnerable countries will accept their share of that enormous tally. As World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage advisory board member Carolyn Childs told Luxperience earlier this year:
"We are seeing many destinations ‘loved to death’...
With literally hundreds of millions of Millennials travelling over the next 10 years, just imagine the downward pressure that’s going to be felt by some of the world’s more fragile regions."
This rings true for plenty of destinations. The Philippine island of Boracay was forcibly closed last year for a six-month rehabilitation after President Rodrigo Duterte publicly labelled it a “cesspool”, following a dramatic jump in tourist arrivals from 260,000 in 2000 to more than two million in 2017.
Similarly, after years of pillaging by selfie-taking tourists, Maya Bay, on Thailand’s Phi Phi Leh island, was indefinitely closed by the Thailand government in an effort to salvage what little of the pristine environment was left. But carefree – or careless – travellers are only partly to blame. “It’s [the industry] that [must] change, not the traveller,” says Childs. “Travellers buy what we sell. They consume what we package. And they visit where and what we recommend.”
Case in point: As the Maldives shrinks due to rising sea levels, dozens of luxury resorts continue to open on its islands each year in response to rocketing demand. The country now hosts more tourists per annum than the nation’s entire population. That’s not the traveller in action, that’s hotel brands. That’s the Maldivian government. That’s business.
“When profit is the only motive then there’s little if any regard for the impact travellers will have on destinations as long as the money keeps rolling in. As an industry, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the destructive path we’re on and the impact we are having on these fragile communities,” Childs says.
Sonu Shivdasani, co-founder and CEO of Soneva, which owns hotels in the Maldives and Thailand, reiterates Childs’ sentiment. “Companies must become the solution, not the problem,” he says. “The hotel industry benefits the richest 20-30 per cent of the planet and because of our resource-hungry ways, [it is] at the expense of the poorest 70-80 per cent. In summary, we as an industry consume more than our fair share of resources.”
As the Maldives shrinks due to rising sea levels, dozens of luxury resorts continue to open on its islands each year in response to rocketing demand. The country now hosts more tourists per annum than the nation’s entire population. That’s not the traveller in action, that’s hotel brands. That’s the Maldivian government. That’s business.
Returning to Nature
Shivdasani and his wife, Eva, were among the few hoteliers to have foresight about the environmental impact of tourism, and Soneva has long been considered a world-leader in responsible tourism.
“When Eva and I opened our first resort in 1995, we held a belief that a company must have a clear purpose beyond making money. It must serve and contribute to the society in which it operates and it should not impact negatively on the environment.”
Bucking the trend among tunnel-visioned, profiteering hotel brands, Soneva is always striving towards creating a net positive impact and has a target of zero waste. It recycles 90 per cent of its resorts’ solid waste, and glass, food waste, jungle trimmings and polystyrene are all processed on site.
It was also the first resort company in the Maldives and among the first in the world to ban plastic straws more than 20 years ago – something that many resorts are only now implementing – and in 2008, it banned imported water, which has saved about 1.5 million plastic bottles from ending up in our oceans.
The same year the company introduced a mandatory carbon levy, and as a result is 100 per cent carbon neutral, making up for emissions caused by guest air travel; sea, air and road freight; and staff travel. The list of Soneva’s far-reaching efforts continues from its deep involvement in the local communities in which it operates to providing guests with eco-friendly sunscreen.
As part of its sustainability mission, Soneva reframes and redefines luxury travel for its guests. Shivdasani calls this “intelligent luxury”.
“Intelligent Luxury differs from traditional luxury in that it values things that are rare and strike a chord in our hearts, rather than just being expensive. For instance, a homegrown, organic salad is more luxurious and rare to the urban elite than foie gras or caviar,” he explains.
For People and Place
A more responsible style of luxury travel that focuses on simplicity and maximising a destination’s natural environment and people has emerged, with the emphasis on stripping back to quietness, solitude and nature. And as these things become scarcer and less attainable, like the Birkin bags of yesterday they become more exclusive and, in turn, more desirable.
Tourism New Zealand’s CEO Stephen England-Hall believes the best travel experiences are derived from local immersion, not the square meterage of your suite.
"You could go and stay in a luxury lodge somewhere and pay $15,000 if not $30,000 a night and you can order your helicopter and it will take you mountain biking or heli-skiing,” he says. “But you could also get a local guide to take you into the forest somewhere that no one else has been for 50 years, or 100 years, or ever… and the value of that experience would be, probably, 10 times greater."
For our friends over the ditch, sustainability in tourism is about making the world a better place than it was before, and that means striving towards being net positive. “It’s not sustainability, it’s enrichment,” England-Hall says. “We need to be focusing on how we generate more than we consume… because otherwise we just leave things as they are and I’m not sure, in the current state of our environment, if that’s enough.”
How have destinations gotten to this point? England-Halls calls it “the drug of growth” and says progression without design – the domino effect of more marketing, more operators and more tourists – is hugely problematic. “It gets to the point where it’s no longer enriching and no longer sustainable,” he says.
This is something New Zealanders are wary of, with growing concern about the social and environmental impact of tourism. Much of this “popularity pain” is the result of visitors’ cultural differences around respecting nature and wildlife.
“We had nothing that told or set expectations of our visitors of how they should behave in our environment culturally… and so we had to think about, whose fault is that, really… and we thought, ‘maybe it’s ours’,” England-Hall says.
The New Zealand government’s solution was to introduce a $35 per tourist levy. Set to start mid-year, the levy is estimated to raise $80 million a year, with funds to be put towards infrastructure and conservation projects designed to make sure the tourism industry is sustainable, productive and inclusive.
Tourism New Zealand’s solution was a little softer – to implement a simple set of principles for how to behave “on island”, an initiative known as ‘Tiaki’. From the Maori word meaning “to care for people and place”, tourists who make the ‘Tiaki Promise’ when they visit New Zealand are making a commitment to care for and preserve the country’s natural and urban environments for current and future generations.
“It’s not a marketing word,” says England-Hall. “It’s part of who we are.”
To care for people and place
Tourists who make the ‘Tiaki Promise’ when they visit New Zealand are making a commitment to care for and preserve the country’s natural and urban environments for current and future generations
Roys Peak, New Zealand
Roys Peak, New Zealand
Tiaki echoes another successful cultural framework of behaviour – the Nordic countries’ ancient Right to Roam, or ‘Allemannsretten’. Translated to “everyman’s right”, this principal, inscribed by law, means you are free to enjoy these fjord-, mountain- and glacier-dotted lands, as long as you tread lightly.
Scandinavia is particularly ahead of the curve when it comes to responsible tourism, and many of Norway’s hotels are already controlling their energy and water consumption, waste generation and recycling through automatic light switches, low-flush toilets, wash basins with sensors and energy-efficient whitegoods. 100%
In Sweden, Finnish renewable fuel company Neste has holiday eco-huts on the islands of Vallisaari and Lido, and is currently building the fossilfuel-free Zero Island. Taking green thinking a giant step further, Oslo-based architecture firm Snøhetta recently announced it had designed the world’s first energy-positive hotel, named Svart and set to open in 2021 just above the fragile Arctic Circle as a sustainable tourist destination.
Svart – the world's first Powerhouse hotel, in northern Norway, just above the Arctic circle
Svart – the world's first Powerhouse hotel, in northern Norway, just above the Arctic circle
Green tourism is not just ethical. It is also innovative, interesting and increasingly cool, so it only makes sense that Monaco, playground of the rich and famous, is making eco-tourism glamorous.
‘Green is the new glam’ is the name of the country’s latest tourism campaign, but don’t be fooled by its light-hearted name – sustainability is a serious matter in Monaco and the country’s number-one priority as it works towards its goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. “The actions being taken in Monaco are much more than a branding exercise,” says Estelle Antognelli, Responsible Tourism Manager, Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority.
Monaco’s eco-friendly focus is largely spurred on by Prince Albert II. Passionately committed to the environment, his Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation works on projects and initiatives dedicated to the conservation of endangered species, forests, and marine protected areas, and the development of renewable energies.
Other sustainable initiatives are far more visible in the principality. Twenty per cent of Monaco is made up of parks and gardens, and it is home to one of the largest urban organic farms in the world – the 1500-square-metre ‘Terre de Monaco’. And while the Formula 1 isn’t going anywhere, Monaco nonetheless has more than 1750 electric vehicles and 574 free charging points.
Antognelli says destinations have no choice but to go sustainable, as green travel increasingly turns from being niche to necessary, especially among Millennials, now the largest – and most eco-aware – demographic.
“More and more, people are looking for responsible destinations, so making tourism sustainable isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. There is no plan B.”
Big Smoke, Less Smoke
This sense of urgency goes for the big smoke, too. Our sprawling metropolises must also be a part of the conversation.
All of the big hotel chains – Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Accor and InterContinental – have realised the necessity of introducing greener practises into their operations with guest-facing changes such as cutting back on daily laundering and single-use plastic. Plenty have environmental sustainability strategies, such as Accor’s Planet 21 program, and Hilton has committed to cutting its environmental footprint in half by 2030. But no one is doing urban sustainability quite like 1 Hotels, which is quietly going about creating inner-city oases in America and, in 2022, Melbourne.
Arash Azarbarzin, President of SH Hotels and Resorts, which operates 1 Hotels, says: “Everyone has a responsibility to reduce their footprint and include sustainable practices [and] we are showing the hospitality industry that it can be done in cities and urban environments.”
Beginning with a goal to make its guests feel more connected to nature, 1 Hotels brings nature indoors through highly visible plants and reclaimed wood so guests can always see and feel the environment, despite their urban locale. “In turn, guests become more likely to protect and safeguard the environment and are more open to conversations about future preservation,” Azarbarzin says.
1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York monitors its water and energy use in real-time and has rigorous recycling and composting targets to reduce waste and overall carbon impact. Rooms have five-minute shower timers to gently encourage guests to be mindful of their water use, Tesla electric vehicles are available for complimentary rides within a certain radius, and guests can fill up reusable containers with the building’s filtered water.
But perhaps most impressive, at least visually, is the water reclamation system. It collects rainwater, which is then used to irrigate the adjacent Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the pipe runs right through the lobby, literally showing guests sustainability in action. “It’s the idea of pulling back the curtain to show how our sustainability work and practices create a new place that becomes a platform for change,” Azarbarzin says.
Create a new place. That has a powerful ring to it. While we may not be able to turn back the clock on much of the damage tourism has caused our delicate planet, we can play our part in cleaning up the industry. We can demand better, of hotels, resorts and governments. We can make the phrase, “Take only memories and leave only footprints” a rule to travel by, not a cliché. And we can create a ‘new place’ – one where tourism is responsible, respectful, and celebrates a planet that is, most certainly, still worth exploring.
1 Hotel Central Park, New York City
1 Hotel Central Park, New York City