The luxury hospitality sector—frequented, by default, by the rich and the relatively rich—often flags its eco-awareness, but how much of this is greenwashing? Can a deluxe hotel in the Maldives ever be genuinely carbon neutral if the only way for a non-local to stay is to fly?
And do travelers care? Surely the continued popularity of flight-only holidays to “paradise” and short-haul flights between cities suggest that saving the planet is low on the list of the upscale traveler’s priorities?
Or does sustainability sell?
According to new research from Marriott Bonvoy, it sells. The loyalty program’s 2023 Travel Trends survey, released January 9, found that 63% of those quizzed say environmental considerations now have at least some impact on their travel planning.
Of the 14,000 adults asked across Europe and the Middle East, 22% said environmental considerations dictate their travel plans. This number is likely to increase, especially with the growing awareness of a warming planet, thrown into sharp relief this month with images of posh European ski resorts devoid of snow.
Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti is a drop-dead gorgeous hotel with a truly world-class infinity pool overlooking a watering hole packed with wildlife. However, this air-conditioned “safari lodge” in a remote part of Tanzania is powered not from the grid but by generators.
Guests generally fly into the nearby Seronera Airstrip, a one-hour hop from Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. The nearest town is a two-hour drive away.
While some of the hotel’s menu is proudly local, many ingredients are flown in.
No doubt it’s a beautiful place to stay—and there’s a community food program to assuage any guest’s guilt—but an overnight in this particular Four Seasons hotel can only ever be khaki, not green.
Many luxury hotels are going green, or greener. From hotels with fleets of bicycles to others wholly powered by renewables, we’ve come a long way from the little card stating a hotel’s towel-on-the-rail-or-floor policy. This was the first eco measure to go mainstream in the hospitality sector, an approach more profitable to the hotel than the planet.
Below I’ve highlighted some of the luxury hotels which are going the extra mile to be green (many still have some ways to go) but first, let’s look at some of the typical guests.
It’s society’s winners who get to stay in the 4,400 4- and 5-star hotels around the world. (Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab Jumeirah is arguably a 6- or perhaps even a 7-star hotel and is regularly voted as the world’s most luxurious hotel, but it has lackluster eco credentials: the first of six stated green measures on its website are “recycling bins located at selected locations across the hotel” and “option to reuse your towels during your stay.”)
Naturally, billionaires—with their private jets and fleets of gas-guzzling supercars—are not noted for their carbon frugality. Indeed, the wealthiest 1% of humanity is responsible for twice as many planet-harming emissions as the poorest 50%.
Further down the wealth scale, the wealthiest 10% of people produce half of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50%—about 3.5 billion people, according to a 2020 report from British charity Oxfam—contribute only 10%.
If, as the Marriott Bonvoy survey suggests, more and more people wish to spend their money on hotels with at least a green tinge, then it makes sense for the hospitality sector to service that demand.
But this should be more than just the token provision of bamboo toothbrushes, canvas tote bags, or don’t-service-my-room door hangers.
Greenwashing—a term coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld—is eco marketing spin that’s easy to spot and potentially counterproductive.
Counterproductive because many countries have introduced, or are set to introduce, corporate sustainability standards and stipulations, tracking a company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies to encourage—and sometimes force—companies to act responsibly.
In the U.S., there are no mandatory ESG reporting laws. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires publicly listed companies to provide investors with information that may be material to them, including ESG risks.
In Europe, the Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) obliges large public-interest companies (those with more than 500 employees) to publish information related to environmental matters.
The directive will soon be expanded as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). This will require more detailed reporting on ESG matters and establishes a corporate due diligence duty.
The CSRD aims to “foster sustainable and responsible corporate behavior and to anchor human rights and environmental considerations in companies’ operations and corporate governance.”
The directive will expect companies to identify and prevent or mitigate environmental impacts in their operations, subsidiaries, and value chains.
The UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization describe sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
Many hotels claim to have been built—or been renovated down to the studs—to the LEED standard. This energy efficiency building certification appears good on paper and on corporate websites and brochures, but not all is as it seems.
For instance, a LEED-compliant building may bristle with LED lighting, but it would still be compliant even if it were in a car-dependent oasis with zero access to public transit.
In his book Walkable City, city planner Jeff Speck cited the example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which relocated a headquarters building from transit-dense downtown Kansas City, Missouri, to a LEED-certified building 20 miles away in the car-fed suburb of Lenexa, Kansas.
“The carbon saved by the new building’s LEED status, if any, will be a small fraction of the carbon wasted by its location,” Speck highlighted.
Another example of the so-called “LEED brain” can be found in the plans for the expansion of King Salman International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
This Foster + Partners designed “aerotropolis” will feature hotels, and even though it’s an airport in the baking Arabian desert, it is said to have “sustainability at its core” and, says Foster + Partners, will achieve LEED Platinum certification.
Hotels serious about their environmental impact sign up for certification programs such as those offered by EarthCheck. This was developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism in Australia.
EarthCheck Destination is built on the Agenda 21 principles for Sustainable Development endorsed by 182 Heads of State at the United Nations Rio De Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. EarthCheck provides a framework for organizations to achieve the desired outcomes for sustainable tourism as set out in the final report of the World Summit for Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002.
EarthCheck Destination is also recognized and accredited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). It complies with the Mohonk Agreement, which outlines the guidelines and principles for an international sustainable tourism certification program.
Similar to LEED, the EarthCheck designation is sound in principle but many of those hotels which have received Gold awards from the program are in locations that cannot always be reached using sustainable modes.
The hospitality industry has a large carbon footprint, and it makes increasing commercial sense to minimize this environmental impact. Eco-friendly initiatives and policies include measures such as reducing energy consumption, using environmentally-friendly cleaning products, and promoting public transportation for guests.
Many hotels are also working to reduce waste and increase recycling or are partnering with organizations that can help them properly dispose of their waste.
Many hotels are also working to increase sustainability through renewable energy sources. This can include the installation of solar panels or wind turbines on hotel properties or, less green, purchasing renewable energy credits to offset the hotel’s energy use.
(This energy use is more significant than you might think partly because hotels are larger than you might think—a typical luxury hotel is like an iceberg with the back-of-house often much larger than the public-facing front-of-house areas.)
Many hotels now offer locally-sourced, organic, vegetarian, and vegan options on their menus, and some are stopping food buffets to prevent food waste and they are removing minibars from rooms.
The greenest hotels are setting out how to reduce air conditioning heating and cooling intensity. They may also close outdoor heated pools and reduce the availability of energy-intensive facilities such as steam rooms and saunas.
Some hotels also promote sustainability and “regenerative tourism” (adding a positive impact on the local community and environment) through partnerships and collaborations. This can include working with organizations focusing on environmental conservation and sustainability or supporting local initiatives promoting sustainable tourism.
Nevertheless, many hotels—especially those in hard-to-reach locations—can’t ever be truly green. City center hotels tend to be less car-dependent than rural ones. But those hotels reliant on fly-in guests tend to have the largest carbon footprints.
Flying is a significant contributor to carbon emissions and climate change. Encouraging guests to fly to an island hotel, for instance—or one in the middle of the African savannah—adds to this problem.
ECO-CONSCIOUS LUXURY HOTELS
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND
While the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti can’t ever be entirely green, the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire is a good offsetter for the Canadian hotel group. This 18th Century manor has been equipped with LED lighting and, significantly, it has two Combined Heat and Power (CHP) co-generation plants that generate up to 60% of the electrical consumption for the hotel and its spa, using latent heat to provide hot water and heating throughout the hotel. The hotel also runs on 100% renewable electricity. Two years ago, the hotel planted a 200-tree orchard.
ROYAL LANCASTER HOTEL, LONDON, ENGLAND
The Royal Lancaster London dominates the skyline at Lancaster Gate, opposite Hyde Park, and is a five-minute walk south of Paddington rail station and above a tube station.
Opened in 1967, the Royal Lancaster is a sister hotel to Landmark Bangkok and has been under Thai ownership since 1994. Founded by hotelier Khun Jatuporn Sihanatkathakul, the Landmark Group is second-generation family-owned.
The hotel has a low-plastics policy, with carafes of tap water in rooms rather than plastic bottles.
With ten beehives, the hotel sports its own honey farm.
“Bees can fly up to three miles from their hives,” the hotel’s Jo Hemesley told me, “but I expect ours mostly forage in Hyde Park.”
Jo’s business card says she’s the hotel group’s assistant director of corporate sales, but she’s also the Royal Lancaster’s head beekeeper. (Yes, there’s a B-team.)
“Hyde Park now has lots of grasses left to grow long, interspersed with meadow flowers, and there are patches of ground covered in clover, so I suppose that’s where the bees go,” she said, adding that the hotel’s bees also frequent the nearby lime trees.
Honeycomb from the rooftop honey farm is served at the hotel’s breakfast, the restaurant being just a few feet below the hives.
The hotel is a member of the plant-a-tree service Hotels for Trees. The hotel plants a tree each time guests skip their daily room cleaning. Hotel-branded Dutch-style bicycles can be rented by the hour or day, and most hirers—like the bees from the honey farm on the hotel’s roof—probably head for Hyde Park.
THE BALMORAL, EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND
The Balmoral in Edinburgh is a Rocco Forte hotel built in 1902 by the North British Railway company as part of the Victorian train station it originally serviced—the distance from reception to platforms can be measured in seconds.
Guests have swooned over The Balmoral since it opened.
“This palatial building occupies a position probably unequalled in any part of the world,” exaggerated a 1939 guide to sights along the East Coast Main Line.
“The exterior is in the Renaissance style,” continued the guide and “there is also direct access to the Waverley Station.”
Apart from New Year’s Eve, the hotel’s 190ft baronial tower clock is always set three minutes fast to aid guests reaching their trains on time. And it’s this proximity to a train station that makes The Balmoral green.
THE ALPINA, GSTAAD, SWITZERLAND
Catering primarily to ultra- and high-net-worth individuals, the Alpina in Gstaad loses eco points for saying on its website that it “accommodates private jets,” but why fly when the train journey is so scenic? Gstaad lies on the GoldenPass Montreux-Oberland Bernois (MOB) railway line, an iconic route through Alpine valleys and mountains.
Opened in 2012, the Alpina practices “social offsetting,” enthusing its wealthy guests with initiatives to enhance life in developing countries, including arts programs.
The hotel has been awarded the Gold certification by EarthCheck (see above).
“We believe that luxury and sustainability go hand in hand,” says the hotel’s website, “where we as luxury service providers pledge to conduct fair and sustainable business practices that continue to develop our immediate local community and extends to those who we do business with outside of the [region].”
VERDURA RESORT HOTEL, SICILY
Opened in 2009, this Rocco Forte hotel has solar panels for the production of warm sanitary water and a photovoltaic plant for the production of electricity. Since January 2016, all of the 8300 light bulbs used to illuminate the outdoor area have been replaced by energy efficient LED bulbs.
The resort’s three golf courses are watered with a water recycling system. Working with the botany department of Palermo University Verdura Resort has recreated some nearby wetlands, which are a stopping-off point for migratory birds.
The project restored over 70,000 native Sicilian plants and scrubs species and was awarded the “Committed to Green” environmental recognition prize in the Biodiversity category, a European project supported by the Italian Golf Federation and endorsed by the Italian Ministry of Environment.
The hotel also has its own organic farm. Verdura Societa Agricola is now producing extra virgin olive which is served in all of the resort’s restaurants, and used for treatments in the hotel’s spa.
On the hotel’s expansive estate, there are 2,000 olive trees, 3,000 orange trees, 250 almond trees, 150 prickly pear cacti, 120 pomegranate trees and 50 lemon trees.
GENEVA MARRIOTT HOTEL, GENEVA, SWITZERLAND
The new-build Geneva Marriott Hotel has been designed with superlative energy efficiency from the get-go including being plugged into a district heating network that produces heat from a central location using renewable energies such as waste heat. Underground pipes deliver hot water and heat to the hotel in a closed loop. The water is then returned to the plant to be reheated.
The hotel’s windows feature electronically tintable glass which hotel guests can directly control, maximizing access to daylight and outdoor views and reducing the carbon footprint by optimizing solar energy and minimizing heat and glare. The Saint Gobain electrochromic glass technology reduces the hotel’s overall energy expenditure by an average of 20% and the peak energy demand by up to 26%.
Beneath the hotel, there’s a source of running water. This energy is collected to cool the building and then returned to the earth without being polluted.
On the outside, there’s a ventilated facade providing the building with a gap between its perimeter wall and the exterior cladding to moderate the exchange of heat, air, and light that circulate between the interior and exterior of the building. The increase in temperature inside the cavity during the summer months generates a “chimney effect” that pushes the air upwards, thus reducing the wall’s temperature facing the inside of the building, keeping the building cool. During the cold winter months, the opening in the ventilated facade balances the wall’s temperature facing the interior of the building.
The hotel’s bar team is working with Bibarium. This company offers a new type of barrel, allowing wine to remain open for six months without changing its taste, structure, or aromas.
The Geneva Marriott is also dedicated to waste reduction, offering no plastic water bottles in-room. Instead, water fountains are provided in corridors.
COPENHAGEN MARRIOTT HOTEL, COPENHAGEN
The Copenhagen Marriott Hotel features a seawater cooling system to conserve energy use and reduce waste. The cycling city of Copenhagen aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.
JO&JOE GENTILLY, PARIS
Opened in 2017, the Jo&Joe hotel in Gentilly, part of the Accor group, isn’t strictly a luxury hotel but is an example of how future-proofed hotels will need to become low-carbon.
The Jo&Joe hotel in this suburb of Paris was built to a benchmark set by the French Association for Low Carbon Building Development (BBCA).
Accor has made a commitment to decarbonize all its operations and achieve net zero by 2050—including a 46% emission reduction by 2030.
The group signs an average of one new hotel every day worldwide. Every year, several hundred establishments are also renovated. Accor has long been committed to transitioning to low-energy buildings for construction and major renovation projects with the double benefit of reducing carbon emissions and operating costs.