Greening the Hotel Industry One Eco-Property at a Time

With eco-tourism on the rise, eco-hotels are fast becoming the darling of the travel and hospitality industry. These days however, staying at an eco-hotel doesn't necessarily mean vacationing in a tree house in the Costa Rican jungle, although that is definitely an option.

With eco-tourism on the rise, eco-hotels are fast becoming the darling of the travel and hospitality industry. These days however, staying at an eco-hotel doesn't necessarily mean vacationing in a tree house in the Costa Rican jungle, although that is definitely an option.

The majority of eco-hotels fall into one of several categories; hotels and resorts that conserve ecologically significant habitats, "green" hotels that reduce, recycle, minimize waste, and conserve water, sustainable hotels that harvest food from gardens on the hotel property or obtain part or all of their power from renewable energy, hotels that encourage community involvement such as guests participating in trail clearing, and hotels that offer some form of environmental education to their guests.

As such, eco-hotels are a diverse bunch. Sophisticated urban hotels like Intercontinental The Willard Washington, D.C. focus on energy conservation whereas The Rosario Resort & Spa on Orcas Island in Washington state offers a wildly popular "green" vacation package where guests can "take a hike, clear a trail, and enjoy a vacation" and in return receive a special "green" rate. Gyreum is a hostel in Sligo, Ireland that is oriented towards the sunrises and sunsets of the summer and winter solstices, uses sheep wool insulation, is powered by the sun and wind, and has a living roof as well as an organic garden. There's even a "green" cruise ship that bills itself as "The World--Sailing Through Green Waters".

Then of course, there's the granddaddy of eco-resorts, the Maho Bay Camps in St. John, US Virgin Islands. When Maho Bay first opened its doors in 1976, the words eco-hotel and eco-tourism did not even exist. Maho Bay was constructed using recycled materials and harnesses the power of the sun and wind to generate electricity. It has received numerous awards and accolades over the years including a Commendation Award at the 2000 Green Globe Achievement Awards and 2003 Environmental Quality Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It also remains one of the most popular eco-resorts in the world with a return rate of more than 80%.

No matter what you call them, eco-hotel, eco-lodge, eco-resort, or green hotel, they're all part of the "greening" of the tourism industry, representing a conscience effort on the part of hotels to promote themselves as environmentally, and quite often socially, conscience entities.

Part of what drives this greening of the hotel industry is no doubt competition. Going green is yet another way to distinguish themselves from the multitude of other excellent hotels that consumers have to choose from, but for many hotels including Maho Bay, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and smaller eco-boutique hotels like The Ambrose in Santa Monica, California, it's also part and parcel of their corporate philosophy. With the concept of "going green" firmly entrenched in consumers' minds, eco-hotels take it to the next level, and whether or not money is the driving factor behind the greening of the hotel industry doesn't matter so much as that it's good for the planet.

Instituting "green" policies, programs and initiatives in the areas of water usage, energy efficiency, and indoor environmental quality, in what hotels call "back of house operations", is a large part of the greening of the hotel industry. So is eco-hospitality, using non-toxic cleaning supplies for instance. Many hotels also offer "green packages" or institute policies that allow guests with hybrid vehicles to park free. After all, a majority of hotels are in urban and suburban areas and not in pristine natural surroundings.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has been at the forefront of the "green" hotel movement for more than a decade. Their Green Partnership program guide was instituted in 1990 and has since been used as the prototype for other hotels including Four Seasons and Hyatt. It focuses on sustainability according to Environmental Affairs Director Michelle White, encompassing everything from recycling and organic waste diversion in the hotel's kitchens to retrofitting energy efficient lighting, purchasing green power, and employing alternate energy technology As part of its eco-hospitality efforts, Fairmont provides in-room recycling and recently launched Eco-Meet, a green meeting and conference option. It also plans to introduce organic or biodynamic wines and menus prepared with locally grown foods this spring.

On a smaller scale, eco-boutique hotels such as The Ambrose also consider themselves to be what Deirdre Wallace, a hotel developer and owner of The Ambrose, calls sustainable hotels. "We don't use toxic chemicals for cleaning, the carpets are being replaced with eco-friendly ones. All of the paint we use is low VOC (volatile organic compounds) and 15% of our power comes from renewable energy. We serve an organic breakfast and the mini bar stocked with healthy choices," says Wallace.

Then, there are hotels like the Fairmont Pittsburgh scheduled to open in 2009 that are planned and built with sustainability in mind from the start. Many of them, Fairmont Pittsburgh included, are aiming for LEED certified gold, a trend that is expected to gain momentum as green building becomes the industry standard. LEED, which is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary national standard for the design and development of sustainable buildings.

Wallace is also building a second eco-boutique hotel in Venice Beach, CA that she describes as an eco-luxury full service hotel. Built on the site of the former studio of modern design pioneers Charles and Ray Eames, The Ray Hotel is considered an adaptive re-use project that Wallace says will use solar panels on the roof and gray water systems to conserve water. "We're keeping a large percentage of the original building to house guests and building a new wing that will house a small retail shop selling sustainable high design goods and a green spa with natural and organic spa treatments," says Wallace.

Wallace's goal is to have the hotel become LEED certified gold in the adaptive re-use category. Scheduled to break ground this year she says the plans for Ray Hotel are now at city hall awaiting approvals from the planning commission. When asked why she decided to go for LEED certification, Wallace's answer is simple. "Sustainability is part of our company's values and green building is highly respected in the building industry."

The proliferation of eco-hotels has given rise to the need for a set of certification standards and agencies to govern the green technologies and environmental practices used by these eco-hotels. Without a certification process in place, any hotel could call itself an eco-hotel even if it's only claim to "green" fame was recycling.

"Today, there are now hundreds of environmental programs, eco-labels, and certification schemes worldwide, sponsored by industry associations, national or local governments, and non-governmental organizations. In Europe and the Americas, two separate initiatives are underway to accredit the certification schemes and help consumers sort through the myriad of programs," says Bill Meade, head of the environment and tourism unit at PA Consulting Group.

For example, the luxury eco-tourism resort Tres Ríos in the Riviera Maya was recently awarded by SEMARNAT, the organization in Mexico responsible for developing policies of environmental protection, for being at the forefront of environment stewardship. In Ecuador hotels can be Eco-Certified by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism and the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Society (ASEC).

Audubon International also has a certification-type program called The Audubon International Signature Program, designed to assist in the development of communities that integrate an ecosystem approach to construction and management and provide environmental education for those that live, work and recreate in the community. Resorts that fall into the sustainable communities category such as Spruce Peak in Vermont, the first mountain resort in the US to become the recipient of the Audubon Green Community Award, and Cotton Bay Estates & Villas, scheduled to open Fall 2007, have worked closely with the Audubon International Signature Program. Similarly, Mata de Sesimbra in Portugal, the world's largest sustainable living community and resort project, where an anticipated 30,000 residents will share 13,000 acres of nature reserve on Portugal's pristine Costa Azul, is based on 10 principles of One Planet Living communities, an organization that aspires to achieving the highest quality of sustainable living.

There is also ISO standard 14000, which refers to environmental management practices that include minimizing harmful effects on the environment caused by an organization's activities. The Portuguese resort of Jardim Atlantico is not only in compliance with ISO standard 14000 it has also received the "European Ecolabel", which is the highest environmental Certification available from the European Union. It is Green Globe 21 certified as well.

"Green Globe 21, perhaps the most popular international environmental certification scheme specifically for the tourism industry, has evolved from a membership program where members only signed a commitment to an international performance benchmarking and third-party verification and certification program," says Meade.

Sandals Negril Beach Resort & Spa was the first all-inclusive resort to earn Green Globe 21 Certification in 1998 and within three years, all of the Sandals Resorts were included in the certification. The eco-friendly Sunset at the Palms Resort & Spa in Negril, Jamaica where guests stay in treetop suites and dine on fruits and vegetables harvested from the 10-acre tropical gardens on the property was also among the first eco-hotels to be certified by Green Globe 21 in 1998.

None of these certification programs are regulated however, and compliance is voluntary, but that has not stopped any of these eco-hotels from becoming certified. In fact it's to their advantage. As Meade says, "Hotels see a net benefit to transforming their facilities and operations, meaning the benefits (savings in operating costs and increased revenue from attracting a responsible tourist) outweigh the costs (e.g., equipment, human resources, consulting fees, and certification costs)."

The future of eco-hotels is bright and many such hotels have clearly done their part in "greening" the hotel industry, but according to Meade, who also is on the Governing Council of the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism and chairs the board of the Certified Hotel Environmental Manager, there's more work to be done in terms of consumer awareness and eco-tourism as an industry. "Few if any visitors select their hotel based on its environmental and social programs. Tour operators, travel agents and even Internet booking sites are beginning to highlight environmental and social achievements, but a lot more still needs to be done to increase the number of ecotourists or responsible travelers that will ultimately be needed to transform the industry as a whole."

Heleigh Bostwick is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Organic Producer, Natural Family Online, Collectors News, and D'Luxe magazine, and is the publisher of Marigold Lane, an online resources for Simple Living with a "Green" Twist.

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