According to some of the world’s leading climate change experts,  the earth and its environment are going through some momentous changes, and there is no doubt that travel and tourism organisations can play a critical role in helping arrest environmental degradation.

As more regions and countries develop their tourism industries, to reflect the growing rate of tourism, major changes are being made to natural resources, consumption patterns, pollution and social systems.

The changes to the environment and social inequities can be reduced through Sustainable Tourism, which describes the planning and management process of tourism development within the world’s delicate ecology.  It involves strategic long-term thinking and planning,  and includes the interests of all stakeholders including indigenous people and local communities.

In the early days of ‘greening’, many major hotel groups developed environmental policies which attracted good publicity and established sound practices.  However many individual hotels, and to some degree entire countries, do not have structured sustainable development policies and run the risk of doing permanent damage to the environment and socio-cultural elements.

A leading sustainable tourism consultant agrees. “Whilst tourism can help develop natural and cultural heritage through restoration and preservation of destinations, it can also result in damage to vulnerable ecological and cultural features – including overuse and deterioration of resources, overdevelopment of facilities, visitor congestion, and reduced quality of life for locals.”

“Countries new to tourism are particularly vulnerable to poor planning, and can often destroy the very aspects that attract tourists. Examples include building too close to the beach, destroying the old quarters of a city to erect modern buildings, or not paying heed to the local community.  This can permanently destroy aspects which not only preserve the environment and heritage but also provide visitor appeal,” she continued.

On a positive note, the industry is moving towards regulation.   According to the Vice-President Operations for luxury hotel group Orient-Express Hotels, hotels in South America are now required to confirm to established industry standards.  “We have seen this growing trend for the past two years, and predict that it will grow into an international reference of quality management and environmental management,” he said.

“I also strongly believe that ensuring that countries maximise income (in hard currency) and then address its distribution is the key to long term sustainable tourism. We call it the ‘trickle down’ effect,” he continued.

In addition, programmes undertaken by the International Hotels Environment Initiative (IHEI), which encourages the continuous improvement of environmental performance by the hotel industry worldwide, have done much to advance the industry’s awareness of sound sustainable tourism principles. They have developed a number of manuals and a quarterly magazine ‘Greenhotelier’ that highlights environmental tips and best practices.

So why develop an environmental policy?  Consider the following key factors:

  • Prepare for the continued growth of tourism. Tourism continues to grow at a steady pace, and is likely to increase further over the next 10 years due to increased leisure time from an aging population.
  • Save Costs. A hotel can cut energy costs by 15-25% by adopting best practice, or save water costs through dual flush toilets and by reusing grey water to irrigate gardens.
  • Positive media relations. Good ‘PR’ can be gained by promoting a sound environmental policy, particularly as this becomes a more critical issue in the media.  Conversely, negative publicity can be avoided, which  can damage the reputation of the hotel or tourism resort.
  • Generate greater customer loyalty. A survey conducted  by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) showed that UK clients felt that it was very important that their holiday did not damage the environment (45%) and that it benefited the people of the destination they were travelling to (for example, through jobs and business opportunities (30%).
  • Gain additional revenue. Customers will often pay more for an environmentally-friendly hotel or resort.  According to a survey conducted recently by Responsible Travel, 80% of people are more likely to book a holiday with a company with a ‘responsible’ travel policy – a 40% increase since 2010.
  • Attract new markets. New markets can be attracted from environmentally-conscious consumers.  For example, Canadians spend $11 billion annually on nature-related activities, 67% of which is spent on outdoor activities in natural areas.
  • Win more conference & incentive bids. Many ‘green-minded’ meeting planners organising conference and incentives are often influenced by a hotel’s environmental policy.
  • Increase the value of your hotel or tourism asset.  The company ‘Explore’ gained an estimated $15 million in value when sold because of a good image based on altruistic environmental practices.

So what is the best way to establish an environmental policy?  Look at these three categories:

  • Economic. Do you invest in the area where your business operates?  In other words, does any profit go back into the local community to help preserve and protect the area that your customers visit? Do you contribute to the preservation of resources used by your company?
  • Environmental.  Do you take responsibility for damage to the environment by your potential use of natural resources, such as use of water in a dry area?  What conservation measures are you undertaking for water, waste and energy? Do you benchmark yourself against other companies? Do you offer incentives to your staff to carpool or use public transport?  Do you offer such alternatives to your guests?  How do you reduce waste, water and energy?  Do you recycle in your office?  Do you have an environmental policy that you adhere to?
  • Social.   Do you make sure that you do not purchase products made from endangered species?  Do you make sure that none of your suppliers exploit children or have violated human rights?  Do you support any local projects by donating a percentage of your profits to wildlife protection or social causes?  Do you inform your clients of cultural or religious issues where they should be considerate of their hosts?

Tourism is now the largest industry in the world, and underpins the economic growth of many developing countries.  Striking a balance between tourism growth and environmental management is the key, so that the earth’s natural beauty can be preserved for many generations to come.