Is the green tourism industry really sustainable?

The travel frenzy over the past few months has been marked by all kinds of chaotic holidays, mainly due to staff shortages at airports and airlines and the domino effect of delayed flights.

From a sustainability perspective, all that flying likely negated the climate benefits that accrued during planeless skies in the first year of COVID — proof that pent-up demand for travel still exerts greater emotional pressure than global warming.

Indeed, the carbon of tourism mainly concerns travel. A return flight for two from Toronto to a sunny Caribbean destination for a week of rest and relaxation generates almost two tonnes of greenhouse gases, while a typical passenger vehicle produces around four to five tonnes. over an entire year.

Yet the flight’s footprint hasn’t slowed global demand for ecotourism, which is expected to generate an estimated US$180 billion in 2019, with revenues expected to nearly double by the end of the decade. Much of this market is for nature and wilderness travel and off-the-grid experiences with basic accommodations. According to a survey conducted this year by Booking.com, 71% of respondents wanted to green their travel plans, an increase of 10% compared to 2021.

The urban hospitality industry, striving to become relevant again in the era of Airbnb, has sought to secure a piece of that pie with hotels promising sustainability features that go beyond standard reminders to customers regarding used towels.

UK-based energy retailer Uswitch earlier this year compiled a ranking of cities with the most green hotels, based on various public data sources and a so-called sustainability badge introduced to late last year by Booking.com. “To get the Sustainable Travel Badge approved,” the survey notes, “each hotel must share its carbon emissions, water consumption, food consumption and waste, animal welfare and many other factors. environmental”.

In the green building industry, net-zero is a building that produces as much energy as it uses. For those of us who are focused on the climate crisis, there is a higher bar, to have a building that uses no fossil fuels.

-Bruce Becker, architect at Becker & Becker

It turns out that Canadian cities are doing quite well, especially Vancouver, which isn’t all that surprising, given that the city’s electricity is almost entirely derived from hydroelectricity. According to Uswitch, more than 40% of Vancouver hotels qualify for Booking’s sustainability badge, with Stockholm and Toronto ranking second and third globally.

One of the Toronto properties cited is 1 Hotel, a new luxury venue that is part of the sprawling real estate empire of the Starwood Capital group, through a subsidiary called SH Hotels and Resorts. There are eight other 1 hotels, in places like New York, Tennessee and South Beach, Florida. According to SH’s Director of Sustainability and Impact, Corinne Hanson, “[Starwood founder] Barry Sternlicht, with the creation of the 1 Hotels brand, wanted to create something that was sustainability driven, mission driven, in both its core design and operations.

Hanson, who also sits on Starwood’s ESG board, rhymes with some of the features, and they include variations on the theme of garden variety green building elements. The company sought to use “found objects” to create some of its decor and sourced its furniture through a partnership with Just Be Woodsy, a Toronto-based company that salvages wood from downed city trees for manufacture its products. There is a composter on site, the results of which are used for the property’s garden and plantings. Hanson says 85% of the hotel’s waste is diverted from landfill and the goal is to achieve zero waste.

Another feature: that 1 Hotels aims to reduce embodied carbon by using existing buildings where possible. “We’re always trying to find buildings to reuse, so we can try to deal with embodied carbon, even though we’re not always able to offset our total embodied carbon,” Hanson says. “We try to be pretty transparent about it.”

In the case of 1 Hotel Toronto, this particular claim can be seen as an elegant elision of eco-spin, savvy business strategy, and, well, truth. The building itself, in the rapidly intensifying neighborhood of King West, was for several years home to another swanky boutique hotel, the Thompson, a holiday favorite of the Toronto International Film Festival. It was closed in 2019 for a “facelift”, by The Hollywood Reporter, it could therefore be renamed 1 Hotel. The new deluxe version was supposed to open in 2020, but that schedule has been stalled for all the obvious reasons.

A more compelling example of recycling buildings can be found in New Haven, Connecticut, where the former Armstrong Rubber Co. headquarters, a brutalist fortress-like office building that opened in 1970, has been transformed into the Hotel Marcel, part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, whatever that means. (The hotel is named after Marcel Breuer, the original architect.) Hilton says it will be the first net zero hotel in the United States.

[Starwood founder] Barry Sternlicht, with the creation of the 1 Hotels brand, wanted to create something that was sustainability driven, mission driven, in both its core design and operations.
-Corinne Hanson, Director of Sustainability and Impact at SH Hotels and Resorts

“In the green building industry, net-zero is a building that produces as much energy as it uses,” said Bruce Becker, an architect who acquired the long-vacant historic structure. The New York Times. “For those of us who are focused on the climate crisis, there is a higher bar, to have a building that uses no fossil fuels.”

It’s not easy to determine whether these projects represent corporate greenwashing, a new twist on luxury lodging, or some kind of genuine improvement. Certainly, saving a giant concrete edifice from the wrecking ball would seem like a progressive move that fully embraces one of the core tenets of the circular economy. With 1 Hotel, however, the script seems to include a lot of branding alongside the eco-functional shopping list, although Hanson insists that SH is “a cause rather than a brand”.

She acknowledges that Starwood, as a large real estate asset manager, has yet to publicly release a detailed accounting of its carbon performance, despite the company’s homepage proudly announcing that it is both a carbon-neutral company and signatory to the Principles of Responsible Investment. The first quantified ESG report is expected next year.

Yet one could certainly argue that city tourism, which uses busy places with public transport and infrastructure, is more sustainable than travel to beautiful and remote places at the end of a complicated transport network. and carbon intensive. These journeys can leave many more footprints, carbon and otherwise, in places that once had few. Who’s to say if it’s morally superior to travel to the Far North to enjoy the tragic majesty of a warming ecosystem than to book a room in a swanky hotel with all the eco-friendly amenities that also sits in the middle of A big city.

Will the trend towards hyper-sustainable hotels simply generate more air travel? Given the apparent paradox, what does SH communicate to potential customers looking for sustainable experiences? As Hanson readily replies, “I think that’s the right question.”

About Bobby F. Lopez

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