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Sustainable travel: Asia's catching up

[Magazine Exclusive] The tide of sustainable travel is sweeping across Asia Pacific, thanks to a growing awareness of sustainable development, eco-conscious travellers and smart hoteliers who understand the business case for doing so.

Sitting at the hotel lobby of Pullman Phuket Arcadia last month, guests enjoying the stunning views of the infinity pools set against the Andaman Sea would have been greeted with a rather curious sight: “designer fashion” dresses made from recyclable items such as leaves and discarded bottle caps.

The pieces - on show on 21 April - will be auctioned later this year for a local charity and are the handiwork of the Thai resort’s employees under an initiative by French hotel operator Accor called Planet 21.

Launched in 2012, the programme sets out 21 sustainability commitments in the areas of social and environmental responsibility for the over 3,000 hotels under the Accor group to meet by 2015.

In fact, on Planet 21 Day – held on April 21 - Accor employees all over the world take part in various activities such as tree planting, beach clean-ups, and creative recycling projects as a way of highlighting the group’s year-round sustainable development pledge. 

The Planet 21 initiative has helped Accor win accolades, including the highly-regarded PATA Gold Award for Corporate Environmental Programme in 2013 and 2014, given by the Pacific Asia Travel Agency (PATA), a non-profit association advocating responsible travel and tourism in Asia Pacific.

Accor is but one of the hotel groups that have been raising the bar on sustainable tourism in the region in recent years.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines 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”.

UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai says in a recent interview with PATA that he believes the future of travel and tourism in Asia Pacific depends entirely on sustainable tourism development.

With tourism accounting for some 9 per cent of the world’s GDP and over 200 million jobs, the sector has a major impact on development and UNWTO notes that its growth in the last 10 years is particularly marked in emerging countries where it has averaged 5.6 per cent growth per year, compared with 1.8 per cent for advanced economies.

“By 2030, we expect international tourists to reach 1.8 billion globally. We simply cannot ignore these facts and let the sector grow unmanaged, or we risk damaging the environment and cultural heritage, depleting natural resources and disrupting the social values of the host communities that tourism impacts,” says Rifai. 

Drivers for sustainable travel

Resort employees in “designer dresses” made from recycled material. Image: Pullman Phuket Arcadia Facebook Page 

Apart from a growing recognition globally for the need for sustainable development, other factors have been driving the growth of sustainable travel in the region.

Katherine Cole, regional director at global hotel booking site, notes that there are over one billion travellers annually and as this number is set to rise due to greater ease of travel, higher disposable incomes and a barrage of mass travel options in the market, so will demand for responsible travel.

Social media and increasing activism have also played a part, and “over the past few years, we have seen an evolution in consumer demand for travellers looking for green holiday options”, she says.

William Costley, vice president of operations, Southeast Asia for Hilton Worldwide, points to the rising wave of younger travellers, also known as ‘Millennials’, who have “invigorated the trend of sustainable travel” as they demand an increased standard of sustainability transparency from companies, particularly in the travel sector.

Guests today are able to identify their own individual behaviors as a contributor to the global problem of climate change, and are therefore becoming more conscious about the choices they make, he says.

These drivers have led to a sea change in the hotel landscape in recent years, with more operators and owners implementing sustainability practices.

PATA’s sustainability and social responsibility specialist Chi Lo points to hotel groups such as  Centara, Peninsula, Banyan Tree, and tour companies such as TUI, Kuoni, Khiri Travel, and Destination Asia as examples of those leading the pack.  

The aviation industry is also making an effort, she says, with Boeing improving the efficiency of aircrafts and airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas making strides in sustainability practices. 

But perhaps the most obvious testatment to the rise of sustainable travel is the fact that popular travel review site TripAdvisor in the past two years successfully launched a programme in the United States and Europe to rank environmentally-friendly hotels called GreenLeaders.

Jenny Rushmore, TripAdvisor director of responsible travel, was quoted by Forbes as saying that the site is already seeing a 20 per cent higher rating for properties with the GreenLeader status. 

Although the programme has yet to reach Asia, Rushmore says the firm “expect green practices to become as commonplace as free Wifi in the near future.”  

A long road ahead 

Lo notes that while sustainable travel has indeed been on the rise in the region, there is still a lot of work to be done.

One challenge which PATA is tackling at the moment is the disproportionate growth of visitation.

Siem Reap, for example, is a destination that many want to visit but does not have the capacity to meet demand, she notes.  

PATA advocates visitor dispersion to second tier or lesser known destinations to spread the wealth of the visitor economy, and to mitigate the destructive impact of mass tourism, she says.

Its choice to hold its 2015 Annual Summit in Leshan in China’s Sichuan province last month reflects this commitment to promote secondary destinations.

“We want to advocate for quality, not quantity, so the challenge is changing the standard indicator of international visitor arrivals to considering the bigger picture,” Lo adds.

In some cases, she says the region is lagging because the business case for sustainable tourism is not being communicated clearly, when in reality, responsible business practices have been shown to both cut operational costs as well as have a positive impact on the local community.

Echoing this view, Kevin Teng, executive director of sustainability at  Singapore’s largest hotel development Marina Bay Sands (MBS) notes that Asia is still catching up with Europe and the US on sustainable travel.

“But with rising awareness and increased customer demand, it’s a good time for operators to up the game now,” he says. 

For MBS, its decision build a green hotel and implement sustainability practices five years ago was motivated by a sense of competition, integrity and “the desire to build our business in the right way”, says Teng.

“Five years on, sustainability’s impact on operational efficiencies and team member engagement has been so transformational that we have achieved all that we set out to do and have an ever more compelling business case to our stakeholders,” he says.

For example, 31 energy savings projects that MBS implemented since 2013 to better manage energy use resulted in savings worth a hefty S$13 million from 2013 to 2014.

To reach this enviable position, MBS had to ensure its internal and external stakeholders understood the importance of sustainability. Teng adds: “Not everyone starts off with the same level of understanding or urgency when it comes to green issues.” 

Other hotel groups such as Hilton Worldwide are also responding to customer demand for sustainable travel by creating targeted innovative programmes. 

For instance, the group has a carbon offset initiatve called the Clean Air Program which calculates the carbon emissions incurred by events. Hilton then offsets this – at no cost to its customer - by supporting carbon reduction efforts in Asia Pacific such as, say, a forest protection project in Tasmania, Australia. 

It also imposed a global ban on shark fin – historically an Asian delicacy - across all its owned and managed properties last year following growing concern of the decline of the global shark population, and made a commitment to sourcing sustainable seafood.

Hilton’s Costley puts the hotel’s success down to its commitment to sustainability “as a core business driver and brand standard”.

For Hilton, the extensive scale of its global operations and diverse range of business partners have made implementing its sustainable travel practices challenging.

To address this, the company regularly engages its staff and conducts training to “share positive outcomes and useful learnings to demonstrate the impact they are making through responsible business operations”.

“In order to bring to life a globally-aligned, yet locally-relevant sustainability strategy, we need the support of our like-minded partners and their expertise and resources,” adds Costley.

Sustainability: For the big and small

Sustainable travel is not just for the big boys, however. Smaller hotel operators, such as Siloso Beach Resort in Singapore’s Sentosa Island, have found that its sustainability credentials has helped it to remain attractive amid a hyper-competitive landscape to not only foreign travellers but also locally-based enthusiasts. 

Sylvain Richer de Forges, the resort’s head of sustainability, shares that the resort has gained attention for its innovative practices such its water filtration and recycling system, biodiversity conservation, local sourcing and recycling efforts. 

“Many people do visit the resort specifically because of its strong focus on sustainability, which benefits the business both in terms of public image and income,” he says.

Getting there, however, was no walk in the park. Some challenges they faced included training the staff on basic sustainability concepts and building a sustainability culture at the resort. 

Furthermore, every new project or system they introduced required a systematic cost-benefit analysis to reduce impacts while at the same time remain customer-focused.

“It takes time, resources and dedication,” he says. 

Time and travellers

Looking forward, PATA’s Chi says there is a lot of work on awareness and education to be carried out in the region, especially among travellers. 

There is a lack of comprehensive research looking into consumer behavior on a region-specific basis, says Chi, although local governments in developed countries are trying to conduct resesarch in this area. 

In some areas, such as MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) tourism, awareness on sustainability is growing rapidly, but is still relatively low among say, leisure travellers within the region, notes MBS’s Teng. 

Siloso Beach Resort, which has has conducted its own surveys, has the same finding. Many guests find eco-tourism an interesting concept or a new experience they are keen to explore, more than because they understand the need for sustainable travel, says de Forges. 

“We’ve found that many people change their mind once they experience a stay at the resort. People seem to better understand through experiencing it rather than hearing about it,” he says. 

Cole from agrees that education is key to spreading the eco-tourism message, and hotels have the responsibility of educating travellers on its benefits and the impact of their actions. 

Such initiatives can range from simple reminders to guests regarding water wastage, or bigger hotel-wide checks and balances aimed at greater energy efficiency, she suggests. 

Looking at the larger picture, as tourism continues to grow in Asia Pacific, UNWTO’s Rifai notes that its development has “to be grounded in responsibility and sustainability so that host communities are engaged and therefore able to receive the many benefits of tourism.” 

This means integrating local communities into the tourism value chain as a means to create jobs as well as foster opportunities for small and medium enterprises in related sectors such as agriculture and the creative industries. 

In addition, tourism income can be redirected to initiatives that safeguard cultural and natural resources and thus ensure its long-term operations for the benefit of local populations, he adds. 

PATA’s Chi acknowledges that the journey to change Asia’s travel industry will take time. 

“There needs to be a greater understanding of what sustainable tourism means, as well as enhanced awareness and practice of of responsible business operations,” she says. 

“We are trying to provide the tools to accomplish this, but this will require a collaborative effort.” 

This story was first pubilshed in the Eco-Business magazine. Check it out here. 

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