Post-pandemic tourism boom — good news for hoteliers, bad news for sustainability?

Can the hotels sector, traditionally resource-intensive and wasteful, reinvent itself and go green? Eco-Business asks two hospitality executives about balancing post-Covid recovery, and if luxury can be made compatible with sustainability.

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Exquisite buffet lines, large private baths, impeccable attention to cleanliness — high-end hotels are often at once the epitome of luxury and profligate wastefulness. Hotels are ranked among the heaviest users of water and energy among property types, according to sustainability standards organisation GRESB. They already make up one per cent of global emissions, and the figure is set to rise as the demand for travel steadily increases.

The challenges in greening the hospitality sector are manifold. Large properties have to contend with heavy power usage from daily operations and greenhouse gases already emitted from its building materials. Any sustainability initiatives must also not contravene well-established service standards, lest they alienate patrons.

Patrons themselves say they would like to travel more sustainably, according to the latest survey by online travel agency booking.com. Can hotels move away from business-as-usual, and cater to such changing preferences of their customers after being hit hard by Covid-19 in the past two years? Is the sector able to decarbonise fast enough to fall in line with hitting net-zero emissions by mid-century — a target key to keeping global warming in check?

Eco-Business posed these questions to two hospitality executives: Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association and head of hotels at Pontiac Land Group, and Andrew Dixon, director of Nikoi and Cempedak private islands.

Tune in as we discuss:

wei-lin and andrew dixon hotels podcast

Kwee Wei-Lin (left) is the president of the Singapore Hotel Association and head of hotels at Pontiac Land Group. Andrew Dixon (right) is the director of Nikoi and Cempedak private islands.

  • The pace of sustainability initiatives post-Covid-19
  • Balancing luxury, good service and guest expectations with sustainability
  • The best ways to reach net-zero emissions
  • How to support employees and local communities in the post-pandemic tourism boom

Full transcript:

Travel is back, tourists are out and hotels are filling up again. It all sounds very pre-pandemic, but climate change hasn’t taken a break. Can the hospitality sector green itself fast-enough, while recouping losses from the Covid years?

This is the Eco-Business podcast, I’m Liang Lei. Hotels face a big sustainability challenge. A landmark industry report five years ago found that the hotels sector needs to reduce its carbon footprint by 90 per cent by 2050, to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius. But between 2015 and 2020, the carbon footprint of a hotel stay dropped by only 10 per cent, according to consultancy firm Greenview.

Much greater action is needed in a sector that emits one per cent of global greenhouse gases today. That figure’s expected to grow along with the demand for travel.

So, how can hotels up their green game now, after being pummelled hard by Covid-19? Could the idea of luxury and good hospitality get in the way of sustainability? How can hotels also take better care of employees and local communities?

Two guests are here with me to talk about these issues. We have Ms Kwee Wei-Lin, the president of the Singapore Hotel Association, and the head of hotels at Pontiac Land Group. We also have Mr Andrew Dixon, the director of Nikoi and Cempedak Islands — two private resort islands near Bintan, Indonesia.

Great to have you with us, Wei-Lin and Andrew.

Let’s start with Wei-Lin, with a broad question: how is the sustainability situation in the hotel industry now, compared to pre-pandemic, in 2019?

Kwee Wei-Lin [01:41]

Thanks. The Singapore Hotel Association represents 160 members in 2019, and we represent the same number now. So I’m very proud that we all made it through Covid-19. One of the things that the hotel association and the industry has come together on is sustainability.

Right out of Covid-19, we all pledged that we would do two things, in a sustainability roadmap. One, we will all start tracking carbon emissions by next year and aim to achieve global [hotel sustainability] certifications. Two, we will start reducing carbon emissions by 2030, and then go to net zero by 2050. Those are very large, ambitious plans, but I am very proud that the industry came together and supported them right out of Covid-19. I think it shows that sustainability is also business sense.

Liang Lei [02:39]

Really glad that you mentioned the roadmap, that is definitely something we will talk about later. But before that, I want to ask Andrew the same question, and also add this — is the drive for sustainability as strong as the pre-pandemic years?

Andrew Dixon [02:55]

We’ve always been on a roadmap to try and be as sustainable as possible. It has been part of our DNA, and I think that is why people have been attracted to visiting us. Nothing has really changed from us.

There is definitely more awareness from customers. From an operational perspective, we pretty much continue in the same vein. The pandemic highlighted the value of some of the policies that we had in place — we have always done a lot of work around staff training. We kept all our permanent staff through the pandemic, and it did mean that we were able to get up and running much quicker than others. It resonated with us – looking after your staff is important. We did have staff on reduced salaries, but we were able to find them some additional ways to make income through maintenance work and beach cleanups that we did with a non-governmental organization; we collected 250 tons of plastics during that period — so we had some positive results that came out of trying to keep our staff on board.

In a nutshell, nothing has really changed in terms of the philosophy. Awareness from guests — yes, it changed a little bit, not a lot, I think we have pretty aware guests already. Trying to work with staff was a big thing for us.

Liang Lei [04:19]

Andrew, you mentioned that guests had a high level of awareness on sustainability, even before the pandemic. But I’m also thinking, I’m sure guests want greater hygiene after the pandemic — it is one of the things on their mind when they travel. Does this then get in the way of, for example, reducing waste…

Andrew Dixon [04:44]

Our visitors just want to get away from their masks! We are the sort of place that do not have buffets, we never had buffets, we are not in an air-conditioned environment. Space is a big selling point, so you will not be sitting next to someone at the table, it is a very personalized service in many respects.

We haven’t had an issue with a lot of challenges that city hotels would face — we don’t have lift buttons and door handles to clean, for instance. It has not been very difficult for us to adjust, to be honest.

Liang Lei [05:35]

Sure, Andrew, but I want to ask too, in terms of how often guests when their rooms cleaned, for the towels and linens changed. Have you seen any changes?

Andrew Dixon [05:44]

I’m not on the ground all the time. But from what I’m hearing, there’s been no change to be honest.

Liang Lei [05:52]

Sure. Wei-Lin, same question for you. Andrew mentioned there are no buffets nor lift buttons for him, but I guess these are the things you have to contend with. So, how has it been balancing the guests’ need for hygiene and maintaining the level of sustainability?

Kwee Wei-Lin [06:08]

At the end of the day, it is still very important to focus on what the guest wants. In booking.com’s 2022 sustainable travel report, it is mentioned that 71 per cent of travelers still want to make an effort in the year to travel more sustainably, and 53 per cent are more determined to make sustainable travel choices.

As hotels, we have to walk the talk. Yes, there is more excess waste in terms of disposables. But on the flip side, because of the energy crunch, we have a big focus on energy savings, and reducing carbon emissions. Many of us have taken the downtime to invest in heat exchangers, building management systems that can reduce the use of air conditioning, etc. All these things may not be visible to guests, but they all add up.

On waste, today I just got off a big discussion  many hotels have actually put in biodigesters to reduce our food waste, and the Singapore Tourism Board has been very helpful in this. But the question is, what do we do with the output from the biodigesters? I was in a discussion on how we could collect the output from the different city hotels and upcycle it as feed for black soldier flies.

There’s a lot of learning going on in sustainability. The hotel association has formed a hotel sustainability council, and we are sharing best practices. In this new space, I’m glad to see that competitors are willing to share information.

Andrew Dixon [08:00]

Wei-Lin, you’ll have to come and visit us because we use black soldier flies to compost all of our food waste. I think we’re one of the first at this, I can’t find any other hotels doing it. We’ve been doing this for many years and are pretty proud about that.

Liang Lei [08:18]

That’s awesome. Just a quick follow-up, Wei-Lin, you mentioned that guests are still conscious about hygiene, and that does add up a little on waste. Is there room to educate the guests and get the level of waste a little lower?

Kwee Wei-Lin [08:36]

Yes, I think so, especially in areas like food waste, making sure that they know not to take too much, or areas like expectations when it comes to changing laundry. We’ve been educating our guests since a long time ago. But of course at the end of the day, you still want a hygienic room, and that is what we provide.

Liang Lei [09:01]

Gotcha. The next question is a rather conceptual one — how do you balance luxury and good service with sustainability? I’ll let Andrew lead on this perhaps?

Andrew Dixon [09:12]

I think there are a lot of opportunities to not downplay sustainability. To me, there is a real opportunity to upsell it as a premium product.

Andrew Dixon, director of Nikoi and Cempedak private islands

It’s an interesting one. I take the view that they’re inextricably linked. Sustainability can be luxurious, and I think that’s the best approach to take, that space and privacy are true luxuries. That is what a lot of people are looking for, and even more so after the pandemic.

Too often, people think of being sustainable as having to give up something. I think that’s the wrong mindset, that we have to change. True luxury is having a chef that takes time to source fresh organic produce from a local farm, rather than some frozen lobster that has been flown halfway around the world.

To take that even further, a level up would be to have that farmer come over and meet the guests and talk about his farm and his farming practices, or even better, inviting the guests to go and visit the farm. That is the sort of mindset that makes sense. I think there are a lot of opportunities to not downplay sustainability. To me, there is a real opportunity to upsell it as a premium product.

Kwee Wei-Lin [10:31]

Andrew I agree with you. Our guests, especially luxury guests, are a lot more conscious about where their food is coming from, where the water is coming from, how they impact communities. In Singapore, many of our high-end hotels have their own urban farms. For example, the Swissotel and Fairmont hotels, built over a giant shopping mall, have an aquaponics plant, and they grow their fresh herbs and vegetables there. So there are all these rooftop farms we are trying out  they are small little steps that I think the customers appreciate and is willing to pay a premium for as well.

As for Pontiac Land hotels, we use bamboo toothbrushes and no longer use plastic combs. It has been hard for the industry to move away from plastic bottles because it requires a whole ecosystem. Many of us have invested in longer-term features, for example, reworking pipes and putting in taps, or introducing a bottling system etc. That ends up costing more because of manpower needs, but we have all made an effort. We can afford to invest in these solutions because luxury guests can pay more.

It is about educating people, because you don’t want the backlash of people getting upset about the whole sustainability effort. It’s about bringing everyone along.

Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association and head of hotels at Pontiac Land Group

Liang Lei [11:59]

Gotcha Wei-Lin. But I’m sure there’s certain standards that guests expect in terms of luxury. So when you talk about trying to shift this definition of luxury to something more sustainable, how do you gauge whether a step is acceptable for the guests, or a step too far? I mean, just to give some, perhaps very blunt examples: no beef on the menu, is that okay? No large private baths, less air conditioning controls, etc. How do you judge whether these steps are okay?

Andrew Dixon [12:32]

Do you want me to go first?

Liang Lei [12:34]

Sure, either of you.

Andrew Dixon [12:35]

That is interesting. We are a small property, very boutique, so we can get away by trialing some of that stuff, and that is what we do. We are also talking to guests regularly, and we get their feedback directly. I think that is the best way.

It is much harder for a big hotel to manage that. As a small property, we trial a lot of things. That’s how we go about it.

Kwee Wei-Lin [13:01]

It is also about giving the guests options. It is about educating people, because you don’t want the backlash of people getting upset about the whole sustainability effort. It’s about bringing everyone along, in appreciating what the Earth can give us, and I think most people are interested in that.

At the same time, I think as larger organisations, we have to be responsible, and make sure that we reduce our carbon footprint.

Andrew Dixon [13:32]

Yeah, I agree with all that.

Liang Lei [13:34]

Gotcha Wei-Lin. Andrew, for the kind of luxury resorts you run on Nikoi and Cempedak islands, if you want luxury, I suppose you do have to manicure the natural space a little bit. But the gold standard for biodiversity conservation is always to leave things native. How do you find a balance between manicured spaces and leaving natural spaces native?

Andrew Dixon  [14:05]

We go very much towards the leaving things natural. We have cut down very, very few trees. In fact, I would say there is more greenery on our islands than there was when we took them in. Yes, there is some landscaping, but we use local plants, and it is very minimal. We have very few concrete paths, they are mostly sand or earth paths. On both islands, we have noticed an increase in biodiversity. I think we can have a positive impact on the environment and biodiversity.

Liang Lei [14:42]

Gotcha. Thanks for allowing me to be playful on this question. Let’s jump to the next question. Wei-Lin, can I get you to start on this — we talk about net-zero emissions by 2050, and like you said, Singapore’s hospitality sector has a roadmap. How far can you go towards net-zero without relying too much on carbon offsetting? What are some of the main steps that you know, you guys have to take essentially?

Kwee Wei-Lin [15:13]

Actually, we are not looking at carbon offsetting now. We are looking at carbon reduction. Going through all our processes, energy is the biggest one. Air conditioning in Singapore is the biggest one. In the long-term, we are designing places that are more open air, probably more like Andrew’s place which requires less air conditioning and has more natural ventilation. For places that do have air conditioning, it is about having building management systems, managing your chiller, setting it at a higher temperature when guests are not there.

We are also looking at alternative sources of energy. In a way, the current situation with high oil prices is actually forcing the industry to look at their energy consumption, they are looking at alternative power sources. Right now, solar is making more sense, and there are quite a few grants from the government, so I’m sure quite a few more hotels will jump on that. Some hotels in Singapore are also looking at tidal-wave generation, that is maybe further in the future.

A lot of it are low-hanging fruits that perhaps in the past, when oil prices were lower, were brushed aside. But I think the double whammy of Covid-19, as well as this energy crisis, has really forced people to look at cost savings. And that translates into carbon savings too.

Liang Lei [16:48]

If I hear you right, the main solution you have now is energy efficiency measures.

Kwee Wei-Lin [16:54]

Yes, that is one of the biggest ones.

Liang Lei [16:59]

I suppose there are lots of room for retrofitting existing buildings. Are there anything to take note of for new properties, to get it closer to net-zero emissions from the get-go?

Kwee Wei-Lin [17:09]

In Singapore, new buildings built on government land have to be certified under the Green Mark programme. That already starts you off on a lower carbon footprint. But most hotels are in existing buildings, where you work with retrofits. There are also government grants that encourage retrofits for reducing energy consumption.

We could use a newly invented paint by a Singapore company that reduces internal temperatures by one to two per cent, and 3M window films etc. We’re exploring all these things, making sure that no leaf remains unturned.

Liang Lei [17:55]

Andrew, how’s it like in your context, on the islands?

Andrew Dixon [18:01]

I’d echo a lot of Wei-Lin’s approaches. We’ve focused on reducing energy use from the start and have been doing so for many years. We don’t offset carbon through carbon credits. Our focus is to emissions down to a low level. For Scope One and Scope Two emissions, there are a lot of things that hotels can do, and hotels should focus on the low hanging fruits that Wei-Lin talked about. You can do that without diminishing your offering to guests. Often I think you can improve it. I often find buildings in Singapore to be way too cold to be comfortable.

And solutions can be as simple as removing the quilts on the beds. In this climate, you shouldn’t be sleeping under a quilt. If you change that to a cotton sheet, you can sleep better without the aircon on a very cold setting. We get a little hung up on how hotel beds and things should be set historically, but not addressing it for the local environment.

There are lots of other examples you can come up with, I think there is a lot of opportunity. I didn’t grow up as a hotelier, I trained as a chartered accountant, I’ve come into the industry, made a lot of mistakes, but by having a different mindset, then you can come up with different ways. I think you need to throw out the old ways of thinking and look at things afresh.

Liang Lei [19:44]

Andrew I can’t help but notice, you mentioned Scope One and Scope Two emissions is easy for hotels to manage. How about Scope Three then?

Andrew Dixon [19:51]

Scope Three is complicated, because you have less control over it. I think you can do it by having purchasing decisions that align with your philosophy, and that’s the approach that we take. But it’s complicated. For instance, for us, guests coming to our property will use way more energy getting there than they will ever use during their stay. So our focus has been how we get them to stay longer, ultimately reducing their number of trips, I guess you’re then reducing your average Scope Three emissions. It’s a complicated one, because we just don’t have the control that you would have over the other two [Scope One and Scope Two emissions].

Liang Lei [20:40]

Thanks Andrew. The next question is — with hotels buzzing and looking for employees again post-Covid-19, with travelers coming back, is there a risk of unfair employment, modern slavery and these social issues that used to plague hotels coming back again? How do you safeguard against it? Andrew, could I get you to start on this?

Andrew Dixon [21:01]

Hard one for me to answer, because I’ve not really seen much of that in my context, in Indonesia’s Riau province. The challenge in Indonesia is…gosh, I don’t know where to start. It is not easy, labour laws strongly favour the employee. In many ways that disadvantages them, because it sets up employers to look at hiring people casually rather than formally. If you really wanted to change things for the better, you would change that, but that is not going to happen anytime soon. That is a complicated world.

I think that hotels, and employers generally, are waking up to the fact that you get much better service from looking after your employees, and therefore a better experience for the guests. One of the things we’ve focused on for years is staff training and employment benefit schemes that don’t exist in our sphere. They pay us dividends. We have got retention rates off the charts. We lose less than 10 per cent of our staff a year. In the hotel world, that is small. On a private island property, the turnover rates around the world can be over 100 per cent for staff.

We found that by looking after staff, training them and giving them welfare that is greater than standard practice means that we get fantastic loyalty. That pays off and the end of the day. If you look at reviews that we get from guests, they will always talk about the service standards. And that is key to running a hotel.

Kwee Wei-Lin [22:53]

Yeah, the market right now is so favourable to employees, everyone is looking for manpower and talent. The key thing for any successful hotel is really to hold on to their talent, and really treat them well.

Liang Lei [23:14]

Gotcha. Wei-Lin, I’m not sure if this is a big problem in Singapore, but I would love to get your views on it. When new properties are being built today, are there sufficient safeguards against displacing local communities?

Kwee Wei-Lin [23:35]

I think Singapore is very well planned. There is a masterplan that goes on for decades. So I think we don’t have that much of an issue here.

Liang Lei [23:50]

Sure. How about cultural conservation, perhaps in terms of preserving old buildings?

Kwee Wei-Lin [24:00]

The conservation environment in Singapore is actually very strong. We have a few hotels that already have conservation status, and we work closely with the government to make sure that we preserve our heritage, because we believe that is one of the main selling points, especially for luxury customers. They want to experience something different. People want to come here and stay at the Raffles Hotel or the Capella Singapore, or the Fullerton, these are all heritage hotels.

Liang Lei [24:41]

Andrew, what has that been like in your experience, in terms of safeguarding local communities and cultures?

Andrew Dixon [24:49]

We have not seen any problem developments in our area. There’s been a little bit, but not a lot. Generally, there is a bit of backlash when that happens; it is not really worth your while. I can’t necessarily speak in a wider context. I know that there have been issues around.

I think culture is an interesting one, that is probably the one that I’d be most worried about in our area. We’re members of a group called The Long Run. It is not so much about certification, it is a group that is focused around sustainability. They have an interesting framework, they call the four C’s: community, culture, conservation, and commerce. Culture is in that list, and it’s an important one, and it is not an easy one to get right. Culture is a lot of different things. Often we think of culture as artifacts or buildings, food, but it is also food and there are many cultural identities in any community. It’s not an easy one, but I think guests value it a lot if you get it right.

Liang Lei [26:18]

Always for that unique travel experience, right?

Andrew Dixon [26:21]

Exactly. That is what people are after now — the interesting, unique experiences. It is not necessarily visiting sites. It is the whole experience.

Liang Lei [26:30]

I have one last question, maybe a short one from each speaker:what is the greatest sustainability challenge you’re looking to address now?

Kwee Wei-Lin [26:44]

Sure. I think the biggest one is time. Time is running out for the planet, and we just need to put in more changes, faster.

Liang Lei [26:57]

Andrew, is it time for you?

Andrew Dixon [26:58]

I like Wei-Lin’s answer, I didn’t think of that. I’ve got so many challenges that I don’t know where to start, but I’m going to go with Wei-Lin’s as well. There’s so much to do, so quickly, it is really quite pressing, I think, particularly around biodiversity loss. I think there are lots of threatened species out there.

Kwee Wei-Lin [27:29]

In Singapore, rising sea levels is one of the big issues as well. Every place has different problems, all because of climate change. Wildfires raging in Europe, crazy things going on all around the world.

Andrew Dixon  27:45

Yeah, I’d like another decade up my sleeve.

Kwee Wei-Lin [27:48]

Yeah, agreed.

Liang Lei [27:50]

I’m sure this sense of urgency is not just for the hospitality sector. It’s for every sector to think about. Definitely ripe for conversation in the next few years, and very excited to see where we can get to when we reach 2050. There was a great conversation. Thank you both for coming on this podcast.

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