PURSUITS | SUSTAINABLE TOURISM
Sustainable tourism — bringing global awareness to travel and putting it into action — is a top priority for the United Nations this year. The organization has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
There were nearly 1.2 billion international travelers in 2015, up from 674 million in 2000, according to the United Nations. The latest figure represents nearly one out of seven people in the world and is expected to grow to 1.8 billion people by 2030.
This rapid increase of tourists is exactly why sustainable tourism needs attention now, said Taleb Rifai, the secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, the United Nations agency overseeing the initiative. “The impact of tourism on the world can be negative or positive, and our goal is to see to it that the travel industry is a force for good,” he said.
According to the U.N.W.T.O., sustainable tourism has three guiding principles for hotels, tour operators, airlines and cruises (as well as destinations and tourists): environmentally friendly practices like minimizing the use of plastic; protecting natural and cultural heritage (think rain forests and historic sites); and supporting local communities by employing local staff, buying local products and engaging in charity work.
Granted, these aren’t novel ideas, but they are ever-evolving. Here is a snapshot of where sustainable travel stands today and what’s in store for it in the coming year.
The Mainstreaming of Sustainability
Travel experts say that sustainable travel is still a niche movement. “Some travel companies try to be sustainable, while others ignore the idea, and from the traveler side, demand and awareness is soft,” said Randy Durband, the chief executive of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a nonprofit accreditation group for sustainable travel based in Washington.
To his point, Booking.com, which describes itself as the world’s largest travel hotel booking site with a database of around a million properties, conducted a global survey last March of 10,000 travelers and found only 42 percent of those questioned considered themselves to be sustainable travelers. Sixty-five percent said they hadn’t stayed or didn’t know if they had stayed in eco-friendly accommodations. In another survey the company conducted last year of about 5,700 hotels, only around 25 percent reported that they had sustainable travel initiatives in place.
Nevertheless, the travel industry and travelers have made significant progress, Costas Christ, the director of sustainability for the luxury travel network Virtuoso, said. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, going green and caring about local cultures was thought of as being very granola.” he said, “But there is much more familiarity and interest around these topics today.”
Cruise Ships Get On Board
Cruise lines have lagged behind hotels and airlines when it comes to sustainable travel, Mr. Durband said, but lately that’s changed, with several cruise companies stepping up their efforts.
Royal Caribbean, for example, has a new partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to help with ocean conservation. For starters, the company will reduce the carbon emissions from its ships by using scrubbers, machines that eliminate nearly all of the environmentally harmful sulfur dioxide from a ship’s exhaust system.
Also, said Rob Zeiger, a Royal Caribbean spokesman, by the end of 2020, its fleet of 44 ships will use seafood only from fisheries and farms certified as sustainable and won’t serve overfished species like swordfish. And most of the ships being built for the line will be powered entirely by natural gas and generate electricity through fuel cells, which produce minimal air pollution.
Smaller cruise companies, too, are getting into sustainability. Peregrine Adventures is introducing 10 carbon-offset itineraries in 2017, and the riverboat brand Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is now working with the social enterprise ME to WE to offer guests the opportunity to volunteer, including one in Rajasthan, India, where they help build a new classroom at a village school.
Airline Incentive: Cost
Airlines are in the midst of a big push to reduce their use of fossil fuels, said Martha Honey, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, or Crest, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable travel. “These fuels are harmful to the environment and expensive, and the more airlines use, the more it costs them,” she said.
According to the Air Transport Action Group, a nonprofit that represents the air industry, fuel accounted for one-third of operating costs in 2015.
Last October, 191 countries reached a landmark agreement at the International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal to help aviation achieve carbon neutral growth starting in 2021.
Qantas, Lufthansa, American Airlines and JetBlue are among the carriers making sizable investments in aircraft that burn less fuel and are therefore most cost-efficient. Lufthansa has ordered 116 new Airbus planes that are 15 percent more fuel efficient than comparable models. Five of the planes are already in the sky, according to Christina Semmel, a Lufthansa spokeswoman.
JetBlue made news last year with its purchase of 330,000 million gallons of biofuel — fuel that is made from organic matter including agricultural products and significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It will start using it in 2019. “Our initial commitment is to use the fuel in New York City-area airports, and we plan to use it in all of our aircraft,” Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s head of sustainability, said.
Eco-Friendly Tours Are Increasing
According to Ms. Honey of Crest, “There are a growing number of tour operators today that are committed to running socially and environmentally responsible trips.”
Intrepid Travel, for example, now offers more than 1,000 group tours a year that are fully carbon neutral, according to Michael Sadowski, a spokesman — up from around 900 last year. The company uses local transportation and locally owned accommodations and donates money to carbon offset programs. In 2017, Intrepid will offer 65 new carbon offset tours, including a 15-day trip of Myanmar’s cultural highlights.
Luxury tour operators like Remote Lands, Butterfield & Robinson and Abercrombie & Kent are also incorporating sustainability on select trips. Abercrombie & Kent has a new 11-day Iceland itinerary this year, which includes accommodations in an eco-friendly hotel, a tour of Hellisheidi Power Plant, one of the largest geothermal power plants in the world, and a visit to a sustainable geothermal greenhouse.
More Hotels Green Up
Efforts by hotels to go green have been fairly modest: reusing towels and sheets and installing low-flow shower heads, for example. But a growing number of properties are making sustainability their main attraction. “When it came to hotels, sustainability was once associated with eco-resorts or African safari camps, where they’ve been working to protect local wildlife for years,” Albert Herrera, the senior vice president of Global Product Partnerships for Virtuoso, said. “But today, it’s become the defining element of both trendy urban properties and stylish beach resorts.”
More than a dozen such hotels are scheduled to open this year, according to Mr. Herrera, including the February debut of 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., the third location for Barry Sternlicht’s sustainably focused brand. The 194-room hotel will incorporate native greenery and reclaimed materials in its décor, including walnut from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and offer electric car service from Tesla.
Also new is the Reef by CuisinArt, a beachfront property in Anguilla powered by a solar generation system that saves 1.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year and creates potable solar water for guests and the island’s residents.
And in Africa, there’s a sustainable camp, Bisate Lodge, opening in June that’s newsworthy because of its location in Rwanda next to Volcanoes National Park, known for mountain gorillas. The lodge’s parent company, Wilderness Safaris, is reforesting more than 66 acres of habitat of the critically endangered gorillas, hiring mostly local employees and selling only locally produced items in its gift shop.