By Bonnie Hulkower
The following article is part of a series on the Rainforest Alliance’s effort to bring sustainability to the coffee and hospitality industries in Guatemala. Read the rest of the Guatemalan coffee series here.
An old railroad saying is that freight rail is preferable to passenger trains because “cargo doesn’t complain.” Cargo also brings less baggage — it doesn’t require necessities like food, water, a place to sleep and a bathroom, but people do. People don’t just yelp while they’re traveling – they also impact their environment. When you travel, even if you leave your worries at home, you still have an environmental footprint.
Environmentally conscious travelers specifically seek out hotels that incorporate sustainable practices while still pampering the body and soul. Hotels sensitive to the needs of these consumers strive to distinguish themselves with greener management styles. The challenge for the traveler is how to differentiate between a green hotel and one that greenwashes. For those who want to tread consciously, a hotel asking guests to simply forgo freshly washed towels doesn’t pass muster.
I recently visited two hotels in Guatemala that, in their own ways, demonstrated their strong sense of environmental stewardship. The first, Hotel Villas Colonial, was located in the picturesque city of Antigua which UNESCO has declared a World Heritage Site. It’s easy to see why tourists with environmental sensibilities would come here. Walking around in Antigua is like stepping back in time. The city is lined with cobblestone streets. The main plaza, Parque Central is surrounded by churches with baroque facades. Women in traditional Mayan garb sell their handcrafts from cozy storefronts. Even the McDonalds storefront blends in with the local architecture.
Hotel Villas Colonial, a cheerful, periwinkle and gold colored hotel, is a collection of 11 colonial two-story homes surrounding a lovely garden, accented by magenta bougainvillea. The hotel has 54 spacious rooms and the appropriately named, Las Bouganvileas restaurant. The hotel also has the capacity to host business seminars, conventions or weddings for up to 500 guests.
By contrast, Las Cumbres is an eleven-room, small eco-lodge nestled on a hillside off a highway in the mountainous region of Zunil. This hotel was built into the hill because of an underground geothermal system. The hotel uses that system for the in-room saunas, which together with the sulfur hot springs, provide a medicinal tourism destination that is complemented by a traditional design. Fireplaces and tubs make the room cozy and relaxing. Tourist attractions nearby include the historic city of Quetzaltenango, the Chuikabal Lagoon and the Fuentes Georginas hotsprings.
Both of these hotels have received green verification from the Rainforest Alliance. This is notable, especially in Central America where USGBC’s LEED certification program, surging in popularity for homes and office buildings, hasn’t caught on quite as quickly in the hotel industry. Consumers in the know are familiar with such green symbols such as the Rainforest Alliance’s frog, their green seal for products like coffee and bananas. However, most people (including myself before a recent Rainforest Alliance-sponsored trip) were not aware that Rainforest Alliance also produces a guide to sustainable travel in the Americas. They’ve also built Sustainabletrip.org, an online database of businesses in the hospitality industry in Latin America and the Caribbean that have demonstrated their commitment to sustainability that are either verified by the Rainforest Alliance or certified by 3rd-party programs.
Rainforest Alliance does not certify hotels, but they do provide verification. Verification can be a step on the way to certification. In countries where no certification program exists, verification offers businesses a sustainability benchmark and means to market their achievement to customers.
Rainforest Alliance verifies that a hotel meets at least 50 percent of the its sustainable tourism standards – based on those developed by the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas. To achieve verification, a hotel must incorporate the following practices: energy conservation, ecosystem preservation, hiring of local people and selling of local craft. So, according to these rubrics, what makes the Guatemalan hotels I visited, truly “Green”?
At Hotel Villas Colonial, they treat their wastewater, recycle, provide eco-filtered drinking water to eliminate bottled water, and use LED lightbulbs to lower their energy use. Ninety-nine percent of the 45 hotel staff is from the local community. Part of all Rainforest Alliance verification program to is to support the local community, so Villa Colonial, also helps a local church with utility bills and provides internships to students. In addition to hiring locally, the onsite restaurant buys organic whenever possible. The changes they incorporated were particularly impressive after finding out that the hotel is 40 years old. Villas Colonial views ecoverification as a way to distinguish itself from the 75 non-verified hotels in Antigua.
Las Cumbres faces other challenges. Visitors who come here purposely come for the hot springs or because the destination is on their route. It isn’t a place you stumble upon. This was the second year they obtained verification and having the seal has really helped put this hotel on the map. The hotel used to work with two operators, now they work with 60. Each staff member has been active in achieving the verification. The spa manager now uses non-toxic spa beauty supplies as well as handmade, biodegradable soaps. The maintenance man recycles everything including glass and plastic; he also composts in the hotel’s garden. This garden supplies most of the vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen for the delicious family style meals, as well as the freshly cut flowers.
Last year, Las Cumbres competed in an ecolodge competition and won the top prize out of 50 Guatemalan hotels! For their prize they will get a brand new biodigester. Like Villas Colonial, they also installed energy-saving lightbulbs, in this case CFLs. They also are supporting the local community by having an artisan market in their parking lot every weekend and by supporting the local Mayan heritage museum. They paid for the curator of a local museum to attend a travel show. Some of the challenges they have faced have been educating a traditional indigenous community, with many dialects, about the importance of sustainability.
Their secret strategies to sustainability
Both hotels installed energy-efficient lighting, used nontoxic cleaning products, recycled and composted. These hotels also focused on giving back to the local community and on protecting the cultural treasures that initially drew visitors to these areas. The hotels have also noticed that they are experiencing less staff turnover. I noticed that at both Hotel Villas Colonial and Las Cumbres, the staff was well trained and knowledgeable about the green features, and more importantly, proud of their accomplishments and of their workplace. The staff can then help educate visitors about environmental issues. In both cases, green features helped distinguish the hotels and bring in more customers.
Sleeping on the road is sometimes a necessity. But it isn’t necessary to contribute to a carbon-chewing beast. Perhaps one day we’ll live in a world where such factors are as important to consumer choice as the softness of their pillows. Rainforest Alliance’s verification program helps environmentally concerned customers make these choices. Hotel Villas Colonial and Las Cumbres are two hotels that when it comes to sustainability, they walk the walk and talk the talk.