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Maggie Kohn headshot

3p Weekend: The Travel Industry Finds New Ways to Reduce Environmental Impact

The travel industry - from hotel chains and airlines, to boutique eco-resorts - increasingly caters to growing demand for more responsible travel options.
By Maggie Kohn
Travel Industry

Eco-travel has arrived. While Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in September on a zero-carbon yacht may be an extreme example, the travel industry — from large hotel chains and airlines, to boutique eco-resorts — is jumping on board to cater to the growing demand for environmentally-friendly travel options.

According to a recent report, 87 percent of global travelers polled say they want to travel sustainably, with two-thirds saying they would be willing to spend at least 5 percent more on their travel to ensure it is as low-impact on the environment as possible.

More hotels are taking on plastic waste

While nearly all major hotels have had “green” programs for years, a new trend is emerging to eliminate single-use plastic.

Marriott International, the world's largest hotel chain, announced in August that it will eliminate small plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and bath gel from its hotel rooms worldwide by December 2020. They'll be replaced with larger bottles or wall-mounted dispensers. The hotel says the move will eliminate about 500 million small bottles each year, or 1.7 million pounds of plastic.

The move follows a similar announcement by IHG, which owns Holiday Inn, Kimpton and other brands, which said it will eliminate about 200 million plastic toiletry bottles each year by 2021.

Last year, Walt Disney Co. said it would replace small plastic shampoo bottles at its resorts and on its cruise ships, as well as eliminate single-use plastic straws and plastic stirrers at all owned and operated locations across the globe. The “Happiest Place on Earth” will also begin adding hundreds of plant-based dishes this year at its fast-service and dine-in restaurants at its theme parks in Florida and California.

Just the tip of the green iceberg

Beyond the large hotel chains, a growing number of smaller hotels are popping up across the globe catering to eco-tourists, integrating sustainability into all aspects of the vacation experience.

In northern Finland, a new hotel expected to open in 2022 by the Arctic Brands Group will price stays based on guests’ emissions: the smaller their environmental impact, the less they will pay. Visitors of the resort can influence the cost of their stay by consuming less energy, attending ecological activities and making sustainable dietary choices.

The hotel — which will be known as Blue Resort — is expected to be self-sustaining, built with natural materials, powered by renewable energy sources, and with its own water treatment system. The hotel’s menu will consist of locally sourced, seasonal food. The hotel will also use a fleet of electric vehicles for transportation.

“We want to offer people a world-class eco-vacation and encourage them to make sustainable choices,” Mikko Spoof, vice president and founder of Arctic Brands Group, who thinks that companies are obligated to find new solutions to fight climate change, told the blog Inhabitat.

About 1,500 miles due west in Greenland, Hotel Arctic (no relation to the Arctic Brands Group) markets itself as a green hotel, noting on its website that it reduces its environmental impact by educating its employees and using new technology. Since 2013, the hotel (shown above during the Northern Lights) has been 100 percent CO2 neutral, with solar panels producing approximately 20 percent of its electricity. It is in the process of converting all of its igloo guest rooms — yes, igloos — to 100 percent sustainable energy.

Traveling south to the Caribbean island of Curacao, the Morena Resort touts its green credentials, including the use of  environmentally sustainable materials from fair trade cooperatives in the region in the resort’s construction. In addition, each guest room has a solar water heater on the roof, which generates enough hot water for the entire day.

In Fiji, the Six Senses resort is powered entirely by a solar installation feeding Tesla battery packs – one of the largest off-grid energy systems in the South Pacific. The resort also uses a state-of-the-art, in-house reverse-osmosis plant and water refinery to alchemize rainwater into drinking water for reusable bottles.

Even the U.S. boasts an eco-hotel: Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. The property is 100 percent wind-powered and has a water-reclamation system that collects rainwater to keep neighboring Brooklyn Bridge Park hydrated during the summer.

Most of these hotels have earned a “Green Key,” a new eco-label that has been awarded to more than 3,100 hotels and other travel destinations in 57 countries for their adherence to strict criteria covering areas such as waste, environmental management and green activities.

Now, the travel industry has to address the elephant in the room

Of course, the environmental elephant in the room when it comes to tourism is air travel, especially given that not many tourists can afford the time (or cost) of a two-week trip by yacht to or from the U.S. or anywhere else.

The International Air Transport Association predicts that air travel will grow to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035—a near doubling of current levels.  And while airlines are experimenting with biofuels and other ways to cut emissions, experts don’t expect the efforts to be enough.

“Airlines, for all intents and purposes, are becoming more fuel efficient. But we’re seeing demand outstrip any of that,” Brandon Graver of the International Council on Clean Transportation told The New York Times in September. “The climate challenge for aviation is worse than anyone expected.”

Over all, air travel accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. As the Times pointed out in its September coverage, this a far smaller share than emissions from passenger cars or power plants. Still, one study found that the rapid growth in plane emissions could mean that by 2050, aviation could take up a quarter of the world’s “carbon budget,” or the amount of carbon dioxide emissions permitted to keep global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

While the airline industry has been criticized by some who say the majority of airlines’ long-term targets fall short of the Paris Agreement goal, a report by the Transition Pathway Initiative found that four airlines are taking a strategic approach to climate change: ANA Group, Delta, Lufthansa and United.

ANA Group — which operates the top-rated airline in its sector in the most recent Dow Jones Sustainability Index — is the first global airline to issue Green Bonds, which will raise funds for green projects both in Japan and overseas. ANA is also introducing biofuel on its flights by supporting Euglena Co Ltd, a biofuel maker working to commercialize jet fuel made from green algae output.

Germany’s Lufthansa has published a four-pillar strategy to reduce its CO2 emissions, that includes technological, operational and infrastructural measures as well as supplementary economic instruments. Earlier this year, the airline signed an agreement with a Hamburg-based refinery for the production and acceptance of synthetic kerosene from regionally generated wind energy to use as an alternative biofuel.

In the U.S., United Airlines is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, while, in July, Delta flew a completely carbon-neutral flight. The Atlanta-Based airline plans to introduce 20 carbon-neutral aircrafts to its fleet moving forward.

Planes, trains and automobiles

With emerging middle classes growing in India, China and other Asian nations and the debut of more and more travel options, the global tourism industry is bracing for an explosion in numbers.

Sector leaders will be those that find sustainable ways to reduce their environmental impact and allow their consumers to do the same.

Image credit: Hotel Arctic/Facebook

Maggie Kohn headshot

Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.

Read more stories by Maggie Kohn