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Eco-hotels: from composting to carbon neutral

At most major hotel chains, it’s become standard to find a note from the “environmental team” asking you to help save water by re-using your towels (and only leaving those on the floor that actually need laundering).

But guests are beginning to demand more than just this basic step and the hotels are accommodating their green needs. From “green floors” to composting kitchen waste to special parking for hybrid cars, today’s lodging options make it much easier to take your eco-friendly habits on the road with you.

Beyond re-using linens 

  • Reserve a room on one of the “Green Floors” at the Melia Jardim Europa in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and you will find yourself surrounded by only environmental friendly products, like recycled paper and a recycled wastepaper basket and just like home, you can continue sorting your garbage for recycling.  
  • Or perhaps you’d prefer to travel carbon neutrally. Check into the Monterey Inn Resort and Conference Center in Ontario, Canada and, with their help, you can calculate your CO2 emissions produced during travel and then offset them through the Tree Canada Foundation’s carbon credit program. You simply pay for the trees and the hotel and the Tree Foundation plant the trees after you’re long gone.
  • Stop in for the night at one of the Colony Hotels  in Kennebunkport, Maine or Delray Beach, Florida and you won’t find Styrofoam food containers, aerosol spray products or plastic trash can liners. Thanks to their “Ecology Group” their organic kitchen waste is now composted to end up in their gardens, their soaps and shampoos are biodegradable and their rooms are naturally energy-efficient due to the cellulose insulation, composed of 80% post-consumer recycled newspaper.

These aren’t just ideas cooked up by a hotel ecology staff at random, guests are demanding them. According to a study by the International Ecotourism Society, “more than two-thirds of U.S. and Australian travelers, and 90% of British tourists, consider active protection of the environment, including support of local communities, to be part of a hotel’s responsibility”. 

“See Green”: branding of major franchises

This is not just a boutique offering, major chains are taking note of the heightened consumer awareness. Starwood Hotels- owner of Sheraton and W Hotels, among others- just announced a new brand of hotels called aloft whose “see green” program will promote ecologically-friendly products and services with programs such as parking spots reserved for hybrid cars and a possible hybrid “house car” available to guests. They’ll substitute those non-biodegradable plastic shampoo bottles for eco-friendly dispenser units in every shower and during construction they will use eco-friendly materials like recycled teak wood.

Aloft Hotels’ vice president Brian McGuiness told Hotel & Motel Management Magazine that this new brand is about education, “Our vision is to empower each guest to make ecologically-responsible choices and to provide the operators the tools to help reduce our overall impact on the environment. aloft raises awareness of eco-friendly options, and offers a refreshing alternative to what’s currently available.” They’ll launch their first aloft hotels in early 2008, and by 2012 they hope to be running 500 worldwide.

Guests willing to pay more to sleep green

A report by the International Ecotourism Society revealed that clients are willing to put their money behind their ideals. “A survey of US, British and Australian travelers revealed that 70% would pay up to $150 more for a two-week stay in a hotel with a “responsible environmental attitude”.

Whether guests are actually paying more for these enviro-friendly options is debatable since these green measures often save the hotels money. The Swedish chain Scandic claims with their 9,500 environmental rooms they’ve reduced their water consumption by 13% and their energy consumption by 24%. Yet, there is already one industry veteran poised to take advantage of consumer willingness to spend a bit more to go green.

First luxury, eco-friendly hotel brand

Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Starwood Capital Group is launching the first luxury, eco-friendly global hotel brand called “1” Hotels & Residences. When the first opens in Seattle in late 2008 (followed by those in Mammoth Mountain, CA, Scottsdale, AZ and Paris, France), it will compete directly with the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons brands. “We are incredibly excited to bring a whole new concept to the hospitality industry with the launch of the “1” brand. “1” will be about light and air… an alternative way of traveling and living.”

Those behind “1” hope their example will transform the entire hotel trade. To reach this goal they’ve recruited the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) to serve as an environmental adviser. NRDC energy expert Ashok Gupta is equally optimistic and claims their work with “1” will “help create exemplar environmental projects that can be models for the entire hotel industry.”

Living truly green… if only for a week

On the flip side of being pampered at a green Ritz, there is an entire industry built around those who prefer a more extreme green escape. Sites like the Three Rivers Eco-Lodge in Dominica allow guests the opportunity to live off sun, wind and hydro power, ride in a truck that runs on vegetable oil and use a compostable toilet.

Since most of the ecotourism sites are located in sensitive environments, such as rainforests or amongst native communities, organizations like the Rainforest Alliance are putting their stamp on sites that promote businesses, whether lodges or package tours, working to “conserve natural resources and improve livelihoods in local communities”.

Ecotourism: environmental invasion or preservation?

While it’s controversial whether it’s truly sustainable to open up cloud forests to bike-riders and bird-watchers like at the Sapos y Ranas, Hostel and Botanic Garden in Ecuador, resort operators claim they are better than the alternative. “Sapos y Ranas is situated in what was a cattle ranch where more than 50% of the land had been converted to pasture – as in many of the rural areas of the nation, with a major loss of biodiversity. At present, we have conserved part of the remnant primary forest and reforested all of the pasture areas with native species.”

These ecotourism resorts also claim to help local economies by hiring local. The Weckso Lodge in Panamá is located in “territory inhabited by the Naso indigenous people, who have had a kingdom type government for around 3,000 years”. While the lodge claims the Naso people benefit by being “able to sell their goods and services” as well as providing 100% of the resort’s workforce, it is debatable whether this kind of tourist invasion in local communities is truly sustainable.

In May 2000, at the 8th session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, a group of Indigenous Peoples Organizations and NGOs provided some guidelines for keeping ecotourism sustainable, one of which is: the “Indigenous Peoples communities’ rights to say “no” to tourism development – and to be fully informed, effective and active participants in the development of tourism activities within the communities, lands, and territories.”

How to find green accommodations

While there is no universal stamp for green accommodations (except for Green Globe which is limited in scope by its for-profit status), there are some regional eco-labels and international lists to help guide those in search of a green room.

  • The European flower eco-label is given to accommodations since 2003. They publish a where to stay guide for accommodations and campsites (go to “downloads”).
  • Green Travel Market is an EU-based initiative that provides an international guide of accommodations from 5 star resorts, to tours in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to backpacker hotels in Cape Town South Africa.
  • The Green Key is an international eco-label for accommodations, campsites and restaurants. Right now they only have listings in Denmark, Estonia, France, Sweden and Lithuania, but they are expanding.
  • With the Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program, hotels earn 1 to 5 green leafs for complying with environmental best practice standards. The site provides a list of, mostly Canadian, hotels, though there are a few in the US.
  • The UK’s Green Tourism Business Scheme gives 3 levels of awards: Bronze for good practice, Silver for best practice and Gold for overall excellence in environment and sustainable practices.
  • TheItalian Green Swan is given to environmentally-aware establishments that follow criterias including better use of water and energy resources, good local cuisine/choice of organic ingredients, and providing bicycle rentals.
  • Spain Guide to sustainable rural tourism (Hotels, Homes, B&Bs, etc)
  • A Swiss certification where hotels and restaurants can receive up to 5 ibexes.
  • The Scandanavian Swan is given to hotels in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland.
  • A Dutch eco-label. Hotels, campsites and restaurants in Belgium, Holland and Germany receive a bronze, silver or gold Milieubarometer (environmental barometer).
  • Latvian Green Certificatefor sustainable rural guesthouses and family homes.
  • Rainforest Alliance’s eco-tour list of sustainable tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • International Ecotourism Society (TIES) International tour groups, eco-lodges, etc have to sign a Code of Conduct that they are committed to “conserving the environment and improving the well-being of local people.”
  • European Centre for Eco Agro Tourismlist of environment friendly organic farms, country estates, B&Bs, apartments and campsites in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg (the listings are in Dutch).