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The Middle East is slowly waking up to the realities of climate change, but is enough being done?


The Middle East is slowly waking up to the realities of climate change, but is enough being done? Green Hotelier talks to Fast Future Ventures CEO Rohit Talwar about how to achieve sustainability.

How well are hotels tackling the challenge of achieving sustainability?

Sustainability is about the planet and the profit. The region really needs to face up to thinking about those two in parallel, make sure of the financial and economic sustainability of what it's doing as well as the environmental.

Because of the scale of the challenge, waiting for the market to act is perhaps trusting in people a little too much.

A lot people now are thinking that if they use quick fix solutions - using sustainable cotton and local produce or installing long-life light bulbs - somehow they've solved it, but what they're not looking at is the true lifecycles of those things, the true energy costs and the transport costs.

What more should hotels be doing to achieve sustainability?

If you really want to be truly sustainable you've got to understand the true lifecycle of the products you're using and make sure that you can genuinely say that what you're doing is sustainable.

Now with so much new development going on in this region there's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be sustainable.

They shouldn't be allowing people to start development here without going for zero energy, zero waste and zero carbon emissions and there's no reason why a hotel now can't be zero energy, zero waste, and have almost zero emissions.

There is technology and you can make up the difference on emissions through carbon offsets, but most hotels could really drive their footprint down now and there are lots of examples around the world of hotels that have.

If you look at people like Banyan Tree, you look at Six Senses, they give away all the content of what they've done, so it's not even hard - you just have to wake up to it and do it.

There's the Green Hotels Association, there's plenty of stuff that people can do, it's just that they haven't made the decision.

What do you think of the DTCM's new scheme for hotels to reduce carbon emissions?

The 20% target? The issue is, what are they going to do to enforce it? How are they going to monitor it? And when are the targets going to actually be coming in? Are we going to wait until the last year for everyone to offload their carbon?

Actually it's a no-brainer, if you want to reduce carbon emissions by 20% most people are going to do it by cutting energy.

The reality is that if you look at the figures on greenhouse gas emissions you're looking at it being essential to cut carbon emissions by 80%. If you don't do that a flight will be a once in a lifetime experience. People aren't trying.

It's not just something that's nice to do now; as an industry we've really got to get our act together and start going for these radical goals and targets. So 20% is nice but it's not enough.

Do you think hotels should be forced to reduce their carbon emissions?

Because of the scale of the challenge, waiting for the market to act is perhaps trusting in people a little too much.

If you drive those targets, you drive innovation and you force people to look for more eco-friendly material, lower energy solutions, force them to innovate and actually they'll thank you for it, because they will cut their operating costs and you'll force them to question some of the stuff they're doing.

Hotels need to get their staff working at it, educating the staff is important because they know where the waste is. We really have to start to question what we're doing. For example, carbon offsetting.

Saying ‘I'm going to emit so much carbon a year and then put money into a project that has a 20 year life cycle', so I'm pumping it out now and not getting it back for 20 years. It's not quite right.

People say that they've got zero emissions because they've offset, they haven't. Typically if somebody offsets over a 10 or 20 year project then they are only really offsetting 10% a year or 5%.

The other issue, at that macro level, is that we also know that some of the pressure is going to come off in the next few years because of changing weather patterns.

The planet's going to go through a natural cooling cycle over the next 10 years and that will mask some of the impact of climate change. Pressure will come off, because people will see that the temperature is not going up.

Then what will happen is we'll have a big spike at the other end and by then it will be too late, because the damage will have been done so severely over the next 10 years. It's a major challenge.

What other sustainability challenges does the hotel industry face?

It's not just about environmental sustainability, it is about financial and social sustainability as well. Qatar is pitching itself as a destination for a small number of tourists, but ones who spend very highly, and that again is a matter of sustainability.

How many people are you really going to bring in and what impact is that going to have on your culture? Some of the stuff that's going on is big and iconic, and in order to sustain that you've really got to make sure you have a financially sustainable business model here.

There are some fantastic hotels, and from a marketing perspective it could be viewed as sustainable because you've got iconic design, you've got great things coming up. At what point does it matter that there will be no Arabic culture left?

At what point does it matter that you're going to be like one giant airport hotel? You could be anywhere in the world.

This raises the question, why would people keep coming here to Dubai? Then you have huge hotel development, offshore development, but if they're only 30-40% occupied how sustainable are those? If you look at the value chain in travel and tourism, everyone makes money.

If I'm flying London to Dubai and back everyone makes money. I drive to the airport and the car park attendant makes money, the airport makes money, the concessions in the airport makes money, at the other end Dubai airport make money, its concessions make money, the taxi drivers make money and the hotels make a load of money, and the restaurants make money.

The only people not making money are the airlines in the middle.

How long can that carry on, where the crucial link in your value chain doesn't make any money? This is an issue now and hotels depend on it. If there aren't people flying in and out, if they can't fly then the whole industry will really suffer.

How can hotels set about tackling these challenges?

When you map it all out you start to see real sustainability issues for the industry. You've got light bulbs coming on. You've got sustainable models in there. You've seen recently that Abu Dhabi's started to ration rice. Will we start to ration food in hotels?

Hotels have to ask ‘what's our strategy going to be to make sure we survive? How is our operation going to be profitable? But also, what's the viability of our development?'.

Over time you'd hope that you'd have more revenue than investment, so you're getting more money in than you're spending, but if you look at some places like Kuwait and Qatar they're basically saying their spending is going to outstrip their returns for the next 12 years [according to WTTC figures]. How sustainable is that?

Places like Syria look like they have a pretty high ratio which will be sustainable. How sustainable is it when hotels are treating people like they treat their napkins, as expendable?

They have to start bringing people in with their families and encouraging them to stay and build a life here, then they'll have loyalty to the brand and service to the customer will improve.

It also drives down the footprint in terms of the costs of recruitment and the people flying in and out, you've got a lot less of that going on.

From a sustainability point of view it's important. Bahrain is getting in 12 visitors per citizen, and the problem there is that whether I spend US$10 or $100 a night I'm having the same impact.

I'll use the toilet just as much, use just as much electricity, and put a lot less into the economy, so the stresses I'm putting on your infrastructure are greater.

This encourages people to push their propositions to the top end. By 2020 Bahrain will have 200 visitors for every industry employee. One of the things that drives sustainability from a tourist point of view is the ratio of tourists to employees and getting that down is critical.

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