Sustainability should be the buzzword for hoteliers the world over in the twenty-first century. Costs of running a hotel operation continue to rise, demand is becoming ever more diluted by the endless stream of new developments that are pouring into the market, and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of - and sensitive to - the issues of social and environmental responsibility, according to hospitality market analysts, HVS International.
"Hoteliers are accountable for responsible business practices because their continued existence is reliant on their environment," says Elana Bader, consultant and valuation analyst for the company.
"Hoteliers [internationally] are coming to understand that only by preserving what is around them can they truly preserve their business."
One of the few regional hotels that has learnt this important lesson is Dubai's Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. Set in 225km² of pristine desert landscape, 45 minutes from the city, Al Maha is the only resort in Dubai where visitors can observe indigenous desert wildlife first hand.
The resort forms the core of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), Dubai's first national park, which comprises 4.8% of the emirate's total land mass. The organisation manages the reserve out of the offices at the five-star Al Maha Resort, and the hotel ploughs a percentage of its revenue back into the maintenance and development of the reserve every year.
"The reserve was created in 2003, because [a combination of] unchecked development, camel overgrazing and general undervaluing threatened to overwhelm the desert's fragile eco system," explains Tony Williams, vice president, resorts and projects, Emirates. "The emirate's constitution had to be amended to make the concept of a ‘national park' into a legal entity."
Now, protected by local environmental laws and royal decree, the reserve is being nurtured into a thriving wildlife reserve, and is conducting best practice and training programmes for safari guides.
A variety of indigenous animal species, many of which are on the verge of extinction, have been released to roam free in their natural habitat, and the plant life around Al Maha includes date palms and acacia trees among the many native species that have been painstakingly re-introduced via the reserve's reseeding process, which relies on natural processes to carry out the regeneration of the desert's plant life.
It is an extremely gradual process, and the challenge, according to Williams, is convincing people to think long term.
"Some people wonder why we don't just buy more plants and save time, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose of being environmentally sensitive. It's not just about a quick fix."
Despite being a long-term commitment, however, Williams knows that the environmentally friendly approach is definitely not purely philanthropic; it is also very good for business.
"Beautiful surroundings and a unique environment are great selling points for a property. If yours is the only place where guests can see and experience those things then they are more willing to pay a premium," he points out. "Conservation and sensitive development are not just good for the social conscience, they also make good business sense."
Unfortunately, few other hotels in the UAE - and indeed in the Middle East as a whole - are as proactive about conservation as Al Maha. A recent study, conducted by Dubai Ethics Resource Center (DERC) and the Data Management and Research Department at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has indicated that the region's hospitality sector needs to do more to help protect the environment.
The report, entitled
Corporate Responsibility Awareness in the United Arab Emirates
, found that the matter of environmental impact was a "low priority area" for hospitality companies due to a lack of tolerance towards, or awareness of, international standards regarding environmental controls.
These findings were further supported by those of the UK-based International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) Tourism Partnership, which last year published the Sustainable Hotel Siting, Design and Construction guidelines to provide a point of reference for planners, investors, hotel owners and developers.
IBLF, which helps travel- and tourism-related companies to "make a valuable contribution to the cultures and countries in which they operate", has highlighted the Middle East as one of the primary regions where examples of good practice are required in order to develop generic, industry-wide guidelines.
"I hope that in the Middle East we can bring the industry together and look at ways to address the issue of climate change and energy and water wastage," says Lyndall de Marco, director, IBLF Tourism Partnership.
"There are some wonderful examples of engineering and intelligent energy-saving facilities and I would like to get property developers around a table and work out what can be done collectively."
Currently, 11,000 properties worldwide, belonging to 12 hotel chains, are members of the IBLF Tourism Partnership. They include international groups such as Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Rezidor SAS, Starwood, The Four Seasons and Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces, as well as the Dubai-based luxury hotel group, Jumeirah.
"Our aim is to look at what successful hotels are doing and to pass that knowledge on in a generic format," De Marco says.
So what can hotels do to make their operations more environmentally sound? According to Chandra Shekhar, group financial controller for the Chelsea Group in Dubai, the solution is to identify "areas in hotels where eco-friendly concepts can be incorporated conveniently and smoothly, without adversely affecting normal operations or guest satisfaction".
This can be most easily achieved if an environmentally friendly approach is adopted right from the outset, he says.
"The whole idea should start from the construction stage of the hotel, using eco-friendly materials, such as dead or compressed wood for furniture; planting trees in open areas, and not felling existing trees for the sake of construction."
Angsana Resorts & Spa's US $110 million eco-spa resort in Abu Dhabi is an example of how environmental awareness can form the backbone of even a large-scale development, and even become a key selling point for the hotel.
Over the next three years, Angsana is planning to transform 140,000 m² of land in the UAE capital's eastern mangroves area into a development encompassing a hotel resort, a spa and residences.
The emirate's Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), is overseeing the project, which will include a fi ve-star resort and spa with around 100 rooms, 18 stilted water villas and 100 luxury apartments, which will be serviced by the main resort. Elevated wooden trails throughout the resort will connect the various buildings.
The sensitive nature of the mangroves' ecosystem will be carefully considered throughout the design and construction of the development, and an in-depth environmental impact study is being carried out before any building work begins - an entire year is being dedicated to the planning and design of the project.
"We will strive to minimise any environmental destruction caused by this project, but the mangroves are an area of astounding natural beauty and we want to show this off - very few people even realise that the mangroves in Abu Dhabi exist," says Bernold Schroeder, senior vice president and managing director of hotel operations for Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.
"The emirate's development strategy is carefully thought out and socially responsible, and we have tried to select an area of the mangroves that would not be negatively affected by the development. Being an eco-friendly destination is a key part of Abu Dhabi's tourism development strategy," he adds.
It's never too late
Even if your hotel is already up and running, there are still numerous ways to minimise the impact it has on the environment, as the Chelsea Group's Shekhar points out. "There are hotels that follow the theme ‘reuse, reduce and recycle' throughout the organisation [but] the system has to be put in place for each and every department and has to be monitored to ensure conformance."
Various facilities can be fitted that can help a hotel minimise the damage it causes to the environment, such as water collection and treatment plants. The Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai, for example, has installed Grease Guardians at the kitchens of its Al Qasr Hotel and at its offshore seafood restaurant, Pier Chic.
The at-source grease removal device traps grease and removes it automatically, and is more environmentally friendly than other wastewater treatments, according to Tony Simpson of Al Fardan Trading, the company that distributes the Grease Guardian.
"No enzymes or chemicals are used in the grease removal process, so it is environmentally friendly. Another advantage is that the grease collected by Grease Guardians can be collected and given to grease rendering companies to be recycled, along with all the other waste cooking oil in the kitchen," Simpson says.
"Also, instead of having the heating element running all day and all night, the system will conserve energy - and yearly costs - by only heating the grease for approximately two hours per day."
Indeed, many hotels in the Middle East could find that by doing more to conserve energy, they can enjoy tangible financial benefits, according to Marie Johnston, managing director of specialist lighting company, Johnston Lighting Design.
She claims the right lighting system could help to significantly reduce a property's electricity bills.
Because eco-friendly lighting technology costs slightly more than regular lamps, however, few hoteliers are willing to invest the time and resources in installing a greener system, says Johnston.
But with the potential of achieving up to 80% reduction in energy costs, and becoming environmentally friendly at the same time, the savings far outweigh the original expense.
"What people don't realise is if they changed their outdated lighting systems, they can reduce energy consumption by over half," she says.
HVS International's Bader agrees that the benefits to be gained from more eco-friendly business models can more than compensate for any initial outlay.
She cites several examples of successful eco-hotels - a steam recovery and grey water system in a hotel in Beijing that delivers annual savings of $6400; 40 solar panels in Turkey that will pay for themselves in just two years; a solar energy system in Malta that provides 25% of all the electricity needed to operate an entire resort - and this is just the tip of the iceberg, she says.
"[Greener alternatives] are generally cost effective with short periods of payback," she claims, adding that, "a growing number of investors are convinced that sustainability is a catalyst for enlightened and disciplined management, and, thus, a crucial success factor."
However, perhaps the crux of the argument in favour of eco-hotels lies in the fact that society as a whole is becoming increasingly concerned with issues of conservation.
"Sustainable practices can appear altruistic to the guest, shedding positive light on a hotel," Bader confirms. "There are clear indicators that guests are aware of, and support, sustainable practices in hotels."
At the end of the day, going green is great PR.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.