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Sun 10 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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The many shades of green

With fear of climate change growing, environmental concern has reached an unprecedented level and its effect on the hotel industry is symbolised by the birth of the ‘eco hotel'. Hotelier Middle East discovers that the term means many different things to many different people.

With fear of climate change growing, environmental concern has reached an unprecedented level and its effect on the hotel industry is symbolised by the birth of the ‘eco hotel'. Hotelier Middle East discovers that the term means many different things to many different people.

A Trip Advisor Survey of 1000 travellers worldwide carried out in April 2007 showed that 40% considered environmentally friendly tourism when planning their trips, supporting the assertion of The International Ecotourism Society's Asia Pacific association coordinator Ayako Ezaki that "global climate change is a serious threat facing humanity, and it has had significant effects on the travel industry around the world".

An eco tourism resort is just anybody who suddenly thinks they’re going to take a wander through the forest, and all of a sudden they’re an eco tourism operator.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and contributes to the well-being of local people".

Ezaki adds that "ecotourism, along with other types of nature-based tourism, is among the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry".

And it is this statistic that has led to a rise in the number of so called ‘eco-hotels' and resorts springing up around the world.

Of course, most international hotel groups have made commitments to corporate social responsibility and the environment, cutting down on waste and launching ‘green' initiatives, but this doesn't necessarily make them ‘eco-hotels'.

Johan Viljoen, general manager of Dubai Heritage Vision LLC's Dubailand resort Al Sahra accuses many properties of ‘green washing'.

"In my opinion there has been an overemphasis on green elements and on eco tourism, followed by people not being able to walk the talk."

"Many people pay lips service to eco-tourism and eco-tourism development, without actually bringing about changes in their developments that incorporate eco-tourism or environmentally friendly practices," he says.

"So you have a lot of green washing, which is just talking and not living up to the promise."

"But I think it's taken a very positive turn in the Middle East."

"In recent developments we've seen that people are serious about their commitment to a greener environment, environmental protection and good solid environmental management."

Al Sahra is currently a day resort, but will soon become a short-stay destination offering a taste of Arabic culture.

"We have our concept design on the table for our hotel, we have a budget approved and we are steaming ahead now with more detailed designs."

"We are aiming to open the doors in the winter season of 2009/10 as planned," reveals Viljoen.

"It will be 150 keys. It will be a full-service hotel, so you'll have your dining facilities - the all day dining, two specialist restaurants - and we will incorporate into the facility a spa."
But again done in a traditional hammam style trying again to be more traditional than city slick.

Part of Al Sahra's aim is to provide an alternative to the hustle and bustle of the centre of Dubai, and that incorporates a concern for the natural environment.

In my opinion there has been an over-emphasis on green elements and on eco-tourism, followed by people not being able to walk the talk.

"The difference between our destination in the desert and a typical high rise hotel environment is the fact that we are situated on 400 hectares in the desert, so we are surrounded by dune scape," explains Viljoen.

"The intention is to keep this a low density development."

"We're also part of the Dubailand Eco Tourism Zone, which means that we have certain height restrictions applied to developments in that particular area."

He adds that when designing the new hotel, the aim was to blend in with the desert surroundings as much as possible, keeping the aesthetics more traditional, rather than using products like glass.

"The design in essence will also capture themes from Arabia, so the theme of the hotel is Caravanserai, added to the current structure of the amphitheatre, which is a fort-like structure in design."

"In that way we'll try to assimilate more with the environment, rather than being a tall glass structure or the typical kind of concrete jungle design," Viljoen explains.

Unfortunately, despite Al Sahra's concern for the environment, it is still necessary to keep in mind that guests expect certain creature comforts.

"From a purist point of view there are certain technicalities that we have to keep in mind when designing a structure in the desert and providing a public facility."

"For example, one would ideally not have air conditioning in a hotel, and revert to ancient wind tower structures, but that simply doesn't make sense in the year 2010 - the 21st century," explains Viljoen.

In order to incorporate mod-cons, as well as living up to its commitment to the environment, Al Sahra is looking at ways of employing environmentally friendly technology.

"It is not far-fetched to think that, where possible, in future we would look at solar energy rather than electricity in areas where it could be applied," says Viljoen.

"We first have to look at the waste management, making sure that we recycle in areas where it's possible to recycle in the desert and always keeping volumes of waste in mind."

"Also we use only naturally surfaced roads and where we can employ torchlight as opposed to electricity."

This month will see the opening of a new restaurant, a zoo for kids and families and a plantation where more than 560 palm trees have been planted with a halaj canal system.
People find that attractive, even local people find it an attraction for their children who grew up in a large city and don't know what a halaj is.

"You will find it in the villages towards Hatta, but not in Dubai," says Viljoen.

"Then there are the typical camel rides and camel slays rides."

"Donkey rides if you want, horses, and we do not allow any vehicular entertainment in the desert, so there's no dune bashing in motorised vehicles."

Viljoen makes clear that Al Sahra's aim is to promote Dubai's heritage, provide a welcome escape from city life and do everything it can to protect the environment.

"One of the gaps in the local market is leaning towards nature and natural attractions rather than the typical mall type entertainment, like computer games," he adds.

Conservation

The Eco Tourism Society's Ezaki notes that understanding nature is one of the most important assets that attract visitors to eco-resorts, adding that "many eco-tourism destinations are facing the challenge of adapting to changing environments".

"Tourism professionals today therefore face the questions of how to minimise negative environmental impacts in order to mitigate the expected damage, and how to adapt to inevitable changes that will occur within the next decade," he says.

Emirates Hotels and Resorts vice president, resorts and projects, Tony Williams is responsible for the Al Maha Desert Resort located in the Dubai Conservation Reserve, and he's uncomfortable with the term ‘eco-hotel'.

"I have tended to stay away from that label because it seems to suggest an image of people who have a more alternative approach to life, whereas we are providing a very personal and luxurious retreat where no expense is spared making sure the guest receives our hospitality," he explains.

Instead, Williams would call Al Maha a "conservation-based operation", because "at the eco-resorts I've seen the actual guest standards seem to be pretty much rustic, whereas Al Maha is the exact opposite".

Each suite at Al Maha has a private swimming pool and Williams explains that many guests come to the resort simply to relax and enjoy spa treatments in a pleasant environment, but Al Maha is very much focused on conservation.

"We operate the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which is 4.73% of Dubai's total land area."

"It's 200 plus square kilometres, and in this location we conduct very serious academic wildlife and ecological studies, many of them in conjunction with universities and other international organisations, including the United Nations environmental programmes," explains Williams.

"We also participate on an academic level with the endangered species, such as the Arabian and Scimitar Horned Oryx, which is another species we have."

"We participate on an international basis with genetic coding and genetic variation mapping of the Scimitar Horned Oryx to ensure that the genetic stock is moved in such a way that the species is able to survive."
Williams explains that Al Maha is trying to give people an in-depth appreciation of the environment.

"There are two approaches. I can sit down as a professional ecologist, involved in hard core wildlife conservation for most of my career, and beat it into people and say ‘it's all bad news and global warming is going to screw up the planet', but I think people have enough of that," he explains.

"What we are not doing is ramming doom and gloom down the guests' throats, instead we are introducing them in a very positive way to our challenges, and simply by visiting they are financially supporting the conservation.

Aside from that, if people have an interest in a particular area - like falconry - then we can accommodate that."

Al Maha focuses on Dubai's heritage, its traditions and the Bedouin lifestyle and within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve there are four of Dubai's leading safari operators.

"Only four operators have concession within the conservation area to do desert safaris and they stick to various rules."

"Their guides have to go through a training session to test their knowledge, so it's not just a bounce around in the sand dunes."

"Then the guests can walk away with something a little bit more in depth whilst enjoying their time here," explains Williams.

Williams adds that the resort does employ water recycling systems and design elements which cut down on AC requirements, as well as the work that they've done to reintroduce wildlife, and the monitoring and breeding programs.

"An eco-tourism resort is just anybody who suddenly thinks they're going to take a wander through the forest, and all of a sudden they're an ‘eco-tourism operator'," he adds.

Eco-nomical

Coral International Hotels, Resorts and Spas is developing a completely different ‘eco-hotel' concept.

Departing entirely from the heritage and conservation concerns of Al Sahra and Al Maha, the new Ecos Hotels brand is a budget eco-property.

Coral International Hotels is yet to finalise plans for its first Ecos Hotel, but the brand's director Ralph Noblet says that the first property will be built in the UAE.

"Our approach is to be environmentally friendly and it's a commitment, designed not just to have an edge over our competitors, we believe it."

"Everything we've done with the designs and developed in that sense we've kept in mind that commitment," he explains.

"We've developed a lot of principles as we've built our other hotels, that will allow us to be as efficient as possible, but we also want our hotels to be a learning tool or at least to really create awareness in the mind of the customers and the minds of the people that work with us."
Noblet stresses that Ecos Hotels will be above all an economical concept, but that it is possible to be both green and frugal.

"People ask ‘how can you be both economical and environmentally friendly, environmentally friendly is expensive?'."

"Well this is true, but we're looking at it now with our consultants."

"There are some investments to be made, but in the long run we believe, and we are proving, that there are ways to make it economical."

With Ecos Coral International Hotels plans to offer guests a 20 meter squared room, a comfortable bed, shower and a good quality TV, somewhere that is "user friendly and where they can feel safe".

The new hotels will also use "local resources" and have local people working within the hotels, so that they are "part of the local community".

"But to be economical we can't have a hotel located on premium land on Sheikh Zayed Road, so it has to be in areas where the land is cheaper, but in a strategic location where people still have easy access," explains Noblet.

"There is never a nice view in those areas, so our hotels, no matter where they are, will look inwards at something attractive and there will be buffers from the roads and pollution."

Awareness of environmental concerns is growing in the Middle East, but there are still problems to be overcome, according to Noblet.

"We know that 225% more energy is consumed in our hotels compared to Europe."

"Now people say that here we have to have AC, but in Europe you have to have heating in the winter, so the consumption cannot be justified simply by that."

"So we are going to be more efficient and try and demonstrate that," he says.

"We are also going to be audited, and we are going to audit ourselves, so that we're putting our money where our mouth is."

"All the design strategies minimise energy use and can be defined in three steps, passive and active design measures and renewable energy, for example solar energy can be used to heat the water."

Noblet does not only believe that Ecos will be a sound investment, or a unique concept, he believes he is embracing an idea that will become the norm in future.

"There is a growing niche of people that will commit to this brand because it addresses the environmental issues."

"More and more hotels will be judged on this, and if you're not there people will go elsewhere," he says.

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