UAE's green tourism in spotlight at Arabian Travel Market

By analysing water and energy consumption and non-recyclable waste production, a company can identify significant savings

A picture taken on May 14, 2015 shows a view of Dubai's Burj al-Arab hotel seen from the Mina al-Salam beach hotel and touristic resort in Jumeirah. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ / AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ
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Developing the tourism industry across the GCC - now one of the fastest-growing regional hospitality markets in the world - is key to the region’s diversification away from oil, but it is resource-intensive and has a wide-reaching impact on the natural environment in terms of CO2 emissions, water and energy demand, food waste, noise and light pollution.

Dubai’s Tourism Vision for 2020 plans to attract 20 million visitors per year by 2020, doubling the number welcomed in 2012 and developing a sustainable tourism industry will be vital: “It’s not just energy reduction that hotels need to look at," says Harold Goodwin, managing director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and World Travel Market’s responsible tourism adviser, who will be talking at the WTM group’s Arabian Travel Market (ATM) travel trade show at Dubai World Trade Centre from April 22-25.

“There are three critical issues on the environmental agenda for responsible tourism all around the world. One is reducing water consumption, the other is reducing fossil fuel emissions and the third is waste management.”

Working out how to create a more sustainable tourism industry is the central theme at this year’s ATM. International and Mena region hospitality companies will share best practice and present the business – and ethical – case for developing a more environmentally sustainable industry. “In terms of the business case, if you reduce your resource input you reduce your costs, which is good for your bottom line,” says Mr Goodwin.

Mr Goodwin is impressed by the work being done by the UAE Government as well as Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), in pushing the hotels to reduce their water consumption, emissions of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing [DTCM], for example, has created the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Initiative [DSTI] in partnership with local partners, in line with other national and local sustainable initiatives including UAE Vision 2021, UAE Green Growth Strategy, Dubai Plan 2021 and the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050.

In its "12 steps towards sustainability" guide for hotels, DTCM gives easy ways to improve on energy and water conservation and waste management that are designed to create cost savings of up to 20 per cent per year.

According to the guide, one 5-star hotel saved Dh90,000 per year by switching off computers for 12 hours a day and using more efficient equipment. Other tips include swapping to LED lightbulbs, regular maintenance to stop leaks, installing slower-flow shower and sink fixtures and smarter air conditioning – with an increase of 1°C, which means the system doesn't have to work as hard to cool the room, saving up to 5 per cent in air-conditioning and ventilation costs.

Dubai-based Jumeirah group has been working with the Dubai Government to develop ecological schemes. “As a relatively young organisation, Jumeirah has had sustainability as a key part of its business from its inception,” says Peter Stubbs, director of HSE & compliance, who will speak at ATM.

“Over the past 12 months we have been working closely with DTCM as they develop their Sustainable Tourism Standards [and] this will be at the centre of our environmental programme going forward.”

As well as running an ongoing environmental programme, Jumeirah works on targeted initiatives including the successful conversion of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah to a more energy-efficient district cooling system, which uses chilled water. Other measures include changing all lighting to LED, using natural cooling systems, using  recycled "grey" water and introducing solar power.

In edition to environmental benefits, there is a strong financial incentive for hotels to become more ecologically responsible; hotel energy costs represent about 6 per cent of hotel costs, according to the DSTI.

“The implementation of sustainable initiatives makes perfect sense from a business point of view as reducing our carbon footprint also saves money on our utility bills,” says Mohamed Awadalla, chief executive of TIME Hotels, a finalist for the Sustainable Business Award of the Year run by Gulf Capital SME Awards. “The greater the number of sustainable initiatives that can be implemented, the greater the saving that can be made.”


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Making ecological changes can have a huge impact on a company’s bottom line, says Markus Oberlin, chief executive at Dubai-based sustainable facilities management services Farnek, a member of the Green Globe certification group for sustainable tourism. “Given the latest RevPAR [revenue per available room] figures and with another 20,000 rooms still under construction, hotel managers are under increased pressure to keep expenses to a minimum. Utilities can cost an average 5-star city hotel approximately Dh4.8 million per annum or Dh37 per guest night. That figure has now increased by 5 per cent with the introduction of VAT, he points out.

By analysing water and energy consumption and non-recyclable waste production, a company can identify savings, says Mr Oberlin, whose company has developed Hotel Optimizer software for analysing waste management and recycling efforts, which is used by companies including Mövenpick Hotels, Radisson Hotel Group, Marriott and Majid Al Futtaim Properties. “It is not unusual for hotels to slash their utility bills by between 15 to 20 per cent. In gross revenue terms that’s the equivalent of 164 room nights per month at an average rate of $200 per night. Quite a result.”

Using savings to invest in technology is crucial, says Inge Huijbrechts, global vice president of responsible business at Radisson Hotel Group, who is also a speaker at ATM. Radisson Hotel Group has had an environmental policy since 1989 and says it has reduced its overall carbon footprint by 24 per cent in the past five years. “The World Bank predicts energy and water prices to go up by 20 per cent on average globally in the next five years. So if you take that into account it absolutely makes business sense, even at current prices, to do these investments,” says Ms Huijbrechts.

The group, whose 12 UAE hotels all hold the internationally-recognised Green Key certification, has a technical team in Dubai responsible for the UAE, Middle East, Turkey and the whole of Africa and has been working on an intense investment scheme since 2012 that includes solar water heating, efficient cooling and LED lights for all hotels. It is currently working with a provider of solar panels for both electricity and hot water production that are three times more efficient than a regular solar panel. In the past year alone, hotels in the Middle East and Turkey have reduced their energy consumption by 13 per cent. Water use in litres per guest has also been reduced by 7.5 per cent, better than the rest of the global Radisson group.

It can prove these reductions because the company tracks each hotel’s energy key performance indicators as part of its monthly financial data consolidation. The hotel group also uses the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative and Hotel Water Measurement Initiative developed by International Tourism Partnership and the World Travel and Tourism Council and partners for use as global footprint measurement tools.

This sort of data is vital to improving environmentally-responsible performance, says Mr Goodwin, as monitoring a company or even a country’s environmental impact is complicated when it’s hard to measure and when the data is not universally available. “There’s no scale that you can use. The only really relevant consideration is how much individual hotels are driving down water consumption, energy consumption and waste production per bed. And we don’t have that data.”

Jumeirah is addressing this by taking data and last year it converted its measurement tool to the new DTCM Carbon Calculator as part of DTCM’s mission to gather data for Dubai as a responsible tourism destination.

Meanwhile, hotels are looking for a way to engage guests in the process. Creating a social goal for guests is an important driver, says Ms Huijbrechts. A study for Radisson found that pure environmental initiatives don’t motivate guests to do anything. “If it’s just ‘let’s help save water or chemicals’, it doesn’t resonate with people because they’re having their holiday or their business trip. What does resonate is a social dimension,” she says. Radisson Blu hotels link the firm's towel reuse programme and green housekeeping service to donations of safe drinking water in communities in need, with a card in the bathroom that explains the process, then little thank you notices on reused towels.

“It creates a memorable moment but it also increases the reuse percentage by 10 per cent and it allows us to track how many towels do get reused before we can renew them,” says Ms Huijbrechts. “Of course it has an environmental benefit, of course, we use less water, less chemicals, less water run-off but it brings a social impact and that is what motivates people.” To date the group has helped provide safe drinking water to 17,500 people for life.

Overall, Mr Goodwin says the UAE is as good as anywhere in terms of managing the environmental impact of its tourism industry, despite its rapid growth, and is he optimistic about the progress being made in the UAE, particularly because of government policy push.

However, he says there are still very real strictures on how much the industry can mitigate its environmental impact. “That’s the elephant in the room. Any business can improve their environmental performance but there are limits to what can be achieved. If you’re going to have sustained growth you would assume that it would be necessary, in order to get that sustained growth, to have a reduction of emissions per unit of activity that’s larger than the rate of growth," he says. "That isn’t happening anywhere in the world.”

He also points out that, even while the hospitality sector becomes more environmentally responsible, the biggest problem in tourism is that the aviation industry continues to pollute without real limits.

Nevertheless, as the UAE Government develops its green economy, an increasing number of stakeholders are working on making the UAE a more ecologically-responsible destination for tourism.