Luxury tourism operators on struggle to match sustainability goals with guest expectations

Hoteliers and hospitality experts at Arabian Travel Market in Dubai say they cannot compromise when providing some premium services

Envi Lodges are being built across the world with a focus on luxury and sustainability. Photo: Envi Lodges
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Luxury hotels and high-end tour operators have told of the challenges of meeting customer expectations for five-star service while seeking to achieve key sustainability goals.

Industry figures in the UAE said they had to walk a 'fine line' when introducing environmentally-friendly measures when guests are paying a premium price for stays and trips away.

Taking even relatively small steps, such as reducing water pressure in showers and replacing bedding and pillows less frequently, can be viewed as a way of saving costs rather than the planet, experts said during a Sustainability Summit at this week's Arabian Travel Market in Dubai.

"There are things we cannot avoid when we are in the luxury space," said Noelle Homsy, co-founder of UAE-headquartered eco-hospitality company Envi Lodges. "There are certain expectations our guests have.

"For example, we cannot put water flow regulators that reduce shower pressure because when our guests pay a premium, they want their beautiful rain shower with enough water pressure.”

Anders Ellemann Kristensen of Albatros Expeditions, which has run polar expedition cruises for the past 40 years, agreed.

"We try to optimise water usage, try to engage with the passengers, but again we have the same problem – if you pay a premium for something, there’s a limit to how much you can go.

“There’s a fine line between saying we’re doing this for sustainability before the client thinks we are just doing it to save money… It has to be genuine or it can come across as hollow.”

Guest engagement is key

Envi Lodges is in the process of creating a collection of nine resorts across the world, from Oman and Saudi Arabia to Tanzania and Costa Rica.

Ms Homsy said she and her business partner, Chris Nader, started the company "to save the planet and be as sustainable as we could be".

"But there are limitations and we cannot work alone. We have to partner with other companies that are within our value chain," she said.

"There are discussions that are always happening between us and our partners – whether suppliers, tour operators, travel agents – on how to get the goods and materials on site and we keep up to date with all the new, innovate [sustainable products] being brought to market."

The lodge journey beings with design, development, constructions and operations, Ms Homsy explained, but there is no one regulatory sustainability body that certifies or oversees all of these processes. So, Envi Lodges built its own sustainability guidelines that fall under seven pillars.

These include respecting the land, eating responsibly, protecting wildlife, understanding where resources come from and supporting local communities.

Mr Kristensen said on each of their expeditions, they educate clients by including mandatory sessions where they watch videos on what happens in Antarctica and the Arctic, explaining why it's important to be an "invisible tourist".

"People get annoyed by mandatory briefings at first and the fact they have to listen to educational videos and two times 40 minutes on biosecurity.

"It might not be ideal for luxury travellers, but when the trip is over, they’ve seen the animals, they’ve seen what they actually go into, they come back often very changed. Antarctica is a life changer."

Contributions for climate and community

Kiran Haslam, chief marketing officer at Saudi Arabia's Diriyah Development Group, said travellers rarely behave as they do at home. "They think, 'I paid for this, so I'm going to use it. I want them to change my pillow every day'," he said.

"Not every traveller is going to think along the lines of environmentalism, as an eco warrior, asking, 'What's my impact?' They think, 'I saved up all year to do this holiday and I want to live it large'. That's always going to be a big challenge. How do you overcome that?"

Nico Nicholas, chief executive and co-founder of Trees4Travel and Trees4Events, said having messaging at every point of a traveller's journey could make a huge impact.

"We have to recognise [that journey] starts the minute you walk out your front door at home, getting to the airport, getting on plane, flying, arriving, staying in a hotel, doing what you do in the location and getting home again.

"It’s not related to just one region, it’s our whole world. We need to address why we’re not being sustainable. We’re disjunct, we don't have the connections."

Tourists and tourism operators can also help by making small climate contributions, he added. “The biggest issue for sustainability is cost of capital. If we can overcome that, we can invest together in projects that can help support.”

In Dubai, where 87 million tourists passed through last year, a couple of dollars per person could amount to nearly $200 million, he said. This can be put towards necessary community projects. “A village might be using a diesel generator, which you might want to swap out for solar… With micro investments, funding comes together really quickly.”

A focus on nature and uniqueness

Andrew Gardner, associate director of biodiversity conservation at Emirates Nature, WWF, said it’s imperative for Middle Eastern countries to move past the perception of glitz and glamour, and focus on nature.

“The common perception of certainly Dubai and the Middle East generally is that it’s a desert, it’s a great place to come for shopping malls, for theme parks, great hotels and restaurants and so on, but not really high on the list for nature.

“I think this is a real shame because the area has remarkable biodiversity.”

But to get tourists to participate in activities that allow them to experience the Middle East’s natural landscape, there’s a need for profitability, added Mr Haslam.

“What’s the commerciality? Tourism is, ‘Get as many people as you can into a room, charge them, get them out and bring another group of people in’… There needs to be a shift in understanding. It’s super important to connect with nature, it’s what makes us human. So how do we bring that to the tourism industry?”

Mr Haslam said it starts with education and looking at sustainability from a holistic perspective. “It’s not just waste management, not just recycling, not just energy consumption in terms of grid points. It’s what we do to sustain a culture, preserve who it is that we are.”

At Diriyah, which is in Riyadh province, they focus on what makes the centuries-old area special, he added.

"We’re relying so heavily on what makes Saudi special and delivering that to the world. If it’s the snow fields, you're going up to Tabuk, if it's date farms or it’s the Red Sea, it’s something that you can engage with and these are the things we’re trying to bring to market.

"That’s what makes Saudi unique compared to the rest of GCC. We recognise this and we’re trying to open doors directly to that."

Ms Homsy said Envi Lodges also engages with local communities and infuses pieces of the culture within each property.

"For example, our Envi Jebel Akhdar in Oman, we've included a souq or farmers' market to welcome the local artisans to craft, to cook, to display their products and sell them to our guests."

Authenticity is the key to winning guests over, added Mr Haslam.

"The more authentic you are as a human being, the more you use each and every moment in your day as a force for good. That’s the secret."

Updated: May 11, 2024, 7:01 AM