Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Travel

What is sustainable tourism?

In the past decade people started to acknowledge that hotels are not in all aspects a blessing for the local population and eco system. More recently, we also started to understand what impact traveling has on the ecological systems and global warming. Where ECO tourism and sustainable tourism have much in common, sustainable tourism also considers the social impact on the area where the facility settles down. But, historically there are many ECO resorts with excellent social programs who could consider changing tags.

Has sustainable tourism only a local impact?

In most cases sustainable hotels and resorts concentrate on how they impact the local community in particular and the country in general. They are called sustainable hotels / resorts / lodges or sustainable destinations if there are more of them in an area or country. Add the impact of the travel to the destination and we have sustainable tourism.

Is green energy a viable option for hotels?

In most Western countries one can chose to buy green energy. That option is not available in the Caribbean. Consequently the only way is to generate electricity. While there are many forms of green energy (please refer to: my article Green Energy Options in the Caribbean) we will only discuss wind and solar power as these are the most obvious ones.

Wind Energy

Paradise Bay installed a 80 kW windmill with an expected year yield of 180,000 kWh. It is the first utility-grade windmill installed in Caricom and we could not find any resort that already installed a windmill, although there are several with plans and one under construction. With an estimated annual power use of 120,000 kWh the resort will be better than zero carbon, once the connection to the mains is realized, as the reminder of the energy is sold to the local electricity company.

In our case it was feasible to place a windmill because of the direct position towards the wind, while the windmill could have been placed in a backward location, non-intrusive for the guests. We only get positive reactions about the windmill.

A company from the Netherlands (www.mainwind.nl) recognized this gap and deliveries solutions in the form of used mid-range windmills (250-750 kW) that come from upgraded wind parks. The need for upgrading is obvious; it is most easy to increase capacity to the current current technology (2 – 3MW) at already existing wind parks. The smaller windmills are taking down, completely revised (reconditioned) and are sold with an as-new warranty and optionally with a 15 year all-inclusive maintenance contract.

The cost per kWh is competitive with larger windmills, typically between 7-9 US $ cents; 5-6 times lower than the mains

Solar Energy

The price of photo-voltaic cells has come down substantively as production increased because of subsidies in the past decennia. In the Caribbean we have now reached the point where the solar cost gets close to the electricity company's charge. This is in contrast to Western hemispheres where the cost of energy is lower and the sun is less strong.

Solar panels installed at hotels often provide a small part of the total energy needs and is then not much more than symbolic. But guests appreciate these efforts, so it has a marketing value. To supply a substantial part of the hotel's energy needs is usually not feasible because of the large amount of panels needed.

Solar water heaters are an excellent way to avoid using energy and the payback time is 1 – 4 year depending on the setup. As the water use by guests differs it is substantially more economic to put a number of solar heaters in parallel. When there are cloudy or rainy days the yield will be much lower. One approach is to dimension worst case (rain). Another way is to feed the solar heated water in the "cold" input of the electrical heater

What can hotels do to save energy?

Use air conditioners with heat recovery units, which convert the heat loss into hot water. On most air conditioners this can also be installed afterwards and they can make use of traditional (electrical) water heaters which are well isolated. The installation can be performed by good air conditioning technicians. The savings will be fundamental and justifiable in all cases we have seen. The reason why this is not a mainstream issue yet has to do with the much lower energy cost in the US and Europe and the rapid growth of energy cost. Solutions always lag behind the reality.

As the waste heat will produce more water than your guests will ever use, it is still very important to take energy efficient air conditioners. Generally, the energy use has been considered for larger central systems, but the big savings are reached with the split system air conditioners on a per room base, which is customary in the Caribbean. Typical savings are 30-40% so the payback time is short.

When the guests are not in the room you do not want to keep the air conditioning running. The traditional solution is the room key switch. When the guest leaves and takes out the key, the air conditioning switches off -or with some advanced central systems- goes to a higher temperature.
Another strong impact is door switches. When the balcony door is opened you do not want the compressor to run. Perfectionists also switch off the air conditioner when the windows are open, but this is not always appreciated by the guests.

Refrigeration is another area where big savings can be made, especially with the smaller units such as in the guest rooms. Savings run too in the 30-40% range. Availability of energy conserving professional coolers and freezers is still limited.

Use high efficiency dish washers and washing machines with hot water connections; this has a huge impact. Most dish washing machines you have installed already have the ability to work with hot water instead of cold water (that is heated by the electrical element). So it's just a matter of changing the installation which is an easy job. Especially for washing machines you will need to install a thermostatic valve that mixes cold water into the hot water to get the desired temperature.

Energy saving lamps is the most well known form of saving energy and money and most hotels already use them. There are new developments underway that will save even more, so it's important to keep your eyes open before you order bulbs.

Why would a Caribbean hotel want to be sustainable?

Travelers are getting more and more aware of global warming and other environmental threats. Surveys have shown that an aggressively growing group of travelers considers sustainable policies and it is not uncommon anymore that directories ask for the environmental practices.
So, besides saving by taking smart choices it is also a marketing advantage.

CARBON FREE VACATION

The voices to limit long haul vacation travel are getting stronger

Paradise Bay will implement a carbon offset program where all flights by guests will be offset by carbon credits purchased by the resort, on an automatic basis, in addition to the stay, local transport and activities which is already carbon free because of the windmill that supplies energy back to the electricity net.

The guest's vacation is there guaranteed carbon neutral. The new carbon offset program, called Zero Carbon Travel, plants trees in Ethiopia which has additional social and ecological benefits. Due to aggressive deforestation in Ethiopia only 3% of the forest is still there. In a country where the majority of the poor population depends on firewood for their dinner this means that many have to walk to fish to find twigs to cook. Deforested areas are also more likely subject to erosion, with significant medium and long term negative effects.

For a typical transatlantic flight almost 40 trees are planed, much more than most other carbon offset programs that do not consider the re-emission of carbon dioxide after the lifetime of the tree and use too optimistic lifetimes for the trees. In the unregulated carbon offset sector it happens that 5-6 times less trees are planed for the same trip at a cost 2-3 times higher. Efficiency and overhead are the issues. Zero Carbon Travel was designed to be transparent, accounting and efficient.

All hotels and resorts will be able to use this efficient and therewith an affordable plan to offer their guests a Carbon Free Stay (only compensate the emission caused by the stay) or go all the way and offer guests a Carbon Free Vacation, which includes compensation of flights.

Hotels can choose to offer a Carbon Free Stay and Vacation as an option or as included in the price. Either way it will have a positive impact on image and is therewith a marketing / PR tool. The cost of compensating one night is almost always less than US $ 0.70 per night, while compensating the flight runs in the $ 10-20 range. With the new Zero Carbon Travel initiative a hotel can get a commission on the compensation of the flight. When a check in agent tells the guest that the hotel paid for a Carbon Free Stay, the right atmosphere has been created to ask the guest to pay a small amount to offset the carbon emission of their flight.

Especially in the Caribbean we should indeed concern, because long haul travel is part of our existence.

Other aspects of sustainable travel include waste water treatment, organic produce, meat and cleaning materials, social programs and so on. Again, it needs to be emphasized that more and more travelers are getting more and more aware and prefer (and want to pay more for) responsible hotels. The spiral growth of organizations such as responsibletravel.com (UK) and sustainable travel international (US) confirms the trend.