Sustainable tourism: why it makes business sense to be greener


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The tourism industry is an important part of the UK economy and directly contributes £70 billion every year but that doesn’t exclude it from meeting the 2050 net zero carbon emission target.

Sustainability focused legislation – the existing and what will inevitably be introduced – impacts all businesses but for the tourism sector, it should already be high on the agenda for sound commercial reasons.

The sector needs to make its buildings and operations more sustainable but also needs to consider the wider footprint – including travel, supply chain and impact on the local area.

"It is hard to envisage a truly net zero carbon emissions holiday, but the sector will have to play its part. It’s quite a big ask,” says Chris Paul, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

Currently, hotels and holiday accommodation largely escape the controls that prohibit letting of buildings that fail to meet minimum energy efficiency standards because rooms aren’t let on a tenancy. You can’t let an office building if it doesn’t meet minimum energy efficiency standards and the same is true for residential property. It wouldn’t be a big step for the Government to extend the same regulations to cover other types of occupation, and so bring the leisure industry into the spotlight.

It is much easier to consider sustainability when designing and building new hotels and holiday facilities but retrofitting older properties can be more challenging – needing tailored solutions that can be expensive.

“We can keep kicking the sustainability can down the road but ultimately businesses will need to take action and invest,” says Paul. “Starting that process early by measuring the environmental impact and setting targets will help. We can’t expect things to change overnight, but it’s less of a shock if you’re spending over 30 years than if you’re compressing that spend into a short period”

Putting any changes in legislation to one side, it should make good business sense to move towards a more sustainable operation. In the office sector, corporate occupiers are already starting to stipulate good BREEAM ratings when choosing a new building.

Consumers are increasingly switched on to the climate agenda. Sentiment has already turned against single-use plastic and climate change demonstrations are gathering momentum. Who hasn’t heard of Greta Thunberg and what she stands for? It is only a matter of time before the sustainability of hotels and holiday accommodation comes under proper scrutiny from potential guests.

Julien Allen, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins points to the experience of Tokyo in the 1980s when it was confronted with excessive pollution. “It became fashionable and desirable to have an ecologically sound hotel room and we are seeing that starting to filter through in the UK.”

Acting now to make hotels and holiday accommodation more sustainable could be a competitive advantage.

Meeting sustainability targets also requires broader thinking, looking beyond the front door of an individual business and considering its wider impact – including how its employees and guests plan their travel.

Chris Rundle, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins believes a consequence will be the need for more coordination, sharing and connectivity between businesses. He uses the South West region as an example where transport is an issue. During the peak holiday seasons roads get congested and public transport is poor, offering little in the way of an alternative to the car.

"I think there’s already a signal of change, businesses that are trying to combine attractions and amenities with more sustainable transport.”

He cites examples of businesses locating near to transport hubs or holiday venues, and holiday parks partnering with local attractions to provide private bus transport between the two and make it easier for guests to leave the car behind.

Collaboration and coordination also needs to extend to supply chains as part of a holistic approach. There is no point a hotel badging itself as plastic-free and energy efficient if its suppliers don’t meet the same standards. Businesses need to work closely with suppliers to take them on the journey. It may seem a way off but it wouldn’t take much for the effect to snowball across the industry.

Arguably destinations such as Devon and Cornwall are attracting tourist who have a love of the natural environment and so the impact of pollution and climate change is more visible. Consumers also have a choice – if you like surfing there are different places you can go and sustainability might be one of the determining factors.

But what about a city like London which attracts millions of tourists every year? If you want to see Buckingham Palace there is nowhere else to go.

The capital is one of the most visited destinations in the world and competes on the world stage for tourist spend. Are decisions about where to stay driven more by price, availability and location than other considerations such as sustainability?

Allen says: “Whether high end, middle end or low-end hotels, London has a different market, different things are driving it. I think drastic change is unlikely to hit London any time soon, because there would need to be too many concessions.”

London already has an extensive public transport network, restrictions on polluting vehicles, hire bikes and improving cycle routes which are an advantage over countryside destinations like the South West. But how do you make London tourism sustainable, particularly given the amount of existing hotel stock there is?

“New developments, no problem, you can create sustainable hotels but then you have these great old listed buildings some of which barely have disabled access,” says Allen.

London like the rest of the UK’s tourist destinations will have to find a way to be greener. Changing consumer trends may be a carrot but legislation will inevitably be the stick.

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