The Hotel Britomart considered sustainability in all aspects of its design and build process. Photo / Sam Hartnett
When it comes to booking a hotel, it’s not so easy being green. Here’s how to find a room that benefits both the environment and the communities around it, writes Jessica Wynne Lockhart
years, there’s been growing awareness about the environmental impact of travel, particularly domestic and international air travel.
But one frequently overlooked area of sustainable travel is where we lay our heads at night. Hotels are notoriously resource-greedy, with the guest room sector estimated to be responsible for between 10 and 20 per cent of the tourism industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. To limit global warming, the hotel industry needs to reduce its carbon emissions by a whopping 90 per cent per room by 2050, reports the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.
Yet, a 2022 Booking.com survey found that just over a quarter of Kiwis research properties’ sustainability initiatives before they book. Worse, out of those who haven’t stayed in a sustainable property in the past year, it’s because 27 per cent “didn’t even know they existed.”
I get it. Combing through listings to find an affordable room in a central location is hard enough; adding “sustainable” to your wish list can make the search feel impossible. And while certification symbols (such as with Qualmark Green or Green Key Global) help, they sometimes equate to little more than virtue-signalling, as hotels are often evaluated on future plans rather than current actions.
I’ve seen this first-hand. Two years ago, I set out to write a guidebook to New Zealand, a task that involved staying in a different hotel every night for months. What I found was nearly every hotel that touted its green policies still didn’t offer in-room recycling to guests, while minifridges came crammed with single-use water bottles.
Greenwashing isn’t the only issue. “Greenhushing” — or the act of actively hiding eco-credentials — is also a growing problem. Alexandra Coghlan, an associate professor in the Department of Tourism, Sport, and Hotel Management at Australia’s Griffith Business School, says this is because travellers still tend to perceive “sustainability” and “luxury” as mutually exclusive.
“Unfortunately, guests tend to go, ‘I’m on holiday. Give me a break from my day-to-day responsibilities’,” she says. “It’s the biggest hurdle for raising the bar in sustainability within accommodation.”
Fortunately, many new hotels are changing this perception. One of the best examples is Auckland’s Hotel Britomart. The country’s first 5 Green Star Hotel considered its environmental impact at every step of its build, without sacrificing luxury.
“We looked at everything from the bricks to the windows to ensure we were using the most energy efficient and sustainable building materials, and carried that right through to our daily operations,” says Clinton Farley, the Hotel Britomart’s general manager. Rooms feature compostable slippers and lights that power off automatically. Even staff uniforms by local brand Mavis & Osborn are made of compostable materials produced at environmentally friendly mills.
But the sustainability issues aren’t limited to resource use; there are also the social and cultural impacts to consider. Though tourism has the potential to transform communities by providing livelihoods, it can only do so if people are being paid a fair wage. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that for every $160 spent on a package holiday in a developing country, only $8 remains in that destination. And yes, that likely applies to your favourite chain hotel.
Alternative accommodation platforms like Airbnb don’t have a much better track record. Landlords and offshore development companies snap up properties for use as short-term holiday rentals, which pushes up the price of rent to locals, leading to gentrification. Your budget holiday can have a real cost for residents of your destination.
If you want to choose accommodation that’s truly responsible, research locally owned campsites, hotels, or bed and breakfasts with green initiatives or community programmes that demonstrate real results. One of my favourite examples is Kohutapu Lodge on Lake Aniwhenua. With the support of tourists, the family-owned business has donated more than $30,000 to the local marae, while delivering more than 30,000 hangi meals to people in need.
If you do choose to stay in an Airbnb, select one where you’re sharing the home with your hosts. This ensures your booking fee goes straight into the hands of locals. It’s also more likely to result in an authentic, immersive cultural exchange.
Ultimately, remember that it’s not the responsibility of accommodation providers alone to ensure your stay isn’t harming the surrounding environment or communities.
“The guest’s behaviour will determine a lot of the use of resources,” says Coghlan. Your hotel might have low-flow showerheads, but it’s all for nought if you take 20-minute showers twice a day. And while it would be nice if all hotels did away with those mini shampoo bottles, it’s also within your power to pack your own biodegradable amenities.
Checking in to a hotel on your holiday shouldn’t be an excuse to check out. By doing your research and choosing local whenever possible, you’ll help to reduce your carbon footprint, while empowering local people and uplifting their communities.
Do you have a sustainable travel question you’d like Jessica to answer? Email us with “The Ethical Traveller” in the subject line