Beachfront of Six Senses resort, Malolo Island, Fiji. (Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas)

HONG KONG—Feeding chickens may seem like a daffy activity at a luxury resort, but it proved so popular after its introduction at Six Senses Yao Noi in southern Thailand that the activity was added at other resorts in the upscale chain. More than a clucking distraction, the chickens really are part of the brand ethos.

“Guests like to see the chickens and can even pick out a fresh egg for their breakfast,” says Jeff Smith, vice president for sustainability at this chic, eco-conscious chain. Besides delivering organic eggs to the table (over 73,000 were served throughout the chain in 2018), Yao Noi also farms its own vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. All Six Senses resorts bottle drinking water in recycled glass, reducing use of wasteful plastic bottles. Such policies put Six Senses at the forefront of a growing trend towards more-sustainable tourism, yet Smith is not satisfied.

“We’re always setting new goals,” he says. One involves plastic: many resorts and restaurants now pride themselves on eliminating plastic straws, but Six Senses aims much higher—to be entirely plastic-free by 2022.

The chain’s process is methodical, with plastic as the main focus now, Styrofoam next. Each property has its own sustainability team, which inventories all use of plastic. As of March 2019, teams had identified an astounding 4.5 million plastic items, substituting nonplastic alternatives for nearly one-third of them.

Six Senses’ most impressive achievement to date may be its new Fiji resort, Six Senses Fiji, on Malolo Island, which was designed to be 100 percent solar powered, says Smith. Using a vast array of solar cells and Tesla batteries, the resort has the largest micro-grid in the South Pacific, he says.

Six Senses resort, Yao Noi, Thailand. (Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas)

Sustainable by Design

Opting for solar power at the outset was key. As global tourism expands to more remote locations and lodges seek to minimize their footprint, energy use is a crucial factor for success and style. In the Mergui Archipelago, an idyllic area of 800 islands off southern Myanmar, alternative energy guides the direction of development in a region sometimes labeled the Galapagos of Southeast Asia. Political isolation and a lack of infrastructure have protected the islands, which are still only accessible by boat tours from remote towns on the mainland.

One energy-focused development there is the Boulder Bay Eco-Resort on 135-hectare (334 acre) Nga Khin Nyo Gyee Island. Construction was limited to 10 wooden bungalows, all tucked in the trees and almost invisible along the pristine shoreline. Power trickles in from a solar farm hidden on a hilltop so as not to obstruct dazzling views of the coves and beaches. Water comes from a spring. A lack of local resources means that such remote projects are necessarily built with efficient use in mind because the approach taken can determine the future of both the destination and local cultures. In this way, Myanmar is following the approach taken by the Maldives, issuing licenses for just one resort per island.

Starting on the right path at the outset is crucial. Smith says opting for alternative energy at the start provides a genuine opportunity for efficiency, whereas resorts that invest in generators become locked into using fossil fuel over the decades of the equipment’s life. Instead, Smith says, resorts typically recoup the cost of solar-cell investment within six years. “Sometimes simply aiming high is satisfying,” he says.

Six Senses resort, Yao Noi, Thailand. (Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas)

Sustainable Tourism

Though sustainable tourism is clearly on the rise, it can also be difficult to define. Proponents cite respect not only for the environment, but also the desire to minimize tourism’s impact on communities and local culture. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a worldwide body that establishes standards for policymakers, hotels, and tour operators, provides guiding principles for businesses and destinations to help manage the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring that tourism is a force for good in promoting conservation and alleviating poverty. GSTC focuses on four main areas: sustainable management, socioeconomic impacts, cultural impacts, and environmental impacts.

Asia lags in a movement that began in developed western countries, but GSTC says the region is catching up. “We are seeing raised awareness in Asia,” says Randy Durband, the group’s chief executive officer. “Asia, like the rest of the world, is now moving down a path towards sustainable tourism that should have begun many years ago. For most Asian economies, we’re still in the early stage of raising awareness of the issues and have only recently begun to implement meaningful practices that could be considered sustainable.”

Concerns about sustainability have only intensified after environmental crises. Governments recently shut down popular Asian destinations like Boracay in the Philippines and Maya Bay in Thailand because of over-tourism—too many visitors for the insufficient infrastructure, particularly lack of water and sewage treatment, resulting in sewage pouring straight into sea—and severe environmental damage caused by a surge in the number of tourists from thousands to millions, with little improvement in insfrastructure.

“Closing beaches that have been overused wouldn’t need to happen today if yesterday there had been proper planning and execution of sustainable policies, plus enforcement of existing laws relating to waste management,” says Durband. “The good news is that there is positive movement. The bad news is that much needs to be done, and we have not yet seen widespread evidence of turning words into action.”

One firm widely praised for boosting awareness and promoting action is Greenview, a global environmental data and consultancy firm with a Singapore office. Offering myriad services to individual hotels and hotel chains, the firm issues periodic reports that compile data from its members, highlighting best practices and the latest innovations in sustainable tourism. It then helps its clients develop and implement sustainable strategies.

Cardamom tented camp is an eco-tourism lodge in the Botum Sakor National Park, Cambodia. A percentage of camp revenues goes back to conservation efforts in the park and other environmental initiatives. (Cardomom Tented Camp Co)

“Sometimes it’s just knowing more about your energy use and inefficiency,” says Ricaurte, founder and chief executive officer of Greenview.

A key facet of Greenview’s approach is benchmarking—for each property and by segment, or across the hospitality industry. this allows properties to set goals and guides them in making step-by-step advances. “A lot of time, hotels look at the entire picture, with a hundred criteria, and can be put off by the scope,” Ricaurte says. “But there are a lot of things they all can do.”

An example is night walk audits, during which property managers review energy use and efficiency at a time when they generally are not busy. “We use existing staff to go around the rooms checking obvious things like lights [whether they are on in vacant rooms] and sinks for leaks,” Ricaurte says. “You’d be surprised at all the things you find, and the savings add up.”

Advances in data make it easier to track all facets of energy use, waste, and productivity, providing management with clearer paths to savings and sustainability. Greenview has quickly grown from startup to an industry powerhouse that continues to expand its range of studies and reports: the latest Green Lodging Trends Report 2018 has more than 100 pages.

Greenview also supports initiatives like Hotel Owners for Tomorrow, which brings together hotel and resort owners around the globe, sharing data and strategies with a goal to commit to five basic actions—incorporate sustainability from the beginning of investment decisions; evaluate one renewable energy project and one efficiency project per property per year; routinely monitor and benchmark sustainability performance; support brand efforts; and share best practices.

A summit was held in September in Phuket, a southern Thai resort island where hotel owners have been working to form a unified body to promote tourism. In addition to addressing that topic, the 500 people in attendance, including 200 from Phuket, brainstormed opportunities to work together in such areas as beach cleanup, recycling, and nature conservation. Members of the Phuket Hotels Association signed the “Phuket Pledge,” a commitment to reduce, reuse, and recycle single-use plastic in Phuket hotels and resorts, including eliminating use of single-use plastic bottles and straws by the end of this year. They also agreed to set up a community project to educate the island’s youth on critical problems involving use of plastic on the island.

The Hotel Owners for Tomorrow coalition has also been working on the systemic challenges to getting sustainability discussed at the beginning of investment decisions, Ricaurte said. Among the ideas that have come up are stipulating in the hotel management agreement with the operator that a percentage of revenues be dedicated to environmental or social issues, or both, and putting a sustainability coordinator on staff. Some chains, including Six Senses, already do this, he said.

Hospitality facilities in Asia are turning increasingly to software and artificial intelligence–based solutions such as one by U.K.-based Winnow to reduce kitchen waste. (Winnow)

Another company using technology to help the hospitality industry improve its record on sustainability is Winnow, a London organization that has expanded to Asia. By tracking food use for more than 1,000 kitchens in hotels and resorts worldwide, including large chains like AccorHotels, Marriott, IHG, and Hilton, Winnow has reported cutting waste in half. The company’s Winnow Vision, an artificial intelligence–enabled system, can distinguish food waste automatically as it is discarded and identify the item, its weight, and its cost, thereby providing chefs with detailed analytics that help them efficiently manage supplies and ordering, and also drive change in their operations. Food waste costs the hospitality industry over $100 billion annually.

Critics, however, say this is all a drop in the bucket for a planet that could soon face food shortages and catastrophic consequences of climate change. “Developers need to think about where they build,” says Amber Marie Beard, who has worked on various sides of the sustainability effort—not only in tourism, but also on the real estate and development side. After stints in Hong Kong and Bangkok, she is now founder and director of projekt hABitat, a U.S. consultancy that works with tourism, real estate, and wellness firms to plan for better efficiency and more sustainable operations.

Resorts have long been criticized for jumping on the ecological bandwagon and seeking recognition without making many real changes. In the early days of the sustainability movement, hotels in Phnom Penh and Shanghai were the first in Asia to boast carbon-free status, but did so by funding projects in Cambodia and China and receiving carbon credits in return. The industry remains rife with properties that claim environmental achievements like moving to bamboo straws without considering why they use straws at all, let alone the impact of the two plastic water bottles they place in every hotel room every day.

Beard advocates comprehensive sustainability planning from the start. She brushes aside worries about the cost of going green. “In my opinion, it’s not the cost of developing a certain way that people should be worried about, but more the cost of not building a certain way—and not just for environmental reasons, but because of the very real and tangible ways that climate change will devalue their property.”

One developer already on board is Ayala Land, the big Philippines company that has shown a knack for sensitive small-scale resorts like El Nido on Palawan Island. Augusto Bengzon, Ayala chief financial officer and treasurer, says environmental concerns and sustainability guide all planning. The company focuses on four areas. “Site resiliency, pedestrian mobility and transit connectivity, eco-efficiency, and local economic development are built into our business model to ensure a holistic approach when we master plan our tourism estates,” he says.

In the site resilience phase, potential impacts are weighed for existing ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands, and waterways. Trees and plants are documented, and as many native species as possible are preserved in their normal habitat. Ayala mandates that its landscaping use at least 60 percent native foliage, Bengzon notes. An on-site nursery has helped boost that to 90 percent at Lio, an Ayala resort on Palawan, he adds.

In addition to its resilience initiatives, El Nido has embraced a range of measures aimed at operating the complex in a sustainable manner. Among other measures, these include use of solar panels and a desalination plant; an on-site sewage treatment facility, used in combination with native reed bed filters, recycles the resort’s sewage and graywater for use in toilets and for watering plants.

A dedicated recycling programme, meanwhile, segregates types of solid waste, with plastics dispatched off site to be converted into plastic bricks that can be used for construction.
Small-scale innovation facilities like this show some of the enormous potential of scaling up to include big developers in the sustainability crusade. But this should not diminish the efforts of individual innovation and achievement. For Cardamom Tented Camp in southern Cambodia, for instance, a trio of partners joined to create an eco-lodge that offers unparalleled nature experiences in some of the last remaining rainforest in the region, and they use tourism to finance conservation of the area.

Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group in Cambodia, leased more than 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of jungle a decade ago, forming a private reserve in a region rife with logging and wildlife poaching. Wildlife Alliance rangers carry out more than 3,500 patrols each year, seizing thousands of illegal traps. Funding for the patrols now comes from a camp of nine tents in one of the most quiet and pristine parts of Cambodia. YAANA Ventures, which includes Southeast Asia’s Khiri Travel, partnered with Thai hotel company Minor Group to finance and run the remote lodge. Visitors enjoy “glamping” (glamourous camping) in the wilderness and joining nature walks with the rangers.

Willem Niemeijer cofounded Khiri Travel more than 25 years ago and has steered the company to greater involvement in community development. The company experimented with camps in other locations, with the dual goals of providing accommodation for guests in less-accessible parts of Cambodia and Thailand, and providing livelihoods for people living in poor areas. Khiri has also been a pioneer in its own eco-operation by being an early adopter of green certification, then striving to ensure that the company’s partners follow the same sustainability ethos.

“This is a humongous task for Asia, but there are lots of good examples out there,” says Niemeijer. “A lot of it is just about awareness raising.” The Cardamom Tented Camp is not only praised by guests, but also has been recognized within the industry. This April, the camp was chosen as a finalist at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in the Changemakers Award category.

Already, evidence exists of positive scale-up and synergy. Late last year, Shinta Mani Wild opened its own luxury camp in the vicinity of Cardamon Tented Camp. Designed by renowned hotel architect Bill Bensley, who is responsible for many luxury camps across the region, the camp is on many of the world’s “best of” lists. Equally important, Shinta Mani Wild helps protect more than 17,800 hectares (44,000 acres) of wilderness in partnership with Cardamom Tented Camp, including a vital park corridor used by wild elephants. As they say, from small acorns, big trees grow.