Industries in Depth

How can we really achieve sustainability in the travel sector

Gary building surrounded by body of water, Maldives: Accommodation should be the new focus of sustainable tourism

Accommodation should be the new focus of sustainable tourism. Image: Unsplash/Ishan @seefromthesky

Peter Lochbihler
Global Head of Public Affairs, Booking.com
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SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

  • Sustainable tourism is not just about air travel, there is a great opportunity for emission reductions in the accommodations sector as well.
  • Much of the technology to improve accommodations' sustainability already exist, but a knowledge-action gap limits the pace of change.
  • Almost three-quarters of the accommodation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions abatement potential are backed up by a positive business case.

For the first time in over two years, people are making travel plans without expecting them to fall through. But as the pandemic finally seems to be waning and life begins to, in large part, normalize, we’re reminded that other significant challenges humanity faces haven’t gone away. Top of the list is the threat of climate change.

When it comes to sustainable tourism and travel, most people immediately think of transport. How can I offset emissions when I fly? Should I consider destinations I can reach by train? Do car hire firms offer electric options? These are all important considerations. Equally as urgent, though perhaps less obvious, is the issue around sustainability in the travel accommodation space.

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A more sustainable stay

Making a hotel stay more sustainable is a little less glamorous than launching the first solar-powered flight around the world. Fewer travellers perhaps flock to social media to share images of their hotel’s double-glazed windows with sunshades or the low-flow showerhead and dual-flush toilet in the bathroom. Would you even notice if the hotel’s garden features native vegetation, irrigated using rainwater harvested from the hotel roof?

In the aviation sector, the biggest hurdle is technology. Zero emissions airplanes are not yet ready for prime time but, when it comes to travel accommodations, the technology is already here and the biggest obstacle is the knowledge-action gap. Closing this hole will require action from multiple stakeholders, including governments, financial institutions, accommodation providers, online and offline travel agencies and travellers themselves.

According to recent research by EY-Parthenon, the transition pathway to net zero will have to include four elements:

1. Improve the efficiency at accommodations.

2. Promote more sustainable behaviour by guests.

3. Stimulate the transition to renewable energy usage.

4. Offset any remaining GHG emissions.

The lion’s share of emissions abatement potential is associated with the implementation of just three initiatives: energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; energy-efficient appliances; and installation of double-glazed windows.

The good news is that many of these climate-friendly interventions can pay for themselves within 15 years.Indeed, 74% of sustainability investments in the accommodation sector present a positive business case. With energy prices on the rise and technological breakthroughs that we can’t yet foresee, this timeline could get even more compressed.

Remaining abatement potential versus required investment for travel accommodations.
Remaining abatement potential versus required investment for travel accommodations. Image: EY Parthenon, Booking.com

A formidable challenge

The bad news is this will incur significant upfront costs. The amount of investment needed for travel accommodation to get to net zero is estimated at €768 billion, which is roughly equivalent to the sector’s annual revenue.

There couldn’t be a worse time to ask hoteliers to make large new investments, as many have spent the last two years struggling desperately to keep their heads above water, hard hit by the pandemic. Despite the compelling economic and environmental arguments for sustainability-related upgrades, local banks may sometimes be hesitant to offer long-term financing with the breakeven point for the proposed investments reaching 10-15 years. This is where other parties need to get involved.

Governments, international organizations and civil society need to raise awareness of what accommodation providers can achieve on the sustainability front and make it easy to get funding. Governments can work with the financial institutions, for example, to structure packages that are attractive to all parties, offer government loan guarantees or incentivize necessary investments in other ways.

74% of sustainability investments in the accommodation sector present a positive business case.

Peter Lochbihler, Global Head of Public Affairs, Booking.com

Customers can play a role

Accommodation providers are also more likely to act on sustainability if they expect that the customers will reward them. This is where travellers come in. By making a conscious effort to stay in an accommodation that is more sustainable, each of us can nudge the sector to take more action.

The newly published Sustainable Travel Report provides a reason for optimism: 38% of respondents said they actively seek out information on the sustainability efforts of properties they are considering staying in, while another 56% said they do not seek out this information but will consider it if it’s presented to them.

As the sustainability imperative gains momentum, a wide variety of certification schemes have emerged: Green Seal, Nordic Swan Ecolabel, Green Hospitality Ecolabel, Ibex Fairstay, Fair Trade Tourism, LEED, Edge, etc. For hotels, attaining one of those could be a time-consuming, cumbersome and often expensive process. For small and independent properties, even if they are already compliant or willing to make upgrades that would meet the certification standards, this could pose a barrier to entry.

At Booking.com we tried to remove this hurdle through our new Travel Sustainable badge. Properties with existing third-party certifications and labels qualify automatically, while others can self-certify through a questionnaire. Of course, we then verify the answers through our routine customer review process. What we are offering is a simple and low cost way uniquely suitable for small and independent hotels to showcase their sustainability efforts and get rewarded by the travellers. This initiative won’t close the knowledge-action gap on its own but it will help.

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We see potential for a virtuous circle, in which more travellers become aware of sustainable tourism and sustainability issues in accommodation, more providers feel incentivized to take action and funding becomes more easily accessible. In the words of a great polar explorer, Robert Swan, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” At the end of the day, no one can do it alone but together we can and we will succeed.

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