The Role of Green Hotels in Responsible Travel

person in hat looking at map

Green hotels, eco-lodges, sustainable resorts, etc. etc. etc. What does it all mean? If you want to travel responsibly, but don’t know what to look for, keep reading, my friend!

the importance of responsible travel

Tourism can be a wonderful thing. Of course, as travelers, we love it. It gets us away from our daily life- someone else does the laundry and cooks and cleans for us.  We get to see new things and escape for a bit.

But it has potential to be even more than that. It can boost local economies, promote conservation of valued ecosystems and wildlife, preserve heritage and culture, and fund sustainable development.  The UN declared 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism because of its potential to drive sustainable development and spread equity.  It has huge potential! But, like most things that can make money, its potential for positive benefits is squashed by the need for financial gain in many cases.

As responsible travelers, and sustainable people, we want to avoid those cases where possible.

man with suitcase staring out at sunset

green hotels and eco-lodges in a responsible travel plan

We have a lot of choices when we travel, but I’m going to look mainly at the lodging and offer some considerations as you investigate whether or not a green hotel, or eco-lodge or sustainable resort is in fact sustainable.  Below are some questions to ask when you are traveling, to check in with yourself, and confirm that you are making the most responsible travel choices that you can when it comes to lodging.

is the hotel expecting the guest to do all the sustainable work?

Oftentimes you have the option of declining new linens or towels at your hotel, with the purpose of conserving water. This does indeed conserve water, however it’s more of an economic benefit to the hotel than a sustainable effort. If this is the only reference to sustainability you see, then clearly your hotel is not concerned about sustainability.  It’s concerned about the bottom line.  While a good effort, it truly is a meager baseline. It is a way to reduce costs while being presented as an environmental commitment.

There are other small efforts a hotel may take that are directly related to the guest.  Oftentimes we see shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in small, individualized plastic containers. A minimal effort the hotel could take is to supply refillable containers that are stationary in the shower room.  It reduces plastic use and waste. You might also notice some hotels have motion sensing lights, or that the room is only powered when you put your key in the key holder. These are efforts that can help the hotel conserve money, however they are good practices in sustainability.  But these alone do not make a green hotel and put the onus of sustainability on the guest.  There are benefits beyond sustainability to the lodge or hotel (which is great) but these benefits (usually financial) are typically the drivers behind these types of decisions.

what materials are used in the buildings and furnishing, and how does design work with nature?

Sustainability looks different for each eco-lodge or green hotel. Locations are different. Cultures are different. Geography is different. (and this is why we travel!) Material selection is a true indicator of commitment to sustainability.  Green hotels will use sustainably sourced materials, which include what can be found locally.  Clay, bamboo, wood, stone, etc. can be natural, sustainable materials, but understanding the carbon footprint of each in excavation, production, and transport does matter.  True sustainable lodges and organizations will have done a thorough investigative job into which materials indeed were the most sustainable and select accordingly.

So you might ask yourself:

Is the lodging constructed out of local and sustainable natural materials? Does its footprint clear the land or does it work with the land? Does the building and its grounds consider unique and important ecological features, such as old trees and natural springs or wetlands?  These can make for stunning features of the lodging and add character that you won’t see in the mass-produced block hotels.

are there mentions of sustainability built into the guest experience?

Sustainability can and should be a selling point or differentiator. Because sustainability can be such a huge undertaking, as there are many factors to consider outside of style and cost, most green hotels or eco lodges will be proud of their effort and continue to track their impact throughout the life of the business. They should be sharing this information openly and their employees should know a little something about their sustainability goals. Feel free to ask questions when you travel. Even if you aren’t getting the answers you want, it can spark discussion and maybe even impact the decisions of the business you are speaking with. (we can dream, right?)

what does the hotel promote as part of tourism or shopping experiences?

Is the local heritage or culture celebrated or is it mass produced for mass consumption to mass tourists? (Think trinkets from factories that under pay and over work their people- and that are extremely far removed from the actual culture you are supposedly experiencing).  Some green hotels will provide locally made handicrafts in their gift shop but should also work with local tour guides and services to let guests experience and support local communities.

It’s a major concern when your resort warns you to avoid the local area. That means they haven’t done their job to integrate and build up the community, creating opportunities for locals. Instead they are ‘stealing’ the local land and creating a faux experience for travelers that is completely devoid of culture and heritage from the region.

Think major resorts in Mexico.  They want you to visit their all-inclusive resort, and they create an exclusive, walled-off paradise on the edge of a depressed city.  And I know there is a market for this.  People want a safe, convenient, relaxing, stress-free vacation. 

But I refer to this because it’s a clear example to demonstrate the stark difference between an actual cultural exchange experience and a ‘getaway’.  There are different types of travel, and if you’ve been to a resort in Mexico, you really haven’t been to Mexico. You’ve been on a getaway.  You’ve gone to a beach that could have been anywhere. Owned by a global corporation that created an atmosphere unlike the reality of the local area, that makes millions every year and does not contribute to local communities.   *raises hand.*  I’ve been there.  I’ve been to that beach that could have been anywhere.  And I had a great time.  So, I get why people travel like this. But I want us all to ‘get’ the implications as well.

how does this lodging impact the local community?

This is probably the most important question for sustainable-focused travelers. If you are interested in being a sustainable traveler, you have to take a look at your impacts on the local community. So often we think about the environment, but we must remember that sustainability is three-pronged: people, profit, planet.

Ask yourself things like: Are local community members employed here? Are they lower level employees only, or do they own the lodge or hold management positions too?  Do you recognize it as an international chain?  If so, does it have a history of responsible operations?  Are you encouraged to experience the local culture in an authentic, (and I mean truly authentic), manner?  Have tourists to this area changed the culture so that it presents more of a theatrical version for the amusement of visitors? 

How does the hotel/resort promote and support the local region?  Are they purchasing from small, family farms for their restaurant, or directing guests to locally-owned tour organizations?  Are they connected with the local community, or are they setting up an integrated network of tours, transportation, shopping experiences that keep money within the ownership of the lodge itself?

is my money going into the local community?

We’re seeing a pattern here, aren’t we?  When you travel, you should try to use local organizations. That can mean staying at a family-owned lodge or working with tour organizations that are run by community members, or eating at restaurants that are not massive or chains. Supporting the local community is a major part of sustainable travel, and a huge part of rewarding travel. If you want to stay at a Hilton, it doesn’t quite matter where you go. If you want to experience a new culture, eat unique foods, purchase handicrafts, hear historical stories of the region, and have an incredible, unique experience that you’ll always remember, then you should travel sustainably, and look for opportunities to support and positively engage with the local community.

When you travel, take the time to think about what you are experiencing.  We often run so fast to fit so much in when we are on a trip, that we forget to enjoy, forget to truly experience and definitely forget to think how our actions impact others.

looking for green hotels or eco-lodges?

If you want more information or recommendations on sustainable lodging, please check out Wayaj and Sustainable Travel International.  They are AMAZING resources!

If you are a sustainable tourism organization, eco-lodge, green hotel, tour operator or DMO and looking for copywriting or content creation services, please visit my services page or my contact page for questions. I’d love to hear from you!

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