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Tea Leaves

Sustainability or bust

High-end hotels and resorts no longer have the luxury of choice on green issues

Quirky "do not disturb" signs made of wood at a Six Senses resort. (Photo by Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas) 

Being let down stings. The last thing anyone wants is to choose a luxury destination for its sustainability credentials only to discover that guests are being given polystyrene food containers to take out on daytrips. Or to be handed plastic water bottles at a hotel that extols the virtues of sustainability. If luxury is your top priority, it can be irksome to find yourself being exhorted to switch off lights, reuse towels and separate your garbage.

Definitions of "luxury" change with the times, but luxury travel has always been about extravagance. Think of exotic ingredients being flown across the world for guests to enjoy on demand; daily changes of expensive bed linen; costly guest toiletries. It is often about visiting hard-to-access places and living in great comfort while there. The very nature of luxury is opulence, abundance and pampered living.

So how does sustainability mesh with life at the top end? The "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra is antithetical to the luxury imperative, which is about decadence and guilt-free hot showers, gourmet food and fresh towels every day. Stickers on light switches warning about energy conservation just do not cut it with the sort of high-paying guests who feel entitled to leave their air conditioning running constantly to ensure their rooms are as chilled as they are.

Even guests who want to save the planet are sometimes thwarted by hotel and resort staff. A frequent business traveler I know regularly ticks the box for less frequent hotel bed linen changes, only to find that well-meaning staff with a luxury service mindset change the sheets daily anyway.

Some high-end resorts do seem to get the message. "Luxury doesn't have to be wasteful," says Jeffery Smith, vice president for sustainability at Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, a Bangkok-headquartered luxury resort operator founded in 1995 and now owned by the U.K.-based InterContinental Hotels Group. "Guests are not looking for that," says Smith. "Our feeling is that luxury for the guest is knowing that we've got this [sustainability] covered for them so they can have a guilt-free holiday."

His hotel group has a proven track record of almost 25 years and has earned the requisite trust. But properties just starting out on the sustainability journey need to fulfill every promise and be prepared to prove their green credentials if asked.

Just as definitions of luxury change, so do societal norms. Many countries are banning single-use plastic bags, and some overvisited tourist destinations have been closed for regeneration, including Thailand's Maya Bay and Boracay Island in the Philippines. Luxury operators need to be a step ahead of changing norms to know what guests want. Terms like "flight shaming" and "conscious consumption" make it vital to pay attention to the travel anti-bucket lists of our time.

Riding elephants is a fairly recent addition to the critical list, thanks to heightened awareness about ethical tourism. Worse, a luxury beachside resort recently offered "turtle release parties," with images of guests handling hatchlings. That sent a clear message about the resort's lack of understanding about what sustainability is -- its managers were obviously unaware that touching baby turtles affects the animals' chances of survival.

The term "sustainability" is open to interpretation. Any resort can use dog-whistle words like "small," "green," "eco" and "mindful." Color codes and textures are another easy way of signaling concern for sustainability, usually employing shades of green and blue with bamboo and hessian textures. Finally there are the obligatory branded canvas tote bags and reusable bottles. Doesn't everyone have at least 10 of each by now? Handing them out should not earn sustainability merit points.

But sustainability is about more than just the right look and feel. It is also about high standards and best practice. That ought to be easier for high-end resorts than for cheaper brands, which often compete largely on price. But it does demand genuine commitment.

No company wants to be accused of "green washing" -- engaging in deceptive ecological marketing practices. But the public's growing awareness of issues such as climate change and overtourism makes guests more vigilant about authentic sustainability measures -- so properties must be prepared to show exactly what they are doing.

The last thing a luxury brand wants is to be caught out by a social media influencer highlighting examples of faux-sustainability measures. An errant plastic drinking tube could be the last straw for company's business model.

According to the 2019 annual sustainable travel report by, 72% of travelers believe that "people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to save the planet for future generations." Perhaps the ultimate luxury will be when there is no "save the planet" signage because sustainability measures have been seamlessly integrated. Guests will not need to worry about turning out the lights and minimizing linen changes, because their hotels will finally be making that happen.

Peta Bassett is a Bangkok-based writer.

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