As a growing number of hotels around the world weave sustainability and social impact into their operations, travelers in search of a responsible stay have more options than ever before. But in the face of widespread greenwashing—say, a heavily promoted towel reuse program and little else—and a lack of universal standards, it can also be daunting to find a genuinely sustainable hotel.
With that in mind, here are five key things to look for when you’re choosing a hotel, from its impact on the surrounding community to its sourcing of produce and building materials. While running a sustainable hotel is an ever-evolving process that requires constant fine-tuning based on factors such as resources and technology, these insights will help you determine whether the property you choose is on the right path—and truly walking the walk.
1. Your hotel benefits the local economy and landscape.
When it comes to hotel profits, the stakeholders matter: Is the revenue staying within the community, or is it mostly going to a foreign investor? In Canada’s centuries-old Great Bear Rainforest, the First Nations people of Kitasoo/Xai’xais in British Columbia are the owners of the oceanfront Spirit Bear Lodge, and they employ close to 10 percent of the community—which means your travel dollar stays put. In sub-Saharan Africa, Beks Ndlovu, the Zimbabwe-born owner of the multi-country African Bush Camps, is one of the few Black lodge owners in the region, setting an example for the next generation of hospitality entrepreneurs on the continent.
Ndlovu, who grew up in a village near Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, where he now operates his flagship Somalisa Camp, recently opened Khwai Leadwood, his 16th property in Botswana’s wildlife-filled Okavango Delta; all camps charge a conservation levy of $20 that funds the community and conservation work of the company’s nonprofit arm, African Bush Camps Foundation.
When a hotel isn’t locally owned, look for ways that the business is benefiting residents in significant and long-term ways. In Kenya, Maasai families own the conservancies that surround the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and rather than just use all that land to graze cattle, many lease part of it to retreats like the glamorous, Richard Branson–owned Mahali Mzuri, for photographic safaris. The 12-tent camp, which is located on the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, hires staff from the surrounding community, and it supports a nearby primary school funded through local businesses and guest donations.
2. Your hotel treads lightly on the landscape.
There’s nothing wrong with the aforementioned towel reuse program, but ideally, it’s just one component of a more comprehensive ecofriendly strategy. There are some building rating systems, like the U.S. Green Building Council’s multi-tiered LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which offers a reference point for properties that have gone green (or greener) with features that, for example, increase water efficiency and decrease energy consumption.
Marriott International lists its more than 150 LEED-certified properties around the world by tier, from Mumbai to Miami. Preferred Hotel Group recently launched a new Beyond Green portfolio featuring 30 ecofriendly properties that have met a set of sustainability criteria in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
But responsibly run smaller hotels might not brandish a sleek seal of approval. The new 39-room Casa di Langa, tucked amid the vineyards of Italy’s Piedmont wine region, has no such designation as of now, but it’s striving to make its operations carbon-neutral through practices such as using 100 percent recycled water for irrigation and farm-to-table cuisine sourced within a few miles of the hotel.
3. The property holds itself accountable.
In the absence of global sustainability standards, many conservation-minded operations are taking matters into their own hands and rating their own progress; often they’ll even publish reports for full transparency. One such example is &Beyond, which has camps and lodges in rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in South America. The company has released annual “Impact” reports since 2017 that present the numbers on everything from local employment to the number of endangered rhinos it has moved to areas less vulnerable to poaching.
In Newfoundland, Canada, Fogo Island Inn was created by island native Zita Cobb to fund her nonprofit Shorefast Foundation, which supports local small businesses and cultural programs. Her organization publicly tracks where the money from the inn goes each year through an Economic Nutrition Label, much like a nutritional label on a food product. For example, 49 percent goes to labor and 12 percent goes to food and room supplies, while 65 percent of the overall economic benefit distribution goes to Fogo Island Inn (a mere 3 percent of profits leave Canada).
4. The hotel takes part in a larger conservation or social impact story.
When hotels partner with bigger conservation or community initiatives, it can lead to richer experiences for guests while also offering both support for and exposure to the work of those organizations. Media mogul Ted Turner, the second largest private landowner in the United States, spent decades conserving North American wildlife habitats before introducing hospitality experiences within them. His collection of retreats as part of Ted Turner Reserves includes Vermejo, a well-appointed lodge in northern New Mexico sitting on more than 550,000 preserved acres where 1,200 wild bison roam.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the new Lovango Resort + Beach Club private island resort, powered by wind and solar energy, partners with the University of the Virgin Islands to help restore coral in Lovango Cay; the resort offers educational snorkeling programs so guests can see their work in progress. On a green mountain facing the ocean in Golfito, Costa Rica, the six-suite, solar and micro hydro–powered Cielo Lodge opened in January on 380 acres of primary and secondary rain forest; it is part of Fonafifo, a government program that gives the lodge a stipend to preserve more than 250 acres of rain forest on its property. To date, the resort has planted more than 4,000 native fruit and hardwood trees on previously logged land. Cielo Lodge has also partnered with NGOs like Osa Conservation, which protects the area’s biodiversity, to help with research work, including counting resident jaguars.
5. Your hotel experience tells a story about the destination.
Often, the components that make a hotel sustainable—like a locally hired staff, or a repurposed historic building—are also what help to immerse you in a destination. The Pig at Harlyn Bay, located on England’s Cornish coast, is set in a reimagined 15th-century home with stone walls. At the retreat’s restaurant, everything comes from within 25 miles of the property, lightening the menu’s carbon footprint while also showcasing the region’s produce, from whole dover sole fished along the coast to linguine laced with mushrooms foraged nearby.
Along the sandy shores of southern Mozambique, the minimalist Sussurro is a chic study in the vernacular and materials of the area, with thatched-roof bungalows and hand-carved furnishings made with local wood. In Baja California, Mexico, the new 35-suite Paradero Todos Santos, created by Mexico City–based Polen architects, is set within a small agricultural community on previously farmed land. A 100,000-square-foot botanical garden contains more than 60 native plant species, including red sand verbena and Mojave yucca, all of which naturally thrive in that climate, making the garden prosper while surrounding guests an immersive encounter with the native flora.
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