Traveling Smarter: UNESCO Asks the Hotel Industry to Step Up

A collaboration between the U.N. organization and Expedia aims to improve sustainability at hotels.

Traveling Smarter: UNESCO Asks the Hotel Industry to Step Up

Valid hotels have the words “UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge” above their name on Expedia.

Courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

Selecting where to stay is a major piece of the trip-planning puzzle—especially in cities, where you have many options. Say you’ve narrowed it down to two or three hotels for a getaway. Price, location, and amenities matter but so does another criterion: how green is the hotel?

Travelers are increasingly considering sustainability factors in their choices. And one sign to look for is whether the inn, lodge, or hotel has taken the UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge. The collaboration between UNESCO and Expedia launched in 2019 and got a boost at last year’s Glasgow Climate Summit when both Scotland’s and France’s tourism departments signed on. Today, more than 4,000 properties have committed to doing their part to make the world better.

Wait: UNESCO partners with Expedia? What does UNESCO have to do with the hotel business? UNESCO has long worked to preserve treasures and heritage locations around the globe. With the increasing problems of climate change and the greater awareness of the impact of tourism on popular destinations (thanks, COVID), UNESCO has also expanded its efforts—to include the whole world.

The UNESCO Pledge focuses on five issues:

  • Conserve water: In many areas of the world, clean water is in limited supply and drought is increasingly an issue. Hotels can help safeguard this key resource by installing low-flow showers and toilets, using rainwater and graywater in smarter landscaping, and implementing a policy of linen and towel replacement only when requested.
  • Reduce waste: In our high-consumption society, waste continues to be a sizeable problem, including inefficient packaging and use of food. Hotels can boost their efforts in recycling and composting and donate leftover produce or meals to local charities.
  • Engage with the community: Sustainable tourism enables communities that attract tourists to thrive. The Pledge includes a commitment from hotels to support their location by hiring residents, sourcing and growing produce nearby, and exhibiting or selling local art and handicrafts.
  • Conserve energy: By reducing carbon emissions and preserving natural resources, properties can lower energy use and operation costs. The pledge asks them to improve by using renewable energy, automated and LED lighting, and smart tech for climate control.
  • Reduce single-use plastics: According to UNESCO, the worldwide hotel industry uses 150 million tons of single-use plastics each year. Plastic waste kills 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million seabirds annually. Hotels can help by using ecofriendly options for such single-use plastics as tiny toiletry bottles, cups, bags, single-portion condiment packs, and straws.

Here’s one example of the pledge in action: Because the seafront is where 80 percent of Iberostar’s properties are located, it has launched a Wave of Change initiative aimed to protect and revitalize the Mesoamerican reef, along the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. Iberostar has established science-based propagation programs and boosted efforts to educate travelers about the need to safeguard seas. As of 2021, Iberico and Expedia have contributed $100,000 each to the reef protection effort.

So how do you find out if the hotel you’re considering is part of the sustainability pledge? That’s where Expedia comes in. The booking site announces pledge membership right above the hotel’s name. (Be sure you’re looking at a listing, not an ad.)

Check above a hotel’s name to see if it’s part of the pledge.

Check above a hotel’s name to see if it’s part of the pledge.

Screenshot from Expedia

Participating companies include Banyan Tree Group, Accor Hotels Mantra brands, Meliá Hotels International, and Helios Hotels. But this does not mean, for example, that all hotels under the huge Accor umbrella participate.

Unfortunately, UNESCO does not provide a handy listing of these hotels. As a traveler, your best bet is to look for that banner on Expedia or ask the hotel itself. And when you get a yes, vote with your dollars to support sustainability where you stay.

>> Next: AFAR’s Stay List: The Best New Sustainable Hotels

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR