Environmental Travel: The Greenwash?

Is Big Tourism living up to its environmental obligations? Mark MacKenzie reports

Aleading European ethical tourism watchdog has accused one of the world's largest hotel groups of neglecting its responsibilities to some of the communities in which it operates. According to Tourism Concern, two resorts due to open next year under the flag of the Hilton Group plc have not only failed to make good on promised community projects, but worse, have caused irreparable environmental damage.

Started as a charity 15 years ago, Tourism Concern aims to highlight the way mass tourism rides roughshod over the needs and wishes of local communities, especially in the developing world. The first of the two Hilton developments that it is concerned with is the Bimini Bay Resort and Casino in the Bahamas.

Last year, Hilton signed a contract to manage the resort on behalf of its American developer, the Capo Group, but the site has been developed, according to the charity, at the expense of a fragile eco-system, including internationally endangered mangrove swamp and rare species of local fish.

The second project, the Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa on the island of Mandhoo, is also charged with destroying valuable environmental assets, again including indigenous fauna.

In both cases, the local communities living with the inconvenience of multimillion-dollar developments on their doorsteps were, the charity says, to be mollified by getting much-needed funding for projects such as the sponsorship of teachers on Mandhoo, and a primary school and fire truck in Bimini Bay. All of which have yet to materialise.

These failings, says Tourism Concern's project manager, Guyonne James, come despite Hilton's commitment to what big business refers to as "corporate and social responsibility" or CSR. And where Big Tourism is concerned, Hilton represents the tip of a very large CSR iceberg. "Getting multinational tourism organisations to make good on their CSR promises can be quite dispiriting," says James. So dispiriting, in fact, that she has coined a phrase for such blatant shirking of environmental obligations: "greenwash".

"Tourism accounts for around 12 per cent of global GDP, a figure that's expected to double by 2020," says James. "With so much money sloshing around, it should be tremendously enriching for the communities in which it occurs but it isn't. We are under no illusions that Hilton are any worse than anyone else."

The Hilton Group was approached for comment, but declined to respond. So how can you be sure your hotel group or operator is acting ethically towards the environment and the communities in which it operates? A bit of research certainly doesn't hurt, says James, although she adds that the CSR statements that appear on most company websites are pretty worthless.

"There's no point having a CSR programme unless you monitor the effect it has on the ground and then act accordingly. We don't know of one major hotel group that does that."

If you are keen for your holiday to benefit the community, James advises, the key is to go local. "Stay at a local hotel, eat at locally run restaurants. All-inclusives - breaks based in a hotel compound - suck any profit from the community and send it overseas."

While James concedes that most hotels in the developing world offer employment for local people, research by Tourism Concern over the past two years found many of the hotels featuring prominently in the brochures of Britain's major holiday retailers employ staff in conditions she describes as "deplorable".

"Sixty-eight out of the world's 69 least-developed countries get the most revenue from tourism," says James. "These are also the countries where the most exploitation takes place. Many employees work with no contract and unpaid overtime is common. If you have a luxury hotel in the middle of an impoverished area, hotels won't train up local staff but will import skilled labour from abroad."