From the Seychelles to the Mexican coast, the Ecuadorian jungle to the Scottish Highlands, eco-retreats have become part of the modern travel landscape. They are wildly diverse in style and standard, but what most have in common is that they are remote, rural, and far, far away from big cities.
However, a new generation of urban eco-hotel is bringing the concept of green-minded tourism out of the jungle. Just like their rural counterparts, these hotels vary in their efforts to shrink their carbon footprint, a challenge that seems all the more arduous in a polluting, energy-guzzling city. Yet cities can be better suited to supporting eco-hotels than remote rural settings.
"Urban hotels can be even greener, because they are at the centre of transport hubs," explains Richard Hammond, founder of greentraveller.co.uk, an online guide to green holidays. "They don't have to run a pylon out from a remote place and can use local resources, materials, recycling and food.
"Right from the beginning, the setting and the design of the hotel are as important as its lifetime and lifestyle, and while this is obviously difficult for existing buildings, there are great opportunities for hotels in cities to be green."
Apex Hotels is considered the UK leader in this field. Winner of the 2007 Responsible Tourism Awards, Apex Hotels (0845 365 0000; apexhotels.co.uk) has introduced environmental initiatives such as energy-efficient lifts and boilers, and fixing flow regulators on showerheads. It also recycles all its waste, donates old furniture to local charities and uses eco-friendly washing powder. Three of its hotels have reduced energy consumption per room by more than 20 per cent since 2006.
Many city hotels, such as the green-pioneering Fairmont Royal York in Toronto (00 800 0441 1414; fairmont.com), have introduced what you might call green accessories, such as recycling bins in rooms, kitchen gardens to supply the restaurant, and mountain bikes and walking maps for guests. This can be as much about reducing costs as it is the greater green good. Reduced laundry services, waterless urinals, energy-saving bulbs and electrics that automatically turn off when guests leave the room are just a few of the hotel accountant's favourites.
The motive matters little if the end result is beneficial, but surely the future of green hotels is not about leaving it all down to the abstemious consumer. Most of us like our perks when it comes to hotels – monsoon showers and flash toiletries – yet it's true that hotels will increasingly get the thumbs-down from travellers who are trying to reduce their energy consumption at home only to find unnecessary waste in their hotel: widescreen televisions playing to empty rooms, a mini-bar full of chilled goods that don't get used.
These consumer-led changes, however, are only the tip of the dwindling iceberg. What about the workings of "back of house"? Six Senses (020-8780 3519; sixsenses.com), a brand that has received a Responsible Tourism Award, is opening its first UK spa at London's new Pan Peninsula early next year. Like other hotels in the franchise, it will follow its "Little Green Book" (a self-imposed set of rigorous green standards), but a community heating system will allow the spa to generate its own heat and electricity on site. Meanwhile, in Paris, the Ibis Porte Clichy Centre (00 33 41 40 18 90; ibishotel.com) features a pioneering photovoltaic façade that draws solar power.
The Lenox Hotel (001 617 536 5300; lenoxhotel.com) in Boston, credited in the US for pioneering urban eco-tourism, composts tons of restaurant waste, and the aforementioned Fairmont chain uses energy-saving motors for its heating and air-conditioning along with dishwashers that recycle "grey water" – a rarity in the hospitality industry largely due to a lack of space. Both of these hotels are among a growing number that offer climate neutral rooms: they offset their carbon emissions by investing in green energy elsewhere – such as wind or solar energy plants.
New "carbon neutral" hotels are cropping up in cities across the world. Recent name-checks include Shanghai's URBN (00 86 21 5153 4600; urbnhotels.com), a franchise that plans to open 20 eco-hotels across China, and the Brochner Hotel brand, in Denmark (00 45 33 95 77 00; brochner-hotels.dk). The Scandinavian chain Scandic Hotels (00 46 8 517 517 20; scandichotels.com) is refurbishing more than 10,000 "eco-rooms" throughout its European franchise with almost 100 per cent recyclable material. It has one of the most comprehensive green policies for a hotel chain and is committed to eliminating all its fossil CO2 emissions by 2025.
An enduring problem for green hoteliers is a lack of universal guidelines. Currently, there is no single internationally accepted standard for green tourism, but one of the more rigorous environmental benchmarking schemes created in recent years is Green Globe (greenglobe. com). UK hotels have been making an appearance on its lists for the first time, including a number from the Marriott chain in London. This spring, the Novotel hotel group entered into an agreement with Green Globe to achieve worldwide certification for 400 hotels across 61 countries – many city-based.
This month, the International Tourism Partnership (tourismpartnership.org), the leading umbrella organisation of responsible companies in the travel and tourism industry, released the third edition of its Environmental Management for Hotels, an industry-acclaimed guide to environmental management and sustainable operations. The manual focuses on key areas such as energy management, water conservation, waste management, purchasing and supply chains, food safety and environmental health, as well as case studies to guide participating companies, such as the Hilton chain, because they implement these practices.
If this all sounds a bit corporate, boutique hotel junkies shouldn't lose faith; green does not have to mean grey. Coming soon: Green House 26, New York's first eco-hotel, an 18-storey boutique number with geothermal heating and cooling systems, recycled building materials and organic produce. In addition, the lift will generate energy through its braking system and this will be undoubtedly – for a New York Minute at least – the city's coolest place to hang out.
The ALT Hotel (001 450 443 1030; althotels.ca) in Montreal, owned by the chic Germain boutique group, might have made 35 per cent savings on energy bills thanks to a geothermal heating system (which are passed on to consumers through fixed low room rates), but the carved wood recycling bins in each room are works of art that are illustrative of its commitment to style.
In Thailand, the Old Bangkok Inn (00 662 629 1787; oldbangkokinn.com) uses only solar energy, and recent renovations were done using salvaged, carved teak wood, and locally made Thai silks. Here the Bangkok Inn is unique. Unlike its urban counterpart, rural eco-hotels have traditionally incorporated responsible tourism – the kind that benefits local community, such as investing in local craftspeople.
"We are seeing plenty of environmentally friendly urban hotels but these don't necessarily have a detailed responsible tourism policy in place, ensuring that the local community is benefiting as much as possible from the business, too," says Krissy Pentland from Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com), the company behind the Responsible Tourism Awards.
Eco-hotels may be coming out of the jungle but they still need to bring some of the concept's grass roots with them.
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