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The Responsible Traveller: luxury holidays

Posted by Richard Hammond at 07:10 on Thursday 15 April 2010

The luxury resort on Fregate Island in the Seychelles has funded an extensive reforestation programmeThe luxury resort on Fregate Island in the Seychelles has funded an extensive reforestation programmeHigh-end travel has long been synonymous with environmental irresponsibility, but an increasing number of luxury organisations are using their big profits to fund ecological and social programmes, and buff up their green credentials, writes Richard Hammond...

The daily dilemma for guests staying on the private island of Frégate in the Seychelles is whether to walk up to the resort’s award-winning Rock Spa on a granite plateau overlooking the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, or to head to one of seven private beaches, turn around the signpost at the top of one to ‘Beach Occupied’ and have the ice-white sandy beach to yourself. Or, like I did one day, you could decide not to venture too far from the comfort of your bamboo-thatched villa, furnished with African chamfuta teak wooden boards and Botticino marble floors, call for room service from a private butler and kick back on the sofa on a cloud of fluffy Egyptian cotton cushions with a jug of fresh tropical fruit juice. It has been nearly five years since I visited Frégate, and I still day-dream of being back there, especially in the dead of a British winter.

Such first class service in a first class setting or course doesn’t come cheap; a night in a one-bedroom villa on Frégate will set you back €2,600 (with a minimum stay of 3 nights), though that’s not out of the ordinary in the Seychelles – there are any number of luxurious island hideaways in this tropical archipelago that provide a similarly deluxe playground for the sybarite.

But at what cost to the environment does all this extravagance have? If you look beyond the infinity pool, Frégate Island, does, in fact, have a commendable conservation record. Over the last decade, 100,000 trees have been planted on this small island, it has re-introduced the endangered Seychelles magpie robin, and recently installed a rainwater harvesting system, which the hotel says provides up to sixty percent of the island’s water requirements.

New Definition
However, not all luxury hotels are not quite so conscientious. A vast amount of energy is required to run these palaces, then there’s the packaging of luxury cosmetics, the disposal of waste in fragile ecosystems, and the huge amounts of water needed to supply the spas, swimming pools and saunas. Not to mention the carbon footprint emitted in the process of actually getting there.

According to Jan Peter Bergvist, the former Vice President of sustainable business at the Scandinavian hotel group Scandic, the good news is that the understanding of what constitutes luxury is changing. His former employer has one of the most comprehensive green policies for a hotel chain. In 2007, it committed to eliminating half its fossil CO2 emissions by 2011 and all by 2025. The majority of its hotels have been awarded the Nordic Swan eco label and the group has announced it will no longer buy in bottled water to its hotels, instead offering bottled, filtered water from its own taps.

Bergvist believes that the kinds of measures Scandic has taken are just as applicable to luxury island hideaways. “We’re seeing a new definition of luxury”, he explained, “one that leaves wastefulness behind and instead focuses on resource efficiency and sustainability. And as people’s values change, when you pay a lot of money you expect even more that the supplier is doing business in a responsible way.”

Bergvist says one of the best examples of upscale sustainability is Six Senses Resorts & Spas, a small luxury chain of hotels, resorts and spas primarily in the Maldives, Thailand and Vietnam, which he says “has used sustainability as a strategic part of their vision… and actually do it”.

According to Sonu Shivdasani, the founder and managing director of Six Senses, the company’s “raison d’etre is intelligent luxury”, providing “everything that the guest could possibly want but at no cost to the environment”.

So how does Six Senses achieve that? “We employ state of the art waste management systems and educate local communities in the same”, explains Shivdasani . “We grow and buy ingredients for our five star cuisine locally, giving our guests the best possible delicious fresh food, saving airmiles and allowing the local community to prosper. Financial rewards go hand in hand with environmental ones”.

In tropical climates, hotel’s air-conditioning is one of the biggest draws on energy. According to Sustainable Hotel, Siting, Design and Construction (published by The International Tourism Partnership), “Operating expenditure on HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems range from 20% of the building’s total utility costs in moderate climates to as much as 50% in tropical areas.”

Six Senses flagship green hotel, Soneva Fushi on Kunfunadhoo island in the Baa Atoll in the Maldives, has committed to being ‘carbon neutral’ by the end of 2012 and to be “de-carbonising by 2020”. To help achieve this ambitious aim, it has run 3km of piping from 300m beneath the water (where the temperature is about 11C) up to a pump house on the island. From here, the cold water is directed through trenches to guest villas, where heat exchangers are used instead of energy intensive air conditioning units.  According to the company, this saves 70 percent of energy in comparison to the energy required by standard systems. 

Social Benefits
But sustainable luxury isn’t just about environmental responsibilities. According to Chris McIntyre, Managing Director of the African specialist tour operator, Expert Africa, the social benefits to luxury travel is also important as is the quality of service and experience. “Luxury tourism is equivalent to high cost tourism. Some of our clients are willing to pay a lot of money for a really good guide and have a really interesting experience rather than just paying for luxury per se. It isn’t just about the depth of your pillow or the colour of your bath taps.”

McIntyre believes that luxury tourism can bring great benefits to Africa so long as it is harnessed responsibly. “Giving Africa trade is really important, the question is how can we do that well without doing harm… there are a lot of communities that don’t have very much at all, and tourism is one of the few things they do have - they’re not sitting on minerals nor are they are highly skilled, but they do have a magnificent environment and often wildlife around them, so the concept therefore is to encourage them to conserve that while allowing them to make a living out of it.

“It’s true that a luxury hotel could do a lot more damage than a basic camping operation, but it could also do a lot more good. At the luxury end you get to charge a lot of money, which gives the operation the leverage to use that money for the benefit of local communities and the environment.”


Clean Breaks won the Planeta International Book of the Year AwardClean Breaks won the Planeta International Book of the Year AwardRichard Hammond is the co-author of Clean Breaks – 500 New Ways to See the World (£18.99, Rough Guides).

This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the April issue of Geographical (the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society), available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Ten Best Luxury Responsible Holidays.

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