THE BLOG
12/19/2013 10:23 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

Sustainable Luxury Travel: A Manifesto

This is the story of a luxury hotel on an island in the sea. A hotel that has received acclaim in top travel magazines. This hotel's rooms offer some of the world's most breathtaking vistas of pink-orange sunsets and white sand beaches. Nearby waters feature coral reefs in which to snorkel, poolside bars proffer basil-lime cocktails, and the hotel restaurants boast five-star food with matching service. But this hotel also serves beach drinks with disposable plastic straws, hands out one-use plastic water bottles at check-in, sources unsustainable fish for dinner, flies in foreign ingredients for its nightly soufflés, and ships in furniture from China and Indonesia. The hotel employs locals, but its management is 100 percent foreign. Although situated on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, just three miles away from this hotel exists some of the worst poverty north of the equator; guests are so carefully shielded from this impoverished world, that they wouldn't know the bartender pouring their drink or the masseuse rubbing their back has to return home every night to sleep behind boarded-up windows, living in a community struggling to survive a growing drug problem and soaring unemployment rates.

And who are these pampered guests? These guests are wealthy -- and they love to travel. According to the 2011 Ipsos Mendehlson Affluent Survey, and as quoted in Travel Weekly (2011), nearly 60 percent of all American travel expenditures come from households with annual income over $100,000. These travelers easily hop on airplanes to visit everywhere from Timbuktu to Antarctica. When traveling, they expect a certain level of service, gourmet food and beautiful vistas. They expect high-speed internet access and the New York Times delivered to their door. But what is lost when one luxury hotel feels like the next? And what does it mean when luxury travel experiences are so utterly bereft of any connection to place or a bettering of the local community? How can luxury hotels find a differentiation of experience, and how can this differentiation serve to better the location to which its patrons flock, not harm it?

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared the world is flat in his book by that very name; nowhere do we see this more evident than in the luxury travel industry. Want five-star service on the beach without having to lift a finger for a week? Does the experience change much if you're in the Maldives or Mustique?

In addition to the growing proliferation of luxury travelers, it seems everywhere one looks luxury hotels are touting "sustainable practices." Don't want your towel washed? Leave it on the hook. Don't want your sheets changed every day? Place this placard on the bed. But how are luxury travelers to know the difference between a truly "eco" hotel, and one that is merely greenwashing its practices? As highlighted in this U.S. News and World Report article, simply not washing bed linens every day will not save the planet.

Then there are the troubles with instituting sustainable programs themselves -- as this Cayuga Collection post reports, even Costa Rica's widely-lauded Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) system historically has unfairly privileged larger hotels in receiving certification. A CST reform task force is currently being organized.

True eco hotels involve more than just photovoltaic panels and low-flow toilets (although even this is more than most "eco hotels" can claim). Sustainability involves a holistic approach that incorporates the local community in a meaningful way -- sustainable luxury tourism and travel takes the long-term, wide-lens approach, including fully integrated sustainable programs throughout hotel operations and socially responsible programs.

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In sum, sustainable travel isn't just about being a tourist. It's about having an experience -- and an impactful one involving an intricate connection to and concern for the place to which one is traveling. This is where luxury sustainable travel operators have a unique capability to link affluent travelers to their destinations, simultaneously allowing travelers to make a positive impact during their stay. It also doesn't hurt that sustainable travel is inherently luxurious, as highlighted previously in this blog post I wrote earlier this year.

In my experience as a consulting intern at the Cayuga Collection, I learned something important: sustainable travel matters. Creating a "sustainable travel experience" requires not only a herculean effort on the part of tourism operators, but also a massive shift in perspective and expectation on the part of guests. Guests must begin to ask that their reusable water bottles be refilled, that the restaurant's menu be sourced locally, that programs be established to give back and involve the local community in a meaningful, visible and scalable way.

And here is a plea, from one traveler to wanderers everywhere: In this "flat" world, the eye-opening experience of travel can only survive if we honor the locations to which we travel. Our visitations to such far-flung places must serve to improve the local environment and society -- otherwise, the next generation of travelers will be seeing something flat indeed: That everywhere outside our borders is full of bleached coral reefs, impoverished back alleys and trash-strewn forests depleted of their endemic species.

The commensurate traveler Pico Iyer speaks of the essence of travel in Slate's "Why We Travel." He writes:

We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the
moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom
have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow's
headlines: When you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example,
where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to
mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a "one world order"
grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the
humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

To follow on Iyer's thought, saving a place from abstraction and ideology involves loving it. Loving a place requires protecting it. And protecting it requires sustainable tourism.

Fellow luxury travelers can do your part by researching the sustainable practices of hotels before you visit. Request the management give you a write-up of their sustainable practices. When hotels claim to be eco, ask them what practices they are instituting and whether they'll give you a tour of their facilities.

Industries change when consumers require them to. By making these small changes as a collective, we can bring a new level of sustainability to every travel experience, ensuring that although the world is flat, it's not without luster, uniqueness, and above all, loved.

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The Cayuga Collection's sustainability programs are supported in part by donations to the Earth Equilibrium Fund.To learn more, visit: http://www.earthequilibrium.org/home.html