Across the world, as travel rebounds, the tourism industry is changing, driven by consumer demand for more eco options and sustainable practices. The emergence of so-called ecotourism is happening across the spectrum, too, even in the luxury space.
If sustainable eco tourism sounds like an oxymoron to some, luxury sustainable tourism perhaps prompts even more question marks. However, from innovation in hotel construction to air-to-water technology and vegan rooms, the luxury tourism industry is beginning to change.
Tourists put their money where their mouth is
Consumers are more climate-conscious than ever, and sustainability is increasingly front and centre of decision-making when it comes to travel.
Eva Stewart, Global Sector Head of Travel & Tourism, YouGov, outlines that a growing proportion of global consumers and travellers are concerned about the environment. “Our research reveals that more than four in ten global consumers agree they are willing to pay more for responsible, eco-friendly, and sustainable trips,” she said.
Stewart explained that sustainable travel is not only about valuing the environment but also about awareness of how tourism affects local people, businesses, and native culture.
“Consumers across the globe want the reassurance that their travel experiences are benefiting local people, their community, their economy, and are preserving nature. Almost half of global consumers (48%) place high importance on selecting travel companies with a strong sustainability policy, increasing to 53% among affluents (belonging to an income group of 200% above the median household income),” Stewart added.
This trend is demonstrated in the latest figures for YouGov’s Global Travel and Tourism Whitepaper. The research found that globally, one in 10 consumers has stayed in luxury eco-friendly accommodation during the past three years. This figure increased significantly for high-income travellers, whose stays in sustainable luxury accommodation have increased by 50 per cent. More people are seeking out “meaningful” travel, too, with 51% seeking more meaningful travel experiences post-pandemic.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East. Research from PwC in 2021, for example, found that when it comes to purchasing decisions, ESG and sustainability factors have the strongest sway for Middle East consumers (31% in the Middle East, compared with 18% globally).
YouGov found that those in the UAE were most likely to seek such travel opportunities.
Stewart told ESG Mena that for Emirati, conscious travel is “high on the luxury list”, whether that’s staying in eco luxury accommodation (61%) or aligning with travel brands that support local communities and protect the planet (65%). Younger affluent consumers have an “even stronger yearning” to connect with responsible companies, Stewart added.
Coupling luxury and sustainability
When it comes to coupling luxury and sustainability, there are undoubtedly question marks around their compatibility. After all, the typical connotations of luxury travel are excess and opulence. From extravagant food spreads to single-use plastic and spa treatments, there are so many areas where sustainability has traditionally not been top of mind. Back in 2011, for example, one survey found consumers placed luxury last in a ranking of industries associated with sustainable commitments, below even the financial and petrol sectors.
That said, there are crossovers. Many experts believe that elevating sustainability in luxury travel doesn’t have to come at the expense of travellers’ experiences, and that the two might have more in common than first thought. French marketing professor Jean-Noel Kapferer, for example, highlights that the two do indeed share similarities, with luxury “nourished by rarity and beauty,” meaning that theoretically, it has an interest in preserving them. Further, some commentators say that the perception of “luxury” is changing altogether, influenced by consumer trends.
Dr Sean Lochrie, Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, commented: “As more travellers prioritise authenticity in their travel experiences, the perception of luxury is changing. Access to unexplored natural areas, genuine cultural experiences, and opportunities to interact with local communities are becoming increasingly valuable, leading to the notion of luxury travel encompassing not only a great vacation but also a chance to contribute towards making the world a better place.”
Lochrie says that luxury ecotourism has gained significant popularity in the Middle East, as consumers in the region “highly prioritise” bespoke, memorable, and environmentally responsible experiences.
According to Luxury Hotel’s Global Five Star Index, Abu Dhabi currently has the highest concentration of five-star hotels in the world, and in the Middle East, more broadly, there has been a luxury hotel boom in recent years. This is happening concurrently alongside the region’s increased focus on sustainability, so it makes sense that the industry is responding in kind.
Lochrie highlighted the Kingfisher Retreat by Mysk in Sharjah, Alila Jabal Akhdar in Oman, and The Nest by Sonara in Dubai as examples of popular destinations for ‘luxsustainability.’
Eco travel innovators
Responding to consumer demand for sustainable travel that maintains its luxury edge, various travel companies across the globe are innovating across the spectrum and, in the process, cultivating bespoke travel experiences.
BAOBAB Luxury Safari Lodges, for example, employed MASK Architects to develop technology that autonomously produces its own renewable energy and water for guests and the wider community. The company’s multi-modular living lodge structures are self-sustaining, fitted with transparent solar device-covered curtain glass, and utilise the world’s first-ever air-to-water technology.
Elsewhere, in Mozambique, the Kisawa Sanctuary Hotel has also been designed with sustainability in mind, using its patented 3D-printed sand mortar for the foundations of the construction and even manufactured coral reefs for marine habitats.
Closer to home, luxury Abu Dhabi hotel Emirates Palace has made a regional first by offering vegan rooms, a total of six, with no animal-based products in anything from the furniture to the fixtures. Wooden floors replace woollen carpets, duvets are free from feathers, and the menu is entirely plant-based.
Commenting on this new tourism trend, Lochrie said that innovation is playing a “critical role” in shaping the luxury eco-travel space: “Luxury eco-travel companies are leveraging technology and creative thinking to create innovative solutions that enhance the guest experience while minimising environmental impact,” he said.
Lochrie highlighted that many luxury eco-travel companies are using virtual reality to allow guests to experience destinations and wildlife without disturbing natural habitats. Elsewhere, resorts are using technology to enhance their sustainability, he said. “The Qasr Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in Abu Dhabi uses solar panels to provide hot water to all of their rooms, as well as to manage their laundry services. Other resorts, such as the Habitas AlUla in Saudi Arabia, have attempted to reduce their carbon footprint by using 3D printing for some of its amenities,” Lochrie outlined.
Luxury travel: From gold to green
While hoteliers may be concerned that going green will damage their luxury reputation and alter their brand image, the numbers show that demand is there and here to stay.
“Sustainability is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity,” said Lochrie, adding that prioritising the transition towards a sustainable and equitable planet is “crucial to the agenda of the tourism sector.”
Luxury hospitality represents the third largest market share in the global luxury product industry, meaning that it’s capable of delivering significant change; the question now is, will it rise to the challenge?