Will eco-labeling hotels help reverse decades of neglect?

Will eco-labeling hotels help reverse decades of neglect?

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Sun, 06/01/2013 - 15:05

Egypt is gradually realizing the need for a more sustainable approach to tourism. Introducing tighter environmental and sustainable criteria in the hotel industry may be the only way for the country to ensure a steady flow of tourists in the coming decades while still protecting its admirable landscapes, which are what attract tourists in the first place.

As the nation’s most developed tourist destination, Red Sea establishments are in particular need of greener practices. Clean beaches, pristine waters and healthy corals are the main attractions for tourists — in order to preserve them, hotels are increasingly aware that incorporating sustainable and environmentally friendly practices is the way forward.

Eco-labels guarantee that a company or a hotel is sustainable and causes the least damage possible to its surrounding environment. Many such labels are currently applied to hotels on the Red Sea and elsewhere in the country, and a new tailor-made label is currently being developed to fit Egypt’s specific environment.

A study conducted by the Center for Environment and Development in the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), published in August 2012, shows that in the hotel sector, many international eco-labels have been acquired.

One of them is the Green Globe, a certification that rewards responsible and sustainable environmental and social practices for travel and tourism operations. So far, 13 resorts across Egypt have been Green Globe certified.

Another, EarthCheck, is an international benchmarking and environmental management program specifically geared toward the tourism industry. It guarantees a certain standard of operations internationally and thus far 19 hotels in Egypt comply with its criteria.

Thirty hotels have been awarded the Travelife online certification system that helps hotels improve their environmental performance by fulfilling a set of established criteria.

Some companies, like Thomson and Accor, have also created their own eco-labeling tool. The Thomson Green Medal label has been awarded to five hotels in Egypt that meet the given environmental standards, while Accor’s Planet 21 Program has outlined a list of 21 commitments that clearly demonstrates its stance toward sustainability. By 2015, Accor hotels all over the world should respect those criteria, the company says.

Among all of these eco-labels, the most widely adopted in Egypt is the Green Star initiative. About 50 hotels in the Sinai region are committed to its standards. Initiated by Orascom Hotels and Development, Travco, the Ministry of Tourism, the Egyptian Hotel Association, the German company AGEG Consultants and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, this country-specific eco-label aims at improving the environmental performance and competitiveness of the Egyptian hotel industry.

“The Green Star label is a privilege that you receive for a two-year period after fulfilling a set of requirements to turn your hotel into a more environmentally friendly establishment. To be able to renew this label, the hotel must maintain the level of requirements imposed,” says Mahmoud al-Kaissouni, environmental advisor to the ministry of tourism.

The criteria of this eco-label are complemented with targets designed to suit the local environment. For instance, because of the region’s particularly arid climate, there is a strong focus on water preservation.

The Green Star certification is not a national eco-label, but rather a label that was tailor-made for the Red Sea hotel sector. However, there are plans to award the label to hotels beyond the Red Sea in the future.

“The plan is to have most of the international four and five-star hotels getting this eco-label across Egypt. We are putting all our efforts on 70 percent of the hotels in Egypt, which are located in the Red Sea and south Sinai. We are looking forward to having most high-end hotels acquire this label in the coming years. Hopefully at some point in the future it will be mandatory, to ensure that a certain green vision and culture will exist within the organizations,” Minister of Tourism Hesham Zaazou tells Egypt Independent.

The Green Star initiative mainly aims at helping hotels reduce their energy and water consumption by 20 to 30 percent, while increasing their use of renewable energy by 25 percent and raising the awareness of guests, staff and residents alike on sustainability issues.

The Tourism Ministry seems to be taking the matter very seriously. “We aspire to be pioneers and lead the entire country toward using renewable sources of energy,” Kaissouni says.

The government’s plan to remove subsidies on electricity in the near future is likely to have a great impact on the hotel sector. In its 15 December edition, the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper estimated there would be a 15 percent rise in electricity prices starting in December.

“Opting for cleaner energies, such as wind or solar energy, might be expensive now, but it will provide a solution to the very expensive electricity bills hotels will face in a few years,” Kaissouni stresses.

While eco-labels are great initiatives in theory, and mostly in practice, they also face some obstacles. First, most of these labels solely target four and five-star hotels, which are foreign hotel chains for the most part, greatly limiting the scope of these sustainability efforts.

Also problematic are the high costs involved in turning an already functioning hotel into an eco-friendly one — it is far cheaper for a hotel to implement these criteria in the construction phase. Finally, the biggest weakness of these initiatives is the problem of construction laws. Amr Ali, the managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), disagrees with some of the methods used by the hotel sector to obtain such labels.

“You cannot buy your way out,” he says, referring to the fact that some hotels that are built right next to the coral reefs, and thus are very destructive to marine life, still manage to obtain eco-labels.

“Some of the hotels do recycle their sewage water for irrigation purposes but what do they do with their solid waste? This still has a negative impact on the surrounding environment,” he adds.

Ali believes that eco-labels are positive initiatives, but that there is a need to reconsider some other aspects, such as the location where the hotel is built, the waste management system that is being used and the hotel’s impact on the neighboring biodiversity.

“Unfortunately, some hotels only try to acquire these labels for ‘green washing’ purposes, which is basically deceptive ‘green’ marketing that aims at advertising that a hotel is environmentally friendly, and using this to manipulate public opinion to their benefit,” Ali concludes.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.