Was 2018 a turning point for sustainability?
Was 2018 a turning point for sustainability?
11 DECEMBER 2018 8:06 AM

While the United Nations named 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, the true change came in 2018, as this year hoteliers proved to be progressive in many ways with becoming more environmentally responsible.

The United Nations declared 2017 to be the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. However, as this year winds down, it seems that 2018 constituted more of a turning point in terms of sustainability, as punctuated by various events.

Here’s a look at some of this year’s highlights:

  • On 22 May, Hilton commits to cutting its environmental footprint in half and to doubling its social impact investment.
  • Major hotel operators connected wellness with sustainability and appointed global wellness directors, noting that we cannot be well (as individuals) in an unwell environment.
  • On 7 October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report, commissioned by the signatories of the Paris agreement in 2015, and described “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.”
  • The first “carbon-neutral hotels” are proclaimed, which include Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba, Arthur Hotel Group in Denmark, and others that are on track to reach carbon neutrality, such as Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs, California.
  • On 23 November, the National Climate Assessment, a report resulting from a collaboration of more than 300 members of 13 U.S. federal scientific agencies—that is mandated to be conducted every four years—was paraphrased in The Atlantic as follows: “Climate change, if left unchecked, could eventually cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year and kill thousands of Americans.” In addition, “Many consequences of climate change will last for millennia, and some (such as the extinction of plant and animal species) will be permanent.”
  • And 2018 is the year that the demise of plastic straws and single-use plastic began in earnest. Perhaps the appeal made by Philippe Cousteau at the November 2017 Sustainable Hotel Conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, effectively reached a critical mass of hotel operators and representatives who have in turn been leaders in this effort. While some say elimination of plastic straws is a “drop in the bucket,” it has been symbolically important as a demonstration that incremental changes made by society at large can have significant results. Many more such incremental behavioral changes will be needed to either slow the pace of, or adapt to, climate change in the future.

A New York Times Real Estate section recently featured an article called “Climate Change Insurance: Buy Land Somewhere Else.” The article was a bit disturbing in that it had parallels to many post-apocalyptic movies we have seen in which collaboration for survival is foregone by those with money, power or weapons in order to build “bunkers” for themselves and their families in a lawless post-disaster society. In this case, affluent individuals are profiled who have purchased “Plan B” homes—land in areas less vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise than the coastal cities where they currently reside and make their livings.

These people could be described as those at the opposite end of the spectrum from climate change deniers. It appears that they not only accept the scientific predictions but feel that the lack thus far of an adequate global response to climate change is forcing them to take things into their own hands. The expert views such as the dire reports noted above and interpretations like those quoted in the New York Times article, are quite disturbing. Vivek Shandas, founder of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab at Portland State University, notes, “It’s going to be a slow, gradual burn, if you will. But there will be destabilization, and it will all happen in the foreseeable future.”

We see places like Asheville, North Carolina, the largest city serving the bucolic western North Carolina region of vacation home and golf communities, summer camps and retirement villages, experiencing strong population growth (+3.0% in 2017 versus +0.7% national population growth). A significant portion of this migration is comprised of “half-backs”: people from the Northeast who moved to Florida and after several years move “half-way back,” settling in North Carolina.

One of my clients who moved to the Asheville area to raise his family after growing up in South Florida often teases me about the paradise he left and the real paradise he found, where there are no earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts or major floods. There is so much clean water in western North Carolina that California-based beer companies continue to establish secondary facilities in the region. He did not move there to escape climate change. But in the most recent decade and in those to come, how much of the growth in that region will be based on climate change factors, at least as secondary considerations, after employment opportunities, proximity to family and other important factors. Will we see a process where a traditional retirement and recreation region like western North Carolina becomes a center of economic growth and a more urbanized area due to its attributes that are naturally resilient to climate change?

It was interesting to see the wide range of reactions that readers had to the New York Times article, as more than 200 comments were received in two days. A representative comment follows: “If people want to try to buy themselves a Plan B, they can go ahead. But I would hope that they are also trying to effect change—support candidates who will take the hard measures needed to address climate change, make changes in their daily lives that are climate-friendly, drive electric cars, etc. We are all in this together.”

So how will the dual threats of climate change and sea level rise become more obvious in the development, financing and marketing of resort hotel and vacation home communities? This year our practice has seen increased developer interest in Aruba and Curacao, as they have traditionally been outside of the Caribbean hurricane zone, similar to Panama and Costa Rica. Is it coincidence that Grenada, another “deep south” Caribbean island nation is having a development boom? The boutique-sized Silversands and the Kimpton Hotel, currently under construction, are the first hotels in 25 years to be built on Grand Anse Beach. Sunwing announced on 29 November its intention to build its largest Royalton-branded all-inclusive resort to date with 300 rooms in Grenada. Although generally considered to be outside of the hurricane belt, Grenada was severely affected by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

We do see sustainability features, in the form of sturdy construction methods advertised in newer condominium advertising, but will we soon also see vacation home communities advertising their locations as “fit for long-term investment” or outside of the “sea-level-rise zone”? And will these Plan B investors be the happy ones, or will they be disappointed to find that Americans are quite mobile? If a major hurricane affects the Southeast U.S. coast in the 2040s or 2050s, when disaster relief funds have run out, how quickly will caravans of homeless people without the Plan B-like resources start arriving in places, like western North Carolina?

If climate change impacts become so dire, how will our vacation habits change? Will Americans and other tourists begin to save more and spend less in order to build climate-related contingency funds? As an industry, have we adequately considered potential impacts of climate change on leisure and business travel? Perhaps 2018 will be looked upon as a turning point in the social conversation surrounding climate change as an “eventuality” to be prepared for, rather than as a “theory” with which we can agree or disagree.

Andrew Cohan, MAI, is the Managing Director of the Horwath HTL office in Miami primarily serving Florida and the Caribbean Basin. A seasoned hospitality professional with extensive real estate, marketing and account management skills in North and Latin America, Andrew has consulted for leading branded management companies such as Canyon Ranch, Six Senses, Montage, Solage and Bulgari. He has extensive experience with health and wellness resort properties and has performed numerous feasibility studies for planned resorts in the Caribbean and Central America. He especially enjoys working on greenfield projects, teaming with land planners to determine the optimal resort configuration in order to fit market demand with destination and site attributes. As health and wellness have moved from the margins of the industry to become important components of mainstream hospitality projects, Andrew’s expertise has been in demand to conduct an increasing number of assignments for proposed resort properties, particularly as the industry recovery continues to strengthen in Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the “sunbelt states” in the United States. Acohan@horwathhtl.com; 305-606-2898

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