Can luxury travel be sustainable?
The luxury travel industry has expressed its deep commitment to sustainability, but many industry onlookers wonder: Can this be true?
Colin Heinrich, impact director at the boutique travel planner Indagare, believes it is. “There's a misconception that luxury travel means excess and therefore cannot be sustainable,” he said. “And while that's true for some destinations, it's far from the norm.”
Sustainability in luxury travel can take many forms — including waste management, reduced carbon emissions, local employment and environmentally responsible fine dining.
Lauren Alba, vice president of global marketing and communications for The Leading Hotels of the World, said her organization views sustainability through the lens of three categories: supporting local communities, preserving local culture and protecting the environment.
Hotels, tourism boards, travel tours and experiences globally have stepped up to showcase their sustainable efforts and commitment to taking care of the world around them. “Even if a property is the type to have somebody in white gloves opening your doors for you, there's a high chance that same property is looking into solar power or water recycling, and it probably funds community engagement or conservation programs as well,” Heinrich said.
Kirsten Dixon, owner of Tutka Bay Lodge, sees a deep connection between sustainability and Alaskan travel in particular. “Luxury travel in the modern age focuses on experiences, not decadence," Dixon said. "The concept of luxury travel has transcended its traditional meaning into a more profound and all-encompassing experience that considers, certainly, comfort and security, attention to detail and exceptional service."
Dixon has launched a nonprofit, “Be the Wild,” that purchases wild land that is at risk of being developed. Guests of her property can experience places like this firsthand to see why they are important to preserve and can even go a step further and get involved in those projects.
“For us," she said, "luxury lies within the natural world.”
Cheetah Plains, which opened in 2018, is a sustainable-safari experience nestled in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Nature Reserve. The safari lodge is carbon-negative, which it does entirely through its own renewables, and operates 100% off-grid using solar power and electric land vehicles, said owner Japie van Niekerk. “A bold advance toward zero-emission game viewing is what drives the sustainable-safari experience,” he said.
Besides embracing sustainability on many levels — from architecture to reusable water bottles to ensuring that the lodge is self-sustainable — Cheetah Plains also creates local employment opportunities and supports early childhood development centers in its neighboring communities.
Similarly, the Leading Hotels of the World properties also get involved with local organizations and childhood education. “In Chile, Nayara Alto Atacama engages with local schools by organizing donations of supplies, participating in [DEI] talks on campus and granting yearly scholarships to young people to finish high school,” Alba said.
Another way in which luxury travel can show its sustainable efforts is through food and beverage programming. At The Hotel Christopher in Saint Barth, for example, the hotel is on a mission to spearhead environmentally responsible fine dining at its restaurants, pledging to cut food losses by 50% by 2025 and committing to cuisine based on local, organic and fair-trade products.
“These efforts promise an additional measure of environmental protection on all levels of hotel management and are a part of a sustainability plan to create positive change while disrupting years of standard hotel practice for the better,” said Olivier Leroy, general manager of the Christopher.
Indagare's Heinrich points out that tourism as an industry depends on being sustainable to ensure its very security, adding that “the luxury sector generally has a greater amount of capital to devote to these initiatives.”
Tourism brings a huge economic benefit to many communities in the developing world, said George Morgan-Grenville, founder and CEO of Red Savannah, a luxury travel company that specializes in tailor-made experiences and luxury villas. In 2022 alone, he said, tourism created 22 million jobs and contributed to almost 8% of the global GDP. It also aids in the “protection of wildlife and endangered species, empowerment of women through training, microfinance projects and education, support of schools, employment and hospitality skills,” he said.