Eco-tourism on the rise

As published in The Weekend Australian, by Jane Nicholls, on 16 February 2020 (full article here):

Simply hanging your towel for an extra day’s use or just forgoing an overnight change of linen in a hotel guestroom is so last century. Ditto using those tiny, non-recyclable plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel that are on a one-way trip to landfill.

But many accommodation providers are trying to tread more lightly on the planet. Here are a few innovative initiatives helping travellers to make considered choices. It’s far from an exhaustive roundup of Australian accommodation operators doing right by our environment, but rather a celebration of laudable strategies, planet-friendly initiatives and perhaps even ideas to spark a behaviour change at home.

Power plays

Hotels are ravenous electricity munchers; even when a keycard is required to activate a guestroom’s lights, the whole beast sucks up power like a kilowatt cookie monster. Accor’s new Hotel Chadstone MGallery by Sofitel in Melbourne has solar panels on its roof and reflective materials on the exterior to reduce heat. It also collects rainfall for its native plantings, all helping it to become the first five-star hotel in Australia to receive a five-star rating from international sustainability rating system Green Star. Pullman Quay Grand in Sydney, also an Accor member, has 350 solar panels on its roof, one of the largest in scale in the CBD and enough to power the equivalent of about 20 homes.

In the NSW Hunter Valley, InterContinental Hotels Group’s Voco Kirkton Park’s solar farm powers its meeting rooms, reducing its carbon footprint by 20 per cent and energy usage by 20 per cent year-on-year. Nearby, hotel mogul and cosmetic surgeon Jerry Schwartz is generating enough electricity for his hotel and then some with a $10m solar farm he built on land adjoining his Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley in Cessnock.

In sun-soaked regions, solar really rules. In Western Australia, at Ramada Eco Beach south of ­Broome, Kimberley-strength sunshine powers the hybrid solar system and guests can check their villa’s usage. At Faraway Bay, northwest of Kununurra, solar heats water for showers and there are no “overindulgent, water-wasting baths”. South down the coast at Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, solar power provides almost all the property’s energy needs; the 15 wilderness tents are cooled by sea breezes and, as with many solar properties, hair dryers are not available. Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge, on Australia’s westernmost island, boasts that 92 per cent of its energy is produced by a hybrid solar and wind system. A back-up diesel generator kicks in during the winter months, but since the renewable system’s installation, generator run-time has reduced from an average of 18 hours a day to 1.8 hours a day, saving 36,000 litres of diesel a year.

Down the road in Perth’s CBD, the boutique Alex Hotel doesn’t aircondition its corridors on that basis that it’s “an unnecessary use of energy; instead there are windows at either end”. Minibars also have been dispensed with, reasoning, “there is less energy expenditure, particularly when guest­rooms are unoccupied, and the production and replacement cycle has been eliminated”.

Near Port Lincoln in South Australia, Jill Coates, co-owner of Tanonga Lodge, says: “(The lodge) has stand-alone solar power, harvested rain water and ecologically and environmentally sustainable design features so guests can enjoy the luxury without the guilt.” In Tasmania, on King Island in Bass Strait, the new Kittawa Lodge has opened fully off the grid, with its own water-catchment, retention and treatment facilities, solar-power system and waste management and treatment all on site (yet out of sight). The solar system went in first to power the construction of the property, mostly using rechargeable tools.

Tanonga Lodge near Port Lincoln in South Australia. Picture: John White
Tanonga Lodge near Port Lincoln in South Australia. Picture: John White

Waste warriors

Generally speaking, hotels are looking for a competitive edge. The Spicers Group is revving up the hospitality industry to join its war on waste, with five-star Spicers Balfour Hotel in New Farm, Brisbane, the group’s standout, aiming to become the city’s first zero-waste hotel. “I invite other hoteliers and restaurateurs to join us in reducing waste and working towards greater sustainability,” says Jude Turner, founder of Spicers. “As a sector, we can make a huge difference.”

Within three months of launching its zero-waste initiative, the property reduced to a single domestic wheelie bin of landfill waste per fortnight, down from two 600-litre commercial wheelie bins a week, representing a 95 per cent reduction. “It shows what can be achieved when everybody gets on board, from kitchen hands to senior management and everyone in between,” Turner says of the intense focus from Spicers Balfour GM Simon Magnus and head chef Nick Stapleton.

Examples of the changes include ditching the plastic prep containers in the restaurant kitchen in favour of stainless steel, using specialist recycler TerraCycle for the thousands of latex chef’s gloves that otherwise would be disposed of, and working only with suppliers who agreed to eliminate styrofoam boxes and plastic bags from their deliveries, reducing the amount of waste that enters the premises in the first place. A compost machine dehydrates food waste and anything leftover goes on the kitchen garden.

“We’re going to transfer what they’ve done to all our other properties,” says Alice Dahlberg, who since 2017 has been the full-time sustainability officer and earth-check co-ordinator with the Spicers Group. “We ask for feedback from our guests and it’s 99 per cent positive, but we want to know what we can do better, and be on the journey with them. If they have a good suggestion, we contact them and let them know we’re going to take it further.”

Other little changes add flavour and reduce waste. As well as Spicers Group, small hotels such as Stillwater Seven in Launceston and Maylands Lodge in Hobart are offering loose-leaf tea and pots rather than tea bags and French presses and local roasts rather than pods for coffee. As you’d expect, those properties and others of their ilk are also obsessive about eliminating single-use plastic, long a depressingly enormous part of hospitality.

Stillwater SEVEN, in Launceston, Tasmania.
Stillwater SEVEN, in Launceston, Tasmania.

But recycling can be a problem for remote resorts. Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge solves it with its own glass crusher, which reduces glass to grains the size of sand, which can then be used in cement for works on the resort. Reducing housekeeping saves energy, water and chemical use.

Guests who’ve come to expect it are now being incentivised to forgo it, with some European chains offering bar credits if guests opt for no housekeeping services on stays above one night. The IHG group’s global A Greener Stay initiative pays guests in reward club points for each night they forego housekeeping.

“In 2019 in Australasia, 26,598 room nights activated the offer, saving as many as 100,000 toiletries, as well as energy and water,” says Leanne Harwood, managing director of IHG Australasia and Japan.

Grand green designs

TFE Hotels’ 200-room Hotel Adina Apartment Hotel Melbourne Southbank, scheduled to open mid-year, will be Australia’s first cross-laminated timber hotel. CLT is an engineered timber product made from sustainably sourced material and will be a signature of this property’s design.

The building process with CLT is quieter than construction with concrete and steel, with an electric crane deployed on the Adina site to further reduce noise. Proponents of CLT construction claim the panels require much less energy to make than production of concrete or steel.

At the other end of the construction scale, Hotel California Road, part of the certified organic Inkwell Wines vineyard in McLaren Vale, has repurposed 20 former shipping containers to create tasting rooms and a luxury micro-hotel, eliminating the need for a significant amount of new materials. The interiors are outfitted with reclaimed hardwood flooring, and all new hotel furniture and cabinetry was built from plywood, which is considered “waste stream”. Carpeting was manufactured from 70 per cent post-consumer, recyclable waste. (No surprise that co-owner Irina Santiago Brown is a renowned sustainability consultant.)

Hotel California Road, part of the certified organic Inkwell Wines vineyard in McLaren Vale. Picture: HEY GENTS
Hotel California Road, part of the certified organic Inkwell Wines vineyard in McLaren Vale. Picture: HEY GENTS

Many operators are working to nurture the land on which their properties stand. At Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley, west of Sydney, more than 200,000 indigenous trees have been planted during the past decade by the resort’s team, and guests are invited to join in and help.

Since 2009, at Arkaba in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Wild Bush Luxury has been turning a former sheep station into a wildlife conservancy. About 18 species, including the western quoll, have reappeared, and Arkaba is the only Australian member of global sustainable tourism collection The Long Run.

In the Murchison region of Western Australia’s northwest, David and Frances Pollock are nurturing the vast Wooleen Station back to life after a century of being run into the ground by stock; their book, The Wooleen Way, was praised by Tim Flannery as “a revelation”. Wetlands are returning to life as the couple works to revive the natural ecosystem and leave a sustainable legacy.

Local heroes

There’s also a pleasing trend to source full-size and refillable or biodegradable hotel toiletry supplies from local suppliers, thus providing regional jobs and avoiding the carbon footprint of imports in a (literally) clean sweep.

Stillwater Seven in Launceston has theirs made “up the road in the Tamar Valley”, says co-owner Kim Seagram, who buttonholed Lentara Olive Grove maker Sophie Grace at the local markets. Kittawa Lodge co-founder Aaron Suine chose his own botanicals for the property’s toiletries, all made on King Island.

Faraway Bay in the WA Kimberley adds insect repellent to its locally produced range of biodegradable products for guests.