For all the trendy sustainability initiatives hotels have been touting, the industry has made little headway in rethinking its environmental footprint in the race to set up in picturesque yet ecologically fragile locations.

In Asia-Pacific, low-impact luxury advocates from Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley, who will continue moving the needle with his latest “human zoo” concept, to niche wellness players like Australian pioneer in integrative and holistic medicine Marc Cohen — are bringing change. But they need an army.

To grasp the gravity of environmental degradation resulting from tourism development, one must look at Asia. Mangroves that provide coastal stability against natural disasters, among other important functions, have over the years been making way for tourist resorts in the region. And even after the sobering events from the 2004 tsunami leading to the beefing up of coastal protection including in India, ecologically sensitive environments are yet again opening up to hotel developments and tourism activities.

It’s the perennial picture of how the chips fall between government intervention and capitalist motive. But also, if even lessons from recent history have not adequately imbued the private sector with sufficient imperative to protect environments at a breaking point, it would be wishful to think that hotels and real estate developers will see the urgency to tread lightly in areas still untouched by tourism.

The Role of Hotels

A 2018 Howarth HTL report estimated there were more than 120,000 hotels in Asia-Pacific, with at least four million rooms. And while chains made up 7.5 percent of the market, they hold 34 percent of the keys, equivalent to more than 1.4 million rooms.

With the wellness tourism boom in Asia, sprawling properties in picturesque but ecologically fragile locations are expected to multiply. According to the Global Wellness Institute, no wellness tourism market has grown or will grow faster than Asia’s. The market was valued at $69 billion in 2012, nearly doubling to $137 billion in 2017, and is now projected to surge to $252 billion by 2022.

For leading wellness brand Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, vast properties in nature will continue to be the model going forward, although never without the go-ahead from regulators and environmental impact studies.

“We are going to the Philippines and are looking at Nepal and India. We will continue to explore Vietnam. There’s plenty more in Indonesia beyond Bali, such as Rajah Ampat or Flores,” CEO Neil Jacobs said. “[The places] have to be beautiful and beyond commercial. I must be able to feel and talk to the land.”

Big hotels can leave minimal environmental footprint, Skift learned at the Global Wellness Summit held in Singapore last month. However, it takes a commitment to shaking deeply entrenched conventions, far beyond removing single-use plastic from guest rooms.

From deforestation to pollution and fossil fuel energy consumption, “resorts’ environmental footprint has been a disaster,” remarked founder of the Extreme Wellness Institute and co-founder of Bathe the World Foundation, Marc Cohen, who is championing his brand of “leave no trace” wellness in tourism.

“Leave-no-trace luxury travel is certainly possible with the proper equipment and trained staff, yet it also requires an appropriate culture to support it,” he told Skift.

Bensley also weighed in, announcing at the summit that he is putting together a 20-page insert focused on sustainable building, which he wants “the big boys in hospitality” to incorporate into their building standards.

“[Hotels] talk about making green choices and helping the environment, but to me it’s a bunch of ‘greeenwashing.’ In my 36 years of [being an architect], I’ve collected many different building standards given to me by hotels. They talk about colors and so forth, but for the most part there’s not enough emphasis on sustainable [building].”

The foremost consideration when building in fragile environments should be not altering the topography, he told Skift. “But in most developments the first thing they do is chop the top off so we can build some more on top of it. If you can avoid that then that’s half the battle. It’s simple and sensible but not commonly practiced! That’s what pisses me off.”

Do it the Bensley way

With the right motivation, hotels can yield to more environmentally conscious choices. Bensley shared: “When a hotel company says we want you to do this and that, you don’t always have to listen to them 100 percent. A company told me to do a 120-room hotel. But that will obliterate the (landscape). So I proposed to do 20 or 25 instead, and (that’s what we went with).”

In another instance of nudging hotels in the right direction, Bensley’s latest project, initially meant to be a zoo alongside hotels on a beachfront site in Guangdong province in China, will now see the creation of a “human zoo” where hotel guests are confined and animals roam free.

Of the 750-hectare development, hotel-built environments will occupy only around five percent. While a part of the land will be dedicated to a theater (size unknown at press time), Bensley expressed that it would be used to further sustainable causes. “What I’m most excited about is having the opportunity to educate five million guests a year on environmental conservation and (how to respect wildlife) — that’s big.”

In addition, hotel guests’ movement around the zoo will be contained within trains, and human-animal proximity will be sensitively managed. Bensley shared. “Trains are able to stop within the park where guests can sleep overnight. And in hotels, guests have two beds — one is on a sleeping porch. If you want to sleep and hear the animals you can…We will have salt and watering holes to attract animals closer to hotels at night. We will use lights that help humans see better, but that don’t affect the animals.”

It is easy to see how someone of Bensley’s stature can make a difference. But there aren’t thousands of Bill Bensleys in this world. “That’s why I want to teach other architects (through the building standards inserts) these basic sustainability ideas. There are 7,000 new hotels coming up and a lot are going to be in sensitive areas — I can’t do them all. I want to share some very basic ideas with other architects, which they can use free of charge and free of name — they can call it their own.”

Niche Changemaker

Niche wellness travel suppliers like Cohen, who is advocating excursion-based, backpack wellness in nature, could partially supplant the need for wellness resorts to sit directly on fragile environments.

Previously a university professor, Cohen was also a veteran wellness/spa consultant to large hotel brands such as Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons, and Jumeirah. Now retired from his profession in academia, he envisions a “luxury resort company with no property,” taking travelers out into nature where they set up portable spa camps and head back to their overnight accommodation without leaving a trace.

“(Wellness tourism experiences ideally are) immersed in nature, not destroying nature. It’s important that resorts have a soft footprint,” he stressed.

Cohen has been conducting day trips to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Trekkers walk three hours to get to the top of the mountain or an upper river valley. On the way there, they make a stop in a forest to do breathing exercises and meditate. Once they get near the cold water, they set up camp and are served a gourmet lunch by a fire. There are portable hot tubs and steam rooms, as well as bathrobes, masseuses, and hammocks to complete the luxury resort experience.

“We can be totally relaxed and totally in nature. And when we leave, no one knows we were even there.”

Cohen is now looking to bring the excursion-based wellness model to Asian resorts. Next month, he will be running a retreat in Bali. He is also exploring opportunities in Japan’s hot springs destinations.

“What we’re doing can be a solution to overtourism of well-traveled locations. However, it will require a global culture to create the right etiquette, training, and service standards as well as the right environment ethics. I am working to train an army of extreme wellness Instructors… to guide people on adventure bathing expeditions and build a global bathing culture that does not require intensive infrastructure.”

Photo Credit: Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley in studio. At the Global Wellness Summit in Singapore in October, Bensley announced that he would create a reference guide focused on sustainable building that hospitality brands can incorporate into their building standards. Bensley Architecture, Interior Design, Landscape