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The entire travel industry may be focused on overcoming the coronavirus crisis, but don’t let that fool you: sustainability hasn’t gone away.
This warning came from Shoba Mohan, founder of RARE India, which has been promoting conservation and community-based tourism with its collection of concept hotels across India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Tourists haven’t forgotten, she argued, and the need for hoteliers to address their impact on the environment hasn’t gone away either. “In our hurry to stall the pandemic, you don’t want to be faced with a much bigger issue,” she said at Skift Forum Asia on Thursday. “There may be a vaccine any time.”
Mohan was quizzed during the “Keeping Travel Green While Fighting the Pandemic” panel as to how the travel sector can keep promoting reusable items, and single-use plastic, in the face of a highly contagious virus.
“How can you be sustainable in a pandemic?” asked Cameron Sperance, Skift’s hospitality editor.
“As an industry, when we’re all talking about sustainability, this is the time you’re being tested,” she replied “I don’t want to lose the ground I’ve made over the past four years? Garbage, plastic… we don’t have long-term solutions.”
Mohan also argued that for her business, the attitude of “first let the business come in, we’ll talk sustainable later” didn’t chime with her, as sustainability was not a choice.
However, Willem Niemeijer, CEO and founder of eco-lodge operator Yaana Ventures, said that while the typical sustainability mantra is “people, planet, and profit”, he also believed in profit, people and planet. “Profitability comes first, without that there’s no business. There’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
For example, the next climate concern for Asia was also the upcoming “burning season” — where local farmers burn old crops or forest land to make way for new planting. He agreed with Mohan that with so much focus on Covid, this type of pollution will be the next problem, especially with the travel industry encouraging people to go outdoors to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Beware the Greenwashers
The speakers were also asked which aspect of “greenwashing” — where a company spends more time and money on marketing their eco-credentials than actually minimizing their environmental impact — they most disliked.
For Mohan, it was how hoteliers, particularly in remote areas, boasted they worked with the local community. “Sometimes they can exploit them,” she said. “There’s a fine line. Hotels also need to up-skill staff, or ensure there are medical facilities.”
Returning to the theme of “the great outdoors,” Niemeijer also said communities around the properties need to be actively engaged to avoid the next overtourism. Now is the time to make sure hoteliers don’t make the same mistakes as other regions did.
For RARE India, one way to keep green while fighting the pandemic was to continue talking to the property owners. “The narrative should not just be about the hardware of hotels, but also their ideology. We talk about their own interests, and transformation,” Mohan said.
As the pandemic worsens, the future on the other side looks increasingly local. Local is also where those green shoots can thrive.