The modern building complex made of steel, glass and lava rock sits enthroned on the edge of an old volcanic crater, in the middle of nowhere. On a clear day, there is a spectacular view over lush green slopes to the yellow-sand coast and the deep blue ocean. It's a “spaceship in Jurassic Park”, says Herbert Frei about his Pikaia Lodge, a luxury hostel with only 14 rooms that he opened in 2014. Born in Switzerland, he tried to get building permission for five years. Because Pikaia is located in a part of the world that is particularly worthy of protection: in the Galápagos Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, known for its flora and fauna, which is unique in the world.

Sustainable hotels Pikaia Lodge
The former cattle ranch was planted with 12.000 trees.

Sustainable hotels: green in the green

The archipelago belonging to Ecuador is almost entirely under nature protection. Only three percent of the area can be built on. Frei was allowed to build his lodge on a former cattle ranch on the central island of Santa Cruz. Due to the fragile ecosystem, he relied on a comprehensive sustainability concept: Care was taken to use robust and recyclable building materials in order to easily maintain the lodge and to be able to dismantle it again one day. The efficient use of sunlight and natural ventilation help keep energy consumption low. A solar system feeds excess electricity into the island's grid during the day. Rainwater is collected in tanks, wastewater is treated and reused, and trees are used to compensate for CO2Emissions planted. Today, small Darwin finches feel just as comfortable in the area as the legendary Galápagos giant tortoises.

Last but not least, Frei wants to boost the local economy. Because usually the islands have little money left from tourists. Most come - and stay - on ships and yachts. Around 100 direct jobs have been created with the lodge, mainly for locals. Pikaia also wants to be a “good neighbor” for the nearby village of El Cascajo: farmers from the area deliver coffee, vegetables and fruits, villagers guide guests through lava tunnels and reserves, and a teacher is financed for the school.

Sustainability pioneers

When travel magazines recommend holidays in “sustainable hotels”, Pikaia is definitely mentioned. The three Soneva resorts in the Maldives and Thailand are also considered the first address for environmentally conscious tourists. They belong to the Indo-British Sonu Shivdasani and his Swedish wife Eva, who have been filling the term sustainability with life in many ways since the opening of their first hotel island in 1995: 

Sustainable hotels Soneva
Glass instead of plastic: Soneva has not bought any imported bottled water since 2008. The company filters, mineralises and fills water in glass bottles itself. Savings so far: More than 1,5 million plastic bottles.

The company conducted a CO2-Duty on the room price in order to offset the climate-damaging air travel of the guests by investing in climate protection projects. To curb the flood of plastic, Soneva has drinking water filled in reusable glass bottles, grows fruit, vegetables and herbs in resort gardens and consistently uses recycling: every resort has a waste-to-wealth facility in which 90 percent of the waste is recycled.

The Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort on the Caribbean island of Aruba is also one of the sustainability stars. The hotel, opened in 1987 by the Austrian Ewald Biemans, is a model accommodation that has been certified and awarded umpteen times: It is the first CO2- Neutral resort in the Caribbean and features the largest privately owned solar array in Aruba. The hotel is pooling orders with other local businesses to reduce the number of imports to the island, recycle sewage and reduce food waste as much as possible. Even the electricity that sporty guests trample on the ergometer is used. "We are not in the tourism business, we are in the nature business," says Biemans, who as an eco-pioneer made environmental protection a top priority decades ago. In November he received the prestigious “Climate Action Award for Climate Neutral Now” at the climate conference in Glasgow - which is the first time that it has been given to a hotel.

Sustainable hotels water consumption
Thirsty hotels: Where water is scarce, consumption should be managed particularly well.

Waste less

Many hotels today kindly ask their guests to use towels more than once - a small measure that helps save water and energy. After all, a hotel uses up to 1.500 liters of water per room per day if the needs of restaurants, gardens, pools or cleaning are included in the calculation. In arid areas, the consumption of hotel guests often exceeds that of the locals many times over. The great water crisis in Cape Town in 2018 impressively demonstrated how threatening scarcity can be. At that time, the hotels were also forced to reduce their consumption significantly and invest in desalination plants. Sustainable hotels proactively protect water as a resource: They determine their direct and indirect consumption, invest in wastewater treatment and reuse - and involve their guests in saving water.

Sustainable Hotels: Mainstream or Niche?

So is sustainability primarily an issue for luxury resorts owned by motivated individuals? “No”, says Wolfgang M. Neumann, “there is a generally strong trend”. The Salzburg resident held top positions in large hotel groups for decades. Today he is chairman of the new Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, which emerged in autumn 2020 from the predecessor organization International Tourism Partnership.

Interview with Wolfgang M. Neumann, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance

Sustainability in the hotel industry, Neumann

Sustainability in the hotel industry: local impact, global power

corporAID: Is sustainability still a niche in the hotel industry or is it already mainstream? Wolfgang M. Neumann: There is definitely a strong trend towards more sustainability in ...

"Our members together have more than 30.000 hotels and 4,5 million rooms", says Neumann, "that corresponds to 25 percent of the global hotel industry". Well-known hotel chains are represented with brands such as Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental. Neumann is convinced that the hotel industry can - and must - help shape the goals for sustainable development globally and locally.

Because the travel industry causes an enormous impact in many ways, even if it is experiencing a - certainly temporary - severe crisis due to the pandemic: Before Corona, the travel sector contributed ten percent to global GDP. "The hotels alone generated more than $ 550 billion in added value locally," says Neumann. One in ten jobs was attributable to tourism in 2019, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council that was 330 million jobs. On islands like Antigua or Aruba, tourism accounts for 80 to 90 percent of all jobs, in Cambodia or the Philippines for every fourth job.

At the same time, according to the NGO Sustainable Travel International, the travel industry also accounts for around eight percent of global CO2-Emissions responsible. Air traffic accounts for half of the emissions caused by tourism, while accommodation accounts for only six percent. However, if hotel-related services such as meals or construction work were also factored in, then the contribution would probably be significantly higher. 


Sustainable hotels, solar systems
Climate change: CO2
economical measures
pay off for hotels.

Build better

Integrated solar collectors, a flexible ventilation system, intelligent lighting: There are many measures for (more) energy-efficient operation of a hotel. The simplest and probably also the cheapest is to take sustainability into account as early as the planning and construction phase. According to the study published in March 2020 "Business case for sustainable hotels“The costs for a sustainable, certified building standard for most new hotels in emerging countries are just two percent higher than those of a conventional hotel. A sustainable building is at least 20 percent more resource efficient and is rewarded with reduced operating costs. But the subsequent upgrade also pays off: Investments in more economical heating, ventilation or lighting usually have amortization times of between one and ten years. 


And when it comes to water consumption, hotels are often very generous. “In some destinations, a guest uses up to eight times more water than a local,” says Neumann. Analyzes have also shown that those countries that are most likely to face water scarcity in the next few years will also be those with the strongest growth in tourism - such as Indonesia, India, Thailand, China, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.

Sustainable hotels: All in all, it brings a lot

The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance aims to encourage its members to make progress in areas such as climate protection, water consumption, human rights and jobs for young people through awareness-raising, practical training and solutions, but also to inspire others. It offers a freely accessible tool that hotel operators can use to manage their CO2-Calculate footprint and define savings targets. And a study was published in 2020 with the International Finance Cooperation that shows that the costs of sustainable measures can be quickly covered by savings in energy consumption - in rich and poor countries alike.

Even small changes to conventional hotels add up, explains Madhu Rajesh, CEO of the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance: “In a 250-room hotel, the annual cost of water and energy can be as much as $ 2.000 per room. Measures such as turning off rigorous lights, repairing leaky taps or running washing machines only when they are fully charged mean savings of $ 100.000 per year. "

The study also draws attention to other advantages: on the one hand, guests increasingly want to give preference to sustainable hotels, and on the other, investors are increasingly asking for a credible environmental and climate protection strategy. And last but not least, more and more countries are announcing ambitious climate protection goals, which means that companies that are already sustainably managed are relatively well protected against regulatory risks.

Sustainable hotels, human rights
Construction risk: Hotels should ensure
that contract workers are not exploited.

Respect people

The hotel industry is challenged in many places to ensure the protection of human rights. This begins with the construction of new facilities and the question of how (temporary) workers are dealt with. The impact of a location on water availability for the local population should also be clarified. Further questions arise in the company: Are employees treated well? What are the employment practices of external service providers? Could any purchased goods and services be the result of child labor? Does sexual abuse take place on the hotel's premises? Even with excursions offered, it is important to consider whether the right to the protection of the privacy of the locals is respected. Training courses and certifications help hotels and their employees to identify risks and find solutions.

Courageous recruiting

The Indian Lemon Tree Group shows what a positive contribution to sustainability can look like. The hotel chain runs 84 predominantly middle class hotels in 50 destinations. In 2007, CEO Patanjali Keswani proposed hiring people with disabilities. “Not everyone in the company was enthusiastic,” recalls Vice President Aradhana Lal, “but we experimented and hired two deaf colleagues”. 

Today inclusion is an integral part of Lemon Tree. The workforce includes wheelchair users, victims of acid attacks, people with visual impairments or Down syndrome as well as socially marginalized widows, orphans and the poor. They are called ODIs, “Opportunity Deprived Indians”, because they usually find it difficult to gain a foothold in the labor market. “Many Indian families see disability as a past life punishment. Your children therefore do not receive a good education and consequently no job, ”explains Lal. 

Sustainable Hotels Lemon Tree
Barrier-free: The Indian hotel chain Lemon Tree is hiring large numbers of people who are considered difficult to place. The company is happy to share its experience with other companies and authorities around the world.

Not so with Lemon Tree: The hotel chain invests a lot of time in breaking down job barriers. Individual fields of activity are precisely analyzed and compared with the potential of the employees. Then those ODIs that are best suited for a task area - from cleaning to reception to the back office - are trained step by step. The willingness to find new solutions as well as an appreciative corporate culture in which, for example, every employee, from the dishwasher to the CEO, must master Indian sign language, are the premises for success.

No charity

Around 20 percent of the 8.000 employees are now ODIs. “For us this is not a charity”, says Lal, “but a business case.” She explains: “Our ODIs are highly motivated and loyal. This saves us a lot of recruiting and training costs. We also benefit from the fact that our deaf or autistic colleagues, for example, work faster and more precisely than average. ”The guests would also have no problem, on the contrary:“ We have many regular guests and are often recommended. ” 

Sustainable hotels Soneva women
Job barriers: In countries with a low female employment rate, hotels offer new perspectives.

Give chances

In pre-pandemic times, tourism was an important job engine: According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, around 2019 million jobs, around one in ten jobs worldwide, were in the travel sector in 330. The hotel industry in particular was able to - and could in the future - offer young people career prospects thanks to its low entry barriers and diverse career opportunities. The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance appeals to the industry, especially young people from poor families, refugees, people with disabilities or victims of human trafficking, to give them opportunities and to make them fit for the job in practical training. Responsible hotels also strengthen surrounding communities by primarily engaging locally based employees and suppliers and offering guest activities that are run by locals.


Lemon Trees' recruiting philosophy is attracting international interest: Lal advises companies and authorities from Scotland to Singapore on the success factors of an inclusive HR strategy. The chain itself is currently unable to take on employees due to the crisis, but wants to increase the ODI quota in the workforce to 40 percent after the pandemic. At Lemon Tree, but also at other hotels, a conviction seems to be growing: Those who show responsibility as hosts today will also greet guests tomorrow.

Tip: If you are looking for sustainable tour operators, travel agencies and hosts, you will find it on the travel portal, for example Way of life travel find it!
Photos: Pikaia Lodge (2), Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, Lemon Tree Group (2), Soneva (2), abw-00180 World Bank, Sir Mildred Pierce / Flickr, Selamat Made / Flickr