The upper ends of travel have laid claim to the greenest of spaces. The higher the room rate, the more lengthy and detailed the property's environmental policy.
And it's not just hotels. Entire countries such as Botswana and Bhutan have built national policies around "high revenue, low environmental impact" tourism.
There appears to be a shared belief among these hoteliers and nations that upscale clients are more environmentally sensitive than other travelers, and by setting the "green" bar high, they will attract the affluent.
Last summer, I was contacted by India-based ITC Hotels with news that their luxury Maurya Hotel in New Delhi was the only retrofitted hotel in the world to be certified Platinum according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, the highest possible rating. (Other Platinum LEED-certified hotels -- CityCenter properties in Las Vegas, for example -- are newbuilds specifically constructed to LEED specifications.)
I was going to India later in the summer and arranged to stay at the property.
The environmental pitch was on my mind as I first walked around the suite they had given me. I noticed a consumer-size bar of designer-label soap next to the sink. In light of the hotel's environmental positioning, it struck me as wasteful. By this measure, even a long-distance truck driver's roadside motel, with its small, concave bar of no-name soap, would be more ecofriendly.
The hotel had offered to give me a back-of-house tour, and I went down to meet my guide, ITC chief engineer N. Ramamoorthy.
We first went to a roof where an array of mirrored dishes tracked the sun and captured a good deal of energy. The solar power was used to heat about 30% of the hotel's hot water. Ramamoorthy said that the project, while environmentally friendly, was not cost-effective. "It would take about eight years for payback," he said. "The technology is likely to be improved in that time, so this is really the result of 'doing the right thing' rather than trying to save money."
Ramamoorthy said the hotel treated and recycled its own wastewater, with the ultimate goal of zero discharge. Currently, the "gray" recycled water from the laundry, kitchen and guestrooms is used for the air-conditioning cooling towers and the hotel gardens. An additional 100,000 to 125,000 gallons are given daily to the city for its gardens (tanker trucks line up every morning to be filled) and another 10,000 to 12,000 gallons are spread over a nearby forest preserve. The army takes about 8,000 gallons, and an additional 20,000 gallons are left over, discharged into the city's sewage.
In addition, management has installed a rainwater harvesting system. "If we hadn't, the water simply flows to municipal drains," Ramamoorthy said. "Rainwater is collected from the roof, and we've installed 13 recharge pits that direct rainwater to the water table. This is a water-stressed city, but after we began doing this, the table has noticeably risen."
To reduce emissions, the hotel converted its power plant from diesel to natural gas. All incandescent bulbs were converted to florescent five years ago, and the property is now moving to LED lights. The roof was painted with a special coating that reduces the need to cool. Some food from the kitchen and restaurants is processed through an organic waste converter into fertilizer.
ITC is happy to share its practices and experiences, Ramamoorthy said, and even the government has called on them to consult on building projects.
I have to say it was one of the most fascinating hotel tours I have ever been on.
At the end, I remembered I had one more thing to ask about. "The soap in the suites," I said. "They're such large bars. It seems wasteful."
"We're aware of that," Ramamoorthy said. "The housekeepers pick them up from the rooms, and the outer layer is shaved off. Then they're given to staff who might want to use them or give them away."
In some ways, this little detail impressed me as much as any complex process on the high-tech tour. Clearly, the task of sustainability was not just handed off to engineers and public relations personnel but has sunk deep into the hotel's culture.
The tour, and that bar of soap, made it clear that ITC was not merely "greenwashing." The affluent, it turns out, might be subsidizing best practices.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.