Traveling green

April 08, 2015

Sustainability efforts across the industry

To people in America's heartland, the usual suspects when it comes to travel-related environmental issues are trains, planes and automobiles. On the coasts, cruise ships join the lineup.

But that's the layman's view. Within the industry, it is becoming increasingly evident that the challenges posed to the environment by travel and tourism go well beyond the machines that keep shrinking the planet by burning fossil fuels to move more and more people from point A to point B at ever-increasing speeds.

The very act of hosting visitors in any given destination, however they got there in the first place, necessarily produces challenges to the sustainability of the place.

And sustainability is now the key concern. Within the industry, there is a growing awareness of the interconnectiveness of travelers and places, putting issues of long-term sustainability on equal footing with fuel consumption and carbon footprints when assessing the environmental impact of travel.

Growing, transporting and cooking the food needed to feed visitors, heating enough water to ensure they have hot showers and clean linens and providing energy for everything from heating and air conditioning to smartphones and WiFi all take a toll on some part of an Earth that is growing increasingly warm and prone to volatile weather extremes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, powered transportation accounts for nearly a third of all the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere worldwide. While relatively little of that -- less than 14% of travel-related CO2 -- is produced by commercial passenger transportation, its role is growing simply because the number of people traveling today is growing faster than advances in fuel-saving technologies can evolve.

Still, all of transportation combined accounts for only a third of all emissions, meaning it's essential for the industry to find ways to do its part to cut down on the other two-thirds of emissions by reducing, wherever possible, energy consumed for hospitality as well as for transportation.

We asked our staff to share with readers examples they have come across in their reporting of suppliers that are finding innovative ways to make and keep the planet greener. The resulting stories include:

• A giant Las Vegas operator of casinos and hotels that has managed to divert 55% of the waste that otherwise would have been dumped in landfills to composters, where it is transformed into nutrient-rich soil for farming.

• An all-inclusive resort on St. Kitts that has found ways to reduce its carbon footprint through a holistic, agricultural approach to hospitality. 

• A lawyer-turned-agent who is building a travel business around sustainable tourism.

• A cruise line featuring itineraries that showcase the environmental damage being caused by climate change.

• A partnership between river cruise lines and European waterway ports that enables vessels shut to down their diesel engines and draw power from a city's grid when docked. 

Best of all, what each of these industry players has found is that, as MGM Resorts' sustainability director put it, "A greener business is a better business."


MGM focuses on food waste in Vegas

By Danny King

About 20 years ago, MGM Resorts International kicked off its efforts to reduce its food waste by letting a local farmer rummage through its Las Vegas hotels' waste areas for scraps that could be used to feed his pigs.

Since then, the hotel-casino operator has come a long way in reducing its environmental impact by sending less trash to landfills. And while the owner of properties such as the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and CityCenter's Aria and Vdara hotels has broadened its recycling programs while designing its hotels to cut water and power usage, many of its "green" strides have come in the form of food-waste diversion.

The company started stepping up its recycling efforts in 2006 and has since instituted a sorting system in its massive kitchens in which compostable materials, recyclable materials and other types of waste get sorted before being brought to the loading docks.

From there, MGM Resorts has agreements with local composting companies to remove the food waste. Instead of taking up landfill space, much of that food waste can be composted into farming soil, while bones can be ground up into livestock feed.

As a result, MGM Resorts diverted 53% of its waste from landfills in 2013, up from 9% in 2009 (the company is still finalizing 2014 numbers). In fact, in 2013, more than 25,000 tons of MGM Resorts' food waste was diverted from landfills, which was up more than 50% from a year earlier and is equal to the weight of about 35 cars being sent to composting facilities on a daily basis.

That food diversion saves more than 50,000 gallons of gas annually that would otherwise be used to put that waste into landfills.

"A greener business is a better business," said Chris Brophy, vice president of MGM Resorts' corporate sustainability division. "If we want long-term viability, especially in Las Vegas, we know we have to be smarter with our resources."

The company's efforts grabbed the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which estimates that 95% of U.S. food waste ends up in landfill. Earlier this year, the EPA gave out 23 awards for its Food Recovery Challenge program, which recognizes entities that were especially effective at diverting food waste from landfills. MGM Resorts, through its corporate program and strides at MGM Grand Las Vegas, won two of the three awards given to hotel and resort operators (the other winner, the InterContinental New York Barclay, is now closed for renovations).

"The Bellagio sends 600 tons of food scraps a month to compost," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's San Francisco-based regional administrator. "There are whole towns in California that produce a fraction of that."

Contrary to the flashy and decadent image of Las Vegas, the city's hotels are actually on the forefront of environmental sustainability within the lodging industry. In fact, Las Vegas' Venetian and Palazzo hotels, which are both run by Las Vegas Sands, are the world's two largest hotels that are recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program.

Moving forward, Blumenfeld talks of "closing the loop" by having hotels donate food scraps to compost companies, which in turn sell soil to farms and vineyards, which in turn sell their produce or wines to those hotels.

He also imagines a day when hotel loading docks will be free of the funky stench associated with trash containers. Meanwhile, Brophy said MGM Resorts has set a goal of increasing the recycling rate of each of the company's hotels by at least 5 percentage points a year.

With the help of that pig farmer, of course.

"We still have him," Brophy said. "He's been around for a long, long time."

On St. Kitts, a model of sustainability

By Gay Nagle Myers

Hanging up a resort bath towel so it can be reused a second day instead of being laundered is a small forward step in the eco-friendly arena. But several resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico have taken giant leaps forward in green space, well beyond towels and the recycling of plastic bottles, and one resort in particular seeks to raise the bar in the world of sustainable luxury.

Sustainability is the core principle driving Belle Mont Farm in St. Kitts, part of the 400-acre Kittitian Hill eco-community of farmhouses, villas, cottages and a 200-room hotel set within a Caribbean village.

The entire property is designed to be gentle on the environment, from the organically grown, insecticide-free crops harvested on the hillside farm, which later appear on the restaurants' menus, to the fish caught by local fishermen and the golf course that is "mowed and weeded" by herds of sheep.

To ensure that 100% of all energy consumed by Kittitian Hill is generated from renewable resources by 2020, the complex plans to operate entirely off the island's grid.

Belmont Power Ltd., a subsidiary of Belmont Resorts Ltd., the holding company for Kittitian Hill, was formed to develop and supply renewable energy through the installation of solar water heating in accommodation units and the use of solar-powered electric carts to transport guests around the property.

Biodiesel to operate heavy vehicles will be produced from used cooking oils.

Permission currently is being sought to install a turbine to produce wind energy for the property.

Bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed, will produce organic sugar and provide molasses for rum production.

LED and compact fluorescent lighting is used wherever possible; solar panels provide hot water and heat the pools; solar lighting illuminates roads and walkways throughout the property; all buildings are positioned for optimum cross ventilation through louvered windows and doors, and high ceilings enable heat to dissipate, thus reducing air-conditioning requirements.

Kittitian Hill's founder, Val Kempadoo, believes that sustainable development is contextual.

"Because the Caribbean region is so young and with such a deeply disturbed history, we need to be able to determine our own direction and development process," he said. "Kittitian Hill is about redefining sustainability and social justice in the Caribbean tourism industry."

The four pillars of sustainable development at Kittitian Hill include art and culture, which embrace authenticity; social, which provides training and skills for the locals; economic, which creates an environment to support local artisans and contractors; and the physical environment, which promotes reuse and recycling, the use of farmland as the source of food and the development of renewable energy sources.

These pillars translate into specific opportunities where guests can make meaningful connections with food and nature.

They are taught how to create their own body scrubs, incorporating the oils from seasonal herbs grown on the property, to forage and cook with organic farmers and chefs and to snack from the tropical fruit growing on trees and bushes.

Kittitian Hill offers a novel approach to sustainability by encouraging guests to get in touch with the Earth, play in dirt, learn from the locals, live off the land -- and reuse that bath towel.

Benefiting communities among agent's goals

By Kate Rice

Lawyer-turned-travel agent Vanessa Perlman is channeling into a sustainable tourism business the same core beliefs that fueled her policy work for the likes of the World Health Organization and the global affairs division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Perlman, who still works part time as a lawyer while she builds her agency, Mockingbird Travel, had been searching for a career path that would give her a way to make a positive contribution to the world after she got her masters in global health law four years ago.

She found it in travel.

"I see travel as being such a powerful tool for improving the world economically, socially and politically," she said. Because of her interest with global health, she'd like to see health incorporated into sustainable travel.

Her ultimate goal is to make Mockingbird Travel a company specializing in sustainable tours, with proceeds from each trip going to a public health project -- e.g., a health clinic or a clean-water project -- in one of the communities on the tour. Clients would also visit that health project.

She plans to put most of her focus for her tours on less-developed countries. Perlman is a member of Nexion, and her dream is to be one of its preferred tour suppliers.

At the same time, she continues to build her agency business, working to sell sustainable travel. But her scope is not limited to eco-lodges on the Amazon. She defines sustainable travel as travel that protects the cultural and natural heritage of a destination while providing social and economic benefits.

Currently, she is booking a la carte sustainable travel with choices such as small hotels in city centers, usually a pretty easy sell because they are in the heart of old cities, are full of charm and have fairly reasonable prices.

Having her clients invest their tourism dollars in this sort of historical and authentic hotel helps pay for the upkeep of a culturally significant landmark. And because such hotels typically are locally owned, it also meets her criteria for positive economic impact. She finds that websites with imperfect English are typically a good sign, suggesting that they are locally owned.

Some of her recent finds for clients include the Hotel Relais Medicis in Paris, the Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool and St. Peter's Boutique Hotel in Riga, Latvia. All these hotels are centrally located but off the main drag and packed with character.

She recommends Hurtigruten because "they recognize their responsibility for protecting those environments." And more importantly, she said, they put a heavy emphasis on the economic and social aspects of sustainability.

"Economically, their Norwegian voyages help sustain many of the small communities along the coast," she said. "They also want to preserve the unique culture of those communities and offer their passengers authentic interactions with the local culture."

G Adventures, a Nexion preferred supplier, is another natural for her, since sustainability and positive local impact are at the core of its business plan.

Not surprisingly, she hires local guides to lead small groups and eschews big motorcoach tours. She books experiences that reflect the essence of a destination, such as a baking class at a local bakery on the outskirts of Paris.  

One challenge she has encountered is a gap in sustainable tourism, because there's plenty at the high end and the low end, but finding moderately priced programs is a challenge.

So she continues to do her research.

"They are out there, but are just harder to find," Perlman said.

Her previous work in global health has taught her that what she's doing will have a positive impact.  

"Small contributions have a ripple effect," she said.

Global warming lesson with Hurtigruten

By Tom Stieghorst

Those with a hankering to do more than sit passively while global warming proceeds might find the right fit on a Hurtigruten cruise that has been growing in popularity.

Scientist Jason Box will lead Fram passengers on a journey to one of Greenland's weather stations.
Scientist Jason Box will lead Fram passengers on a journey to one of Greenland's weather stations.

The cruise, which takes place in June in Greenland, enables guests to accompany a climate scientist as he takes measurements from a working ice sheet weather station.

Greenland, with its calving glaciers, is one of the places where global warming's effects are most easily observed. The trek to the weather station is led by Jason Box, who has studied climate change in Greenland, first at Ohio State University and now at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, where he is a professor of glaciology.

Box has installed a network of more than 20 automatic weather stations on Greenland's inland ice. Among his key research findings is that ice in Greenland is growing darker, leading it to absorb more sunlight and melt faster.

Passengers will debark the Fram, Hurtigruten's 256-passenger expedition ship, which was expressly built for sailing in polar waters. Once the data are harvested, Box and the party will repair to the ship, where Box will analyze it and discuss his finding in a presentation. The voyage is the only one Hurtigruten offers that gives passengers the hands-on experience of a scientific mission, said spokesman Elliot Gilles.

Cruise lines say they are doing their part to reduce greenhouse gases, the emissions that climate scientists say are a chief culprit in the rise of atmospheric and sea temperatures.

Carnival Corp., in its most recent sustainability report, said it had reduced its emission of greenhouse gasses from 10.7 million metric tons in 2011 to 10.3 million metric tons in 2013.

At Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., emissions fell from 4.4 million tons in 2012 to 4.3 million in 2013, the first annual decrease in the history of the company.

Gilles said that the Greenland cruise visits almost a dozen towns and villages on the northwest coast, from Sisimiut, Greenland's second-largest town, to Illorsuit, a tiny fishing village that's home to only 90 inhabitants.

In addition to leading the data collection mission, Box will also engage guests with lectures with titles such as "Nature's Thermometer"; show films, including a two-part presentation on leading American artist Rockwell Kent, who fell in love with the majesty of Greenland; and entertain discussion on the evidence of climate change in the Arctic.

A Hurtigruten passenger in Greenland.
A Hurtigruten passenger in Greenland.

The jumping-off point for the cruise is a charter flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to a town in Greenland. From there, guests tender aboard Zodiac-style excursion boats to the Fram, which was built in 2007 and features a specially designed bow so guests can more easily observe marine wildlife and natural phenomena in the polar environment.

This is the year to go, said Ashton Palmer, president of Expedition Trips in Seattle, because in past years Hurtigruten has started the trip from Copenhagen, a longer and more expensive flight for North Americans.

"Hurtigruten has been traveling to that region probably longer than anyone," Palmer said. "They have good relationships with the communities, and in this case with the science project that's going on, it's a unique opportunity.

"There's a growing trend with this type of travel, when people can become more connected to real science and things that are going on," he said. "I think it does appeal to people who are really interested in engaging within the destinations that they travel to."

Even at much larger cruise lines, Palmer said he's hearing more chatter about engagement.

"Their clients are wanting more experiences off the ship that connect them to the places they're visiting, vs. just the cruising itself," he said. "In travel in general, people are wanting to get more involved."

In-port power and other river cruising efforts

By Michelle Baran

The explosive growth in the river cruise segment in recent years means that now more than ever, river cruise lines are having to take a more critical look at their environmental impact to ensure that success for the sector doesn't mean a defeat for sustainability.

One way they are doing that is by increasingly "plugging in" or using power supplies available while in port to reduce fuel consumption.

"Overall, every year ships are becoming greener," said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways.

Additionally, he added, "more and more towns are installing portside power supply to eliminate needs for generators during docking. All our ships are equipped with power locks to plug into a port's power supply instead of running generators."

A power lock is a power cord that plugs into the city's utilities, Schreiner explained. Once the ship is plugged in, the ship's generators are shut down. Generators create a lot of noise, and Schreiner said that some ports are establishing new rules restricting when river cruise ships can come and go in order to reduce noise during the night.

The trend of "plugging in" while in port was also cited by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, which in 2010 launched the Sustainable River Cruising Project, an initiative that kicked off with an environmental impact audit of its company-owned ships in 2011 and 2012. Based on the results of the audit, Uniworld developed the Environmental Sustainability for River Cruising guide, a set of guidelines for how river cruise lines can and should operate with as little environmental impact as possible -- which the company hopes can serve as a tool not just for Uniworld but for the entire river cruising industry.

By overhauling its system for measuring and reporting waste production and energy consumption, and finding ways to cut back, Uniworld reduced its overall fleetwide waste by 3% and its fuel consumption by 8% last year.

In order to do so, Uniworld has systematically cut back on energy consumption in order to reduce its reliance on fuel, including by using shoreside electricity wherever available.

"This keeps us in good standing with port authorities and minimizes noise that the generator can produce," the company explained in an email about its green travel initiatives. "Moreover, shoreside electricity has fewer associated emissions compared to onboard generators."

By reducing noise from the generators and exhaust fume pollution from the ships, getting power in port appears to be a win-win for river cruise lines and the cities in which they dock, which also view providing power as a potential additional source of income for the municipality, Uniworld noted.

During the christening of Avalon Waterways' Tapestry II in Les Andelys, France, last month, the mayor of Les Andelys boasted about the new docking facility, built to accommodate river cruise vessels, and specifically mentioned that the dock had a power supply.

Beyond plugging in, several other sustainability trends are reducing the footprint of river ships, including far more fuel-efficient engines to power the vessels, LED lighting onboard and insulated windows that reduce heating and cooling energy needs, Schreiner said.

Uniworld said that using LED lighting on its ships reduced its lighting energy use by about 30%.

There are increasing efforts to reduce the consumption of water, as well. Uniworld, for example, gives its guests two refillable aluminum bottles at the start of the cruise, then provides them with large glass containers of water in their staterooms for refilling the bottles.

Despite all the environmental awareness and innovation are in the river cruising sector, striving toward more sustainable river cruising is not without its challenges.

For example, the availability of recycling facilities in port remains a substantial challenge, according to Uniworld. When there are no recycling facilities available in certain locations, Uniworld would like to try to keep the waste onboard until the vessels reaches a port with recycling facilities, but with space being so limited on the ships, that can be difficult to do, the company said.