For many places, the process of uglification through insensitive development for mass tourism and the destruction of natural environments, townscapes and fragile eco-systems have demonstrated, vividly and tragically, the limits to sustainability.
It is encouraging to discover, however, that there are a handful of sensitive developers, planners, architects and builders who recognise that an alternative and sustainable path to tourism development is the only guarantee of long-term profitability and of preserving the irreplaceable beauty of our environment for our descendants.
This is why I invited the International Hotels Environment Initiative (IHEI), through its members and through the pages of 'Green Hotelier', to address this issue with some urgency. I was concerned not just with environmental management of existing hotels - crucial as this is - but also with the more primary issues of design and construction. There can be no greater irony than a hotel working with its partners to earn a good reputation by conserving resources through operational efficiencies, when the same hotel despoils its environment from insensitive location and unsuitable design.
We do not need look further than the edge of Hyde Park in London, the river embankments of our finest East European cities, the beautiful Mediterranean coastline, or many more exotic places in Africa, Asia or Latin America to see the results of bad-mannered development - that is, development without consideration for the history, cultural and local context of a place. I am sure every reader can think of depressing examples of insensitive hotel buildings constructed purely for purposes of short-term economy, international 'brand marketing' and maximising of capacity, based on designs originated unthinkingly in the confines of an international head office. There are too many eyesores in the world designed as cheap, featureless dormitory blocks with no regard to how the building blends with its surroundings or how its construction and operation will impact on the environment or the local community.
Yet we can do so much better. There are inspiring examples of what can be achieved in places like the Egyptian desert through the use of experienced architects working with their clients on sensitive and affordable developments. We saw a number of such examples when the IHEI Council met earlier this year in St James's Palace. And many lessons can be gained from studying familiar eyesores as well as from visiting examples of the very best practice.
The tourism industry, we are told, is now the largest and fastest growing sector of industry around the world. Understandably, tourism is seen by many countries as a major source of much-needed foreign currency, a creator of jobs and a potential motor for economic development in poorer countries blessed with unusual and beautiful natural environments, heritage and climates. As travel and tourism grow, so does the demand for new hotels and resorts at affordable prices, many in ecologically delicate and desirable sites. So, environmentally, socially and aesthetically responsible hotel siting, design and construction is, in my view, the foundation from which the industry can develop sustainably.
This does not have to be at odds with a reasonable return on investment, particularly where investors are looking for long-term, sustainable returns from a high-quality project. Building or refurbishing hotels, often large-scale projects with intensive use of resources, can be an opportunity to apply traditional techniques and technologies and to re-discover local materials. Hotels can be constructed cost effectively to enhance local culture and traditions to preserve a 'sense of place' and to minimise disturbance of the environment.
Good results can follow from consulting the local communities. We can learn from local wisdom about building technologies which have worked for centuries, designed to respect a given landscape and to suit a particular climate. Remarkable results can be achieved from re-using and converting existing buildings: redundant mills, old hospitals, abandoned military buildings or monasteries. It is not always necessary to build anew, or to cover green-field sites in concrete and tarmac. More can be done with less. Ways can be found, for instance, to reduce the mass of hotel buildings by conceiving them as villages or clusters rather than monoliths. Traditional retail functions, craft workshops, cafes and restaurants can be included within the village concept to incorporate small-scale economic activity.
Hotel buildings which are highly mechanised present a challenge to the engineer. Machines can be substituted with available natural alternatives. Mechanics can be applied sparingly, used only where needed to assist and enhance natural conditions. Thoughtful design, often drawing on traditional techniques, can reduce energy needs and save money without sacrificing guest comfort. Building temperatures, for example, can be regulated by using natural lighting and ventilation rather than through use of airtight, mechanical climate controls.
Water usage in hotels, from swimming pools, intensive use of bathrooms, laundering and cleaning is enormous. The engineer is not only presented with opportunities for efficient water treatment and waste water recycling, but also with potential in some locations to use more natural forms of water treatment. Where reed beds are part and parcel of the natural environment, for example, mechanics can aid natural processes rather than replace them.
In my view there are no 'free lunches' in this debate. Short-term profits are no more than that. They are not a long-term answer to a company's reputation, or to a country's economic, social and environmental well-being. The issues are too important, the lasting and often irreversible damage to our world too serious not to be addressed in an integrated and sustained manner. That is why I believe all those with a long-term stake in their investments and the future of tourism, including banks which provide the capital, must each play a part in a bold drive to guarantee a more sustainable future for the way in which we spend our ever increasing leisure time. Customers, employees, governments and local communities will surely reward hoteliers who safeguard rather than endanger the environment, and who preserve rather than despoil our natural treasures for the benefit of future generations.