Environmental awareness is increasingly the norm in today’s Gulf hospitality industry. Promoted by governments and campaigners to save resources and counter climate change, green policies have earned the loyalty of many hotel operators who have found that they also make business sense.

Big savings on energy and water costs have proved a convincing argument for a growing number of hotel operators and owners in the region. Conservation measures are also popular with many customers, meaning the adoption of green policies can be a marketing tactic as well.

Green credentials

Across the GCC, an increasing number of hotel chains and individual establishments are now happy to proclaim their commitment to environmental measures.

It is a trend that dates back to the previous decade, when governments such as those of Abu Dhabi and Dubai began to assertively pursue what was then a new environmental agenda – epitomised by the experimental Masdar City development. But the adoption of green policies in the hotel sector has several layers.

At one end of the scale are simple measures that require almost no additional investment or policy change, such as informing guests that towels will be changed only on request, to save on laundry water use, or only providing bottled water when visitors ask for it.

At the other end are purpose-built hotels designed to minimise their environmental impact and exploit all the latest energy-saving technology and sustainable construction materials.

Understandably, it is the simple measures that have been most widely adopted, and many international hotel chains have taken up basic green policies, often on a worldwide basis.

However, among the major groups, today’s green thinking usually goes much further than purely cosmetic or symbolic exercises. The main global hospitality chains are well acquainted with international standards such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Managements well understand the commercial benefits of measures to prune energy and water consumption in particular, and the trend may have been accelerated by the global crisis of 2008-10, which forced operators to trim costs.

“Although the majority of hotel projects aim to meet the minimum local green codes, we have many clients in the hospitality sector that want to push those boundaries and target, for example, LEED silver or gold certification,” says Ian Kerr, who focuses on Gulf region sustainability issues at Sweett Group, a UK-based construction and buildings management services specialist.

There has been reluctance to go the extra mile with sustainability, due to the increased capital expenditure

Ian Kerr, Sweett Group

“Historically, there has been reluctance to go the extra mile with sustainability, due to the increased capital expenditure on a project. As new sustainable techniques and technologies are becoming available, we are seeing a level of maturity in the industry where clients are more educated not only on the environmental benefits of these systems but also on the long-term cost savings that can be achieved.”

Radisson Blu, part of the Rezidor Hotel Group headquartered in the US and Belgium, now treats the application of green measures – assessed by an independent eco-label – as standard. In the Middle East, it already has 22 properties that comply with this approach, including eight in the UAE and four in Saudi Arabia.

Environmental impact

Meanwhile, the UK’s InterContinental Hotels Group has adopted a system it labels ‘green engage’, which uses online tools to help a hotel management team assess the environmental impact of the property they are running, on a day-to-day basis. The system helps managers to monitor how much water and energy they are consuming and what carbon footprint this leaves; the system offers 200 different activities or techniques for reducing a hotel’s environmental impact.

There has also been a strong push from Gulf governments, which have pursued an increasingly vigorous drive to promote the adoption of energy and water conservation technology. The UAE is a good example.

“There are now mandatory sustainable regulations in place for all new buildings; the Green Building Code in Dubai and Estidama in Abu Dhabi,” says Kerr. “These regulations, which operate in a similar fashion to LEED certification, did not exist 10 years ago, so there is now a platform to develop both long-term regional and worldwide sustainable objectives.”

And the overall framework of building regulation has sometimes been complemented with measures that specifically target the hotel industry.

As early as 2008, Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing launched an initiative designed to cut hotel carbon emissions by 20 per cent over three years. The department set out clear timelines, targets and benchmarks to prod hotels into action and a number of the emirate’s leading properties signed up, among them Madinat Jumeirah, Movenpick Hotel, The One & Only Royal Mirage and Emirates Towers.

Dubai hotels were typically consuming more than twice as much energy as properties in Europe

One of the factors that won managers over was the rapid payback that could be achieved from the initial round of green measures. Energy-saving modules could recoup their capital cost within a couple of years – hardly surprising perhaps, given that, prior to taking these steps, Dubai hotels were typically consuming more than twice as much energy as equivalent properties in Europe.

Qatari goals

Qatar has also been pursuing a systematic and pro-active approach, spurred on by the totemic goal of achieving a carbon-neutral World Cup in 2022.

The country offers particular scope for progress because so many new buildings are being erected as it pursues rapid economic growth and also prepares for the tournament.

Within the Qatari hospitality sector, there has been discussion over issues such as how to design new-build hotels to reduce the amount of energy they will need for cooling, by orienting structures to reduce the impact of sunlight or exploiting the cooling potential of wind. New structures can incorporate the latest insulation and air conditioning technology, water-recycling systems and motion sensors to switch off lights when they are not needed.

More visible measures such as recycling bins for waste may help shape the behaviour of guests and staff, but have less overall environmental impact than fundamental architectural decisions or good-quality construction (for example, windows that are properly sealed).

Landscaping, including the planting of trees and the use of green space, helps to create an impression of environmental awareness. But such measures have to be taken in ways that actually make sense in terms of resource use – for example, through efficient irrigation systems and the use of grey wastewater.

There are constraints and challenges. Some analysts have wondered whether, faced with the need to ensure there is adequate hotel capacity in time for Expo 2020 and the World Cup, the authorities in Dubai and Doha may come under pressure to relax their enforcement of environmental regulations.

There may also be more practical limitations. Across the GCC, there is currently a shortage of sustainable building materials and products, and the demand pressure is steadily increasing.

However, the region’s largest economy, Saudi Arabia – which was at first slow to promote environmental standards in construction – is now pursuing the agenda much more vigorously, with a surge in green building projects. That is further fuelling the demand for sustainable construction products. This year, in particular, is expected to bring a boom in the amount of green-built property, particularly in Riyadh.

National benchmarks and international standards such as LEED are increasingly seen as a desirable badge for prestige hotels.

In 2013, the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates became one of the first properties in the Middle East and North Africa region to be awarded the LEED silver classification, for having made changes to its operations and maintenance. These measures were so effective that the hotel managed to cut its energy and water use by some 9 per cent in 2012.

The economics of environmental technology in hotel construction are gradually becoming more competitive, creating a more favourable environment for the adoption of green approaches to the construction and operation of hotels.

Kerr says, “On refurbishment hospitality projects, we have seen a number of sustainable technologies being introduced, such as solar thermal, grey water re-use and variable-speed motors on mechanical pumps. Generally these systems attract a higher capital outlay; however, in the case of grey water re-use, we have seen payback periods as low as seven years, due to the onerous irrigation demands of the Middle Eastern climate.”

“The cost of solar PV [photovoltaic] has been steadily falling year-on-year. We are beginning to see much more favourable payback periods compared with a few years back. However, the introduction of a government feed-in tariff would make this system a more attractive investment.”

With drivers including compliance, guest demand and economic savings, it is likely the region will see more green hotels coming on to the market in the near future.

Challenges faced

There is scope to further reinforce the policy framework to encourage hotel operators down the path of sustainability.

The cheap energy prices that generally prevail in GCC countries pose a particular challenge: when power is cheap, individual hotel operators have less incentive to save energy or invest in the solar or wind generation plants that would allow them to be self-sufficient or even produce a surplus for sale back to the national power grid. This is the case behind offering attractive feed-in tariffs for the sale back to the grid of surplus power generated by renewable technologies.

“The lack of government-backed incentive schemes or feed-in tariffs, combined with relatively low-cost electricity and water from the utility provider, presents significant challenges to the commercial viability of many sustainable systems such as solar PV,” says Sweett Group’s Kerr. Such incentives could be particularly helpful, given the substantial capital cost of building hotels to cope with the Arabian climate.

“Reducing the cooling load requirement of new hotels presents a significant challenge for the designer due to the hot and dry climate within the region,” Kerr adds.