Abu Dhabi: A national green tourism policy could balance the need for more investments into hotels and related infrastructure while ensuring sustainability for the wider environment.
"We choose the kind of tourism that we would like to offer visitors, and many of the major organisations in this industry accept they have the responsibility to meet challenges such as reducing the impact on local communities and the environment," said Professor Harold Goodwin, director at the UK-based International Centre for Responsible Tourism.
"One of the methods used by many hotels to address this is through ensuring they are as green as possible, as well as having staff members and even departments that are dedicated to giving back to the community they are based in."
Goodwin and other experts who attended the first World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi echoed the sentiment that "green tourism is the new commercial reality".
They believe the UAE would do well by formulating a national green tourism strategy. Travellers are also willing to do their part in meeting the requirements for green tourism, and the responsibilities that come with it.
A survey of more than 3,400 respondents from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK by YouGovSiraj and released at the event recorded that 84 per cent saw green tourism as either "important" or "very important" for the future.
Other industry sources attest to the fact this is indeed the case.
"The majority of our travellers always ask how they can contribute to the destination they are in," said Gopinath Parayil, founder and CEO of The Blue Yonder, a tour operator based in India.
"An important facet of sustainable tourism is that it is not just about being as eco-friendly as possible, but helps to encourage communities to preserve their traditions and heritage, both the tangible and intangible ones.
"One the greatest issues faced by tour operators is they do not have a connection to the realities being faced in the communities they are based in. But sustainable tourism can be used as a tool to address them and bring about a positive result."
More than 1,300 visitors, including 150 students, attended the three-day conference and exhibition, co-hosted by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. Over 50 speakers discussed the challenges experienced by the hospitality and tourism industries as well as the best practices that have been put in place in hotels around the world.
"One thing that isn't really discussed is not just the social and environmental risks associated with sustainable tourism, but the financial risk as well," said Arnfinn Oines of Six Senses Resorts and Spas, Thailand. "Hotels need to invest in energy-efficient equipment in addition to looking at other methods that offset their carbon footprint while still providing guests with high quality facilities and service."
During its second run, which will be next December, World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi is launching The Middle East Green Tourism Award. It will recognise efforts by an individual, a company, an organisation or a destination in the development and management of more responsible and sustainable tourism.
Nominations will be accepted from next month by logging on to www.worldgreentourismabudhabi.com.
The winner will be decided by a panel of experts chaired by Professor Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary-general, UN World Tourism Organisation.
First green hotel in Al Ain
The Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort has become the first "green" hotel in the country and would receive a four-pearl ranking under Abu Dhabi's Estidama rating system.
"It's an important step in our development as a truly sustainable destination, said Ganem Mubarak Al Hajiri, director-general, Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort. "Phase One of the project is expected to be delivered by 2012 or 2013, which includes the Shaikh Zayed Museum and Phase One of the safari. We are expecting up to 1.5 million visitors once that phase is completed."
Industry sources were quick to emphasise that sustainability measures are not short-term goals and patience must be cultivated to ensure their maintenance in the years to come.
"Being eco-friendly and energy-efficient is a new topic for the region, but one that is being quickly embraced," said Dr Nathalie Staelens, senior manager, compliance and regulatory submissions at Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC).
"However, many are impatient to see the results of measures they have implemented or are following, but they must understand that they are long-term goals. The Middle East is a very particular area where not all measures can be applicable across the board. Many have to be adapted for the region and each country's specific needs.
"TDIC has always strived to ensure all plans submitted to us are as sustainable as possible, with goals being decided on a project-by-project basis to enhance developments and to improve or extend our targets in terms of energy efficiency, water usage reduction, etc. Most of our bills will have a two Pearl rating once Estidama is implemented — but we aim to reach for a higher rating."