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Hawaii’s long and winding road to sustainable tourism

As Hilton, United Airlines and others are learning, educating visitors and local residents alike is critical for future progress.

Property-by-property plastic straw bans. A commitment to send zero soap to landfills. A pledge to double local sourcing of food and other resort supplies. Those are just three of the dozens of individual efforts that will be undertaken in hotel giant Hilton’s journey to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2030. 

Hilton is no stranger to energy efficiency, waste reduction and water conservation. The company already has saved an estimated $1 billion, for instance, from investment in its LightStay measurement platform. But Hilton’s recent decision to embrace science-based targets for shrinking its footprint represents a new level of urgency in addressing the problem, according to Daniella Foster, senior director of global corporate responsibility at Hilton.

"The entire travel and tourism industry is going to rely on being sustainable," Foster said during a plenary conversation at VERGE Hawaii. "Being sustainable economically, ensuring that local communities benefit and being sustainable environmentally."

Many elements of the massive travel and tourism sector are indeed traveling down the path toward a more sustainable business model — one that prioritizes deeper attention to environmental impacts and a higher sensitivity to social and cultural issues, while still allowing for economic growth.

This week, for example, United Airlines announced its intention to methodically review and address the impact of operations for its network of airport lounges in collaboration with Audobon International. The airline already boasts the industry’s most aggressive commitment to commercial-scale aviation biofuels.

But Foster and her fellow panelists also recognize that much of the work happening behind the scenes isn’t necessarily translated to guests or members of the communities in which hotels or airlines operate.

"I think that measurement needs to start to come out front so the community, our guests and the people that work in the hotel understand that this is their responsibility," said Ernie Nishizaki, principal and managing member of Acumen Advisor, a consulting firm in Honolulu.  

I think that measurement needs to start to come out front so the community, our guests and the people that work in the hotel understand that this is their responsibility.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) already publishes monthly figures about occupancy, visits to parks and attractions, and other metrics. Nishizaki asked: Why not start sharing data about the carbon footprint, water usage, energy efficiency or local procurement strategies of hotels, resorts and rental car companies? Hotel property managers and local residents should be far more aware of these figures, he argued. This could be accomplished by displaying metrics on signage in hotel lobbies or at public attractions, for example.

'The X factor'

The concept of "sustainable tourism" is one component of a dashboard developed for the Aloha+ Challenge, or Hawaii’s statewide commitment to uphold principles of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Right now, the tool specifically tracks businesses that are certified in ecotourism. The organization behind the dashboard, Hawaii Green Growth, actively seeks to include other metrics.

"The X factor in this conversation that really hasn’t been brought up is the guest engagement and consumer engagement," agreed Hilton’s Foster, pointing to her company’s recent 72,00-person guest survey suggesting that at least one-third of potential travelers — especially those younger than 25 — are actively research the environmental policies of a hotel company before booking a stay.

That’s one reason that Hilton is planning to add information generated in its LightStay management platforms, such as the energy efficiency of a property or even an individual guest’s contributions, into the mobile app for its frequent guests, she said.

Tourism is Hawaii’s biggest industry: more than 9.4 million people visited the islands in 2017, generating $16.8 billion in spending, according to HTA data. "The economy of this place is completely dependent on being a place that is welcoming and in demand by tourists," observed Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram.

Like other carriers, Hawaiian focuses considerable attention on reducing fuel consumption — by lightweighting cargo of all sorts, catering carts, even what’s placed in seatback pockets. It will be some time before battery technology is capable of keeping hundreds of "souls" aloft in a commercial airplane, Ingram said. For now, his team is prioritizing investments in technology and biofuels.

But Hawaiian Airlines is unique because of its focus on serving the 50th state. "We’re not in the business of flying people from Point A to Point B; we’re in the business of flying people from Point A to Hawaii," Ingram said.

That implies a special responsibility to ensure that the airline’s ground operations are on a path to increase local sourcing. The official beer on board all its domestic and international routes, for example, comes from craft brewer Maui Brewing, billed as the "largest authentic Hawaiian brewery"

And in April, Hawaiian Airlines began a collaboration with Raw Elements, which makes sunscreen specially formulated to not damage coral reefs. The chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which show up in most of the world’s leading sun protection products, are toxic to many corals. Hawaii has banned those ingredients starting in 2021, and Hawaiian Airlines is showing in-flight educational videos meant to highlight this issue with would-be snorkelers, swimmers and scuba divers. 

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