Picture: 123RF/malp
Picture: 123RF/malp

Britain's Prince Harry is urging tourists to be more eco-friendly - while at the same time flitting across Europe by private jet. It's hardly the only contradiction in the travel industry's drive to become more sustainable.

The world's largest hotel chains house as many people each day as a decent-sized city, making them a big source of pollution. Directly, hotels account for about 1% of global carbon-dioxide emissions, though that estimate doesn't include the hydrocarbon-burning flights and car trips guests make as they come and go. All in, tourism's contribution to man-made emissions could be as much as 8% of the total.

This massive environmental footprint is giving the hotel industry a bad name. Along with energy, food and water, hotels are gargantuan consumers of plastics. Drinking straws, cocktail picks, door key cards and water bottles are all in the crosshairs of the industry's growing anti-plastics drive. At the margins, these interventions should help to cut the huge amount of plastic waste and should be relatively simple to implement. But these eye-catching ecological measures have, rightly, prompted accusations of tokenism.

If I take three connecting flights to reach the Maldives, crank up the air-conditioning on arrival and then forgo a plastic stirrer in my margarita, my haul of free plastic miniatures isn't going to matter a hoot, is it? 

Tourism's contribution to man-made emissions could be as much as 8% of the total

In fairness, most big hotel groups are making comprehensive efforts. Marriott's promise to cut the amount of waste going to landfill by 45% by 2025 isn't to be sneezed at considering it has 1.3-million rooms worldwide.

Hotels know they cannot afford to look lax on these issues. Customers - particularly corporate ones - are considering sustainability issues when purchasing trips and online booking platforms are making it easier to tell environmental saints from sinners.

Many large hotel chains already provide an impressive level of disclosure about their environmental impact. Unfortunately, though, the industry's rapid growth risks overwhelming the benefit derived from these hard-won efficiency gains. Hilton has achieved an impressive one-third cut in carbon emissions per square metre since 2008 and plans to extend that to a 61% reduction by 2030. But its absolute emissions have jumped by one-fifth over the past decade because the company added thousands of hotels to its portfolio - it opened one a day last year.

So what can be done? Plastic bans make for good headlines, but hotels should focus on reducing their most environmentally damaging activities. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning reportedly account for up to 45% of hotel energy consumption, so installing the most efficient technology and switching to carbon-free energy sources would seem a sensible priority.

Of course, the easiest way for the business to clean up its act is also the most unpalatable: open fewer hotels, especially in destinations only accessible by plane.

Getting the balance right is difficult. Hotels provide lots of jobs in poor countries. Still, from an environmental standpoint, video-conferencing and staycations are better than hopping on a jet.

But wait for hotels to cap their growth or consumers to voluntarily forgo the comfort of a hotel bed and you'll be waiting a long time. Higher taxes that penalise the negative consequences of travel may become unavoidable. For now, "sustainable travel" is too often a contradiction in terms.

Bloomberg