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Hospitality sector needs to check in to green practices

What is the Irish hospitality and tourism sector doing to ensure tourism on the Emerald Isle is as sustainable as possible? Not enough, say environmentalists

“Most of the holidaymakers that come to Ireland do so because of the pristine environment.” Photograph: iStock

“Most of the holidaymakers that come to Ireland do so because of the pristine environment.” Photograph: iStock

 

Sustainable tourism is a big buzzword globally, as the backlash to years of excess begins. Yet what is the Irish hospitality and tourism sector doing to ensure tourism on the Emerald Isle is as green as possible?

“The safeguarding and successful growth of Ireland’s tourism sector calls for a sustainable and balanced approach,” according to Orla Carroll, director of product development at Fáilte Ireland.

As the National Development Authority for tourism in Ireland, Fáilte Ireland ensures that all its tourism strategies and initiatives are planned, developed and managed in a sustainable way, using the VICE (visitor, industry, community environment) model, Carroll says.

Yet efforts by Ireland’s hospitality industry to date have been mixed. Maurice Bergin of GreenHospitality.ie and GreenTravel.ie has been working in the sustainable side of hospitality since 2001.

“Back then, the environment impact was not part of our DNA within tourism – we weren’t seeing any attention being paid to it,” he notes. Yet Bergin believes it should be front and centre of any tourism strategy or approach.

“The reality is that most of the holidaymakers that come to Ireland do so because of the pristine environment.”

Some years back, Bergin attempted to benchmark Irish hotels against their counterparts in other countries, and he says the results were “alarming”.

“That got me really concerned because we found that Irish hotels on average had a 60-300 per cent worse footprint than other hotels in similar climates – on energy consumption we were 60 per cent worse than the global average.”

Bergin’s background is in hotel management, and he says training focused on people, food finances, and marketing – but not the efficient use of resources.

“We were never taught how to manage the hotel itself, how to manage the building and be efficient in using energy, water and creating waste.”

‘Actively more sustainable’

He is now devoted to trying to make the hospitality sector “actively more sustainable” and says the private sector has largely been self-motivating in this regard. There are no Governmental or semi-State sectoral supports to enterprises to develop and promote environmental sustainability within the tourism sector. “We still have, to date, not a single national policy, strategy or plan in relation to sustainability within the hospitality sector.”

However, Carroll notes that one of the main actions set out by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport’s Tourism Action Plan 2019-2021, launched earlier this year, was establishing a working group to review international policy and best practice in sustainable tourism – it also proposed guiding principles for sustainable tourism development in Ireland. “We are currently working on this project alongside other members of the group, including Tourism Ireland and industry representative groups.”

For now, Bergin is out on his own, working to certify hotels and businesses as “green”, with criteria based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council principles for responsible tourism. Green Hospitality has 85 members, of which 60 are certified. “There are approximately 16,000 hospitality businesses in Ireland, but within the hotel sector we actually have one of the best percentages of hotels certified in Europe, which just shows how poorly environmental sustainability is practised across the whole sector. It’s a real challenge.” Some hotels are very actively engaged, however, adds Bergin – for example, Hotel Doolin in Clare is Ireland’s only carbon-neutral hotel, while Ashford Castle in Mayo has won several awards for its green initiatives.

The overall goal of the Green Hospitality endeavour is simply to get hotels to be smarter with their resources, Bergin says.

“Responsible tourism and efficient tourism go hand-in-hand, if you manage your resources responsibly, you save money, you use less energy and less water and produce less waste. It’s good for the environment and it is good for the bottom line.”

Another fallacy of the “going green” message within the hospitality sector is that it is expensive, and requires investment in infrastructure, says Bergin.

“There is an awful lot of low-hanging fruit and easy ways to save your resources by being smarter. It can be as simple as turning off the lights, or not wasting so much food.”

Food waste

Food waste is a major issue in Irish restaurants and retailers. Earlier this year, research carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated the value of food waste for the Irish hospitality sector at more than €300 million.

Musgrave MarketPlace is the only 100 per cent Irish-owned national food service wholesaler, and its customer base supplies three quarters of the hotels and more than half the pubs and restaurants in Ireland. It says reducing food waste is a core priority of its sustainable growth strategy and through its partnership with the social enterprise FoodCloud – to date it has donated more than 550,000 meals, which is more than 250 tonnes of food.

Since its foundation, Musgrave MarketPlace has endeavoured to conduct its business in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way possible, says managing director Noel Keeley.

“In the last four years, we have invested over €12.6 million to upgrade facilities across our estate and improve their environmental performance to reduce our carbon footprint. This ongoing investment in our sustainability strategy is a big part of our core philosophy as we continue to examine new and innovative ways to minimise the impact of our operations on the environment,” he explains.

This focus on sustainability means it is able to satisfy increasing demand for environmentally friendly products within the hospitality sector, he adds.

“Cutting down on plastic use is one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Consumers are more concerned about sustainable packaging and sourcing than ever before. We have seen a dramatic rise in demand for our eco-friendly and compostable packaging ranges, up 228 per cent this year,” he says.

Musgrave Marketplace also supplies many of the large events and festivals across the country and in the past 18 months, most events have moved to eco-packaging, Keeley adds.

And again, it can be about the little things: Keeley says sales have also been on the rise for compostable straws, with almost 3.3 million of these sold by Musgrave MarketPlace in the first half of 2019. “This is in addition to the other eco-friendly products we supply including cutlery, bowls, plates and trays.”

The air-conditioning conundrum

“Tourists from Japan, China and America, they won’t rent a room if it hasn’t got air-conditioning. That’s a pre-requisite for them,” explains Richard Sherlock, national sales manager with Mitsubishi Electric Europe, which supplies more than half of Irish hotels with air-conditioning.

As a result, hotels are looking for environmentally-friendly solutions, he says.

“What we are being asked more and more is the environmental impact of the equipment and the refrigerant gas it uses. We are the only suppliers with the new generation of refrigerant gas and the environmental impact of that is just one-third of the systems that were there two to three years ago.”

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the concern was about ozone depletion; while that problem was successfully addressed, we now have a global-warming potential of gas, Sherlock explains.

“For every kilo of gas in an air-conditioning system, it is equivalent to two tonnes of CO2, but the new generation of gas is only equivalent to 635kg. It is a very easy way for someone to monitor their environmental impact so that’s why we have so many hotels interested, particularly the major groups. It’s something that’s more sustainable and serviceable into the future, and with that comes efficiency.”

Sherlock believes hotels are being driven towards greener solutions by the demands of their environmentally-conscious customers.

“For hoteliers, it’s their customers that are asking the questions. They want to know if this hotel chain is making the effort and if they can see it. People are staying away if they can’t see the effort. It’s not about looking green, it’s not superficial, there is consumer-led demand to see it really happening.”