What is an eco-hotel and how can you tell if it’s legit?

Gone are the days when ‘eco’ accommodation was associated with less-than-luxurious conditions. But what does it mean to be an eco-hotel today, and how can you tell if a property that calls itself one is truly deserving of the label? With the help of Dayana Brooke, founder of new Australian-based sustainable travel booking service, The Sustainable Traveller, I’ve put together a guide to separating authentic eco-hotels from the imposters.

There’s more to Tierra Atacama than the spectacular view from the pool deck © Sarah Reid

So what is an ‘eco-hotel’, anyway?

An eco-hotel is traditionally defined as a hotel or accommodation that has a strong commitment to minimising its impact on the environment. But there is a growing industry expectation that a true eco-hotel should protect more than just the environment.

“Sustainability is beginning to pay a much bigger role in what it means to be an ‘eco’ or ‘green’ hotel,” says Brooke. I’d go as far to argue that an authentic eco-hotel is a sustainable hotel. In a nutshell: a hotel that embraces the principles of sustainability from eco-friendly initiatives through to community giving-back programs.

Finca Valentina in Salta, Argentina, is single-use plastic free © Sarah Reid

Why should you choose an eco-hotel?

“Staying in a sustainable hotel not only reduces your carbon footprint on the planet but also shows you support a hotel trying to their bit for the environment, and the local community,” says Brooke. Not that you should need much more convincing, but choosing a sustainable hotel can also boost your own wellbeing, and give you the opportunity to experience new things that aren’t possible at standard hotels.

“A sustainable hotel may offer bikes for guests to explore the local neighbourhood, locally-sourced produce for healthy breakfast options and perhaps indoor plants in your room to keep the air fresh,” says Brooke. “Other hotels may offer fruits freshly-picked from its own garden, onsite spring water filtered into reusable bottles for guest consumption, and the chance to give back to the community through local projects.”

Australia’s Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat has the ultimate edible garden © Sarah Reid

Identifying a legit eco-hotel

While the hotel industry is slowly beginning to standardise what it means to be an eco-hotel, there are currently no regulations in place anywhere in the world (that I’m aware of, at least) to prevent the industry using terms like ‘eco-hotel’, ‘green hotel’ and ‘sustainable hotel’ to describe their properties, so it’s up to you to do the legwork to ensure a hotel’s eco-claims are legit.

Unfortunately, many hotel owners interpret the term ‘eco-hotel’ very loosely. Some preach environmentally friendly practices that the hotel doesn’t actually practice (a commitment to conserving water is a common one) while others call their properties eco-hotels based solely on the hotels’ location (typically in the jungle). While the industry is always evolving, a legit eco-hotel will enact most, if not all, of the following initiatives:

  • has an eco-friendly design
  • employs local staff, and treats and pays them fairly
  • uses alternative or renewable energy sources, and employs energy-conserving initiatives such as light timers, and fans instead of air-con. Bonus points if the hotel is carbon neutral, or working towards it
  • encourages guests to conserve water and practices its own water conserving initiatives (such guest linen re-use programs, xeric gardening, and greywater recycling)
  • offers homegrown (preferably organic) and locally sourced food in its restaurants
  • provides recycling bins in guestrooms as part of a comprehensive hotel recycling system
  • educates guests and hotel staff about its green practices and membership programs, and the importance of such programs
  • gives back to the local community via various initiatives
  • employs non-smoking practices
  • provides alternative guest transportation, such as bicycles and shared taxis
  • sources sustainable linen and locally-produced artwork and textiles for guestroom and hotel decoration
  • uses gentle and ideally eco-friendly cleaning products
  • donates furniture and other over-used materials to charity

Many hotels are now adding new and interesting eco-initiatives to their repertoire. Complimentary reusable water bottles have now become an industry standard at higher-end eco-hotels, and many city hotels have installed beehives on their roofs. Ljubljana’s Hotel Park, which I mentioned in this green city guide even offers discounts for guests who arrive by public transport.

“The new Six Senses resort in Fiji (due to open in April) will be the first in the world to use a microgrid powered by Tesla batteries, and The Brando in Tahiti has its own bespoke seawater air conditioning unit,” adds Brooke. “Australia’s One & Only Wolgan Valley even has certified biodegradable coffee pods made from vegetable matter.”

You can also check to see if the hotel is certified by any international or local ecotourism bodies. “We particularly value any hotel which has a sustainability policy in place for its guests, provides training for its staff and is certified by organisations such as EarthCheck, Eco Tourism Australia and/or LEED,” says Brooke. Keep in mind that smaller hotels may not be able to afford oft-expensive improvements required to meet the criteria of certification bodies, so don’t be too quick to judge hotels on that basis alone.

Unfortunately, information about a hotel’s eco-credentials isn’t always easy to find. “Often a hotel’s sustainability policy isn’t as transparent as it should be, and you will need to search the website – or contact the hotel – for a copy,” says Brooke. “Contact the hotel before booking if you have questions, and provide feedback at the end of your stay if you think there was anything amiss.”

Mountain Lodges of Peru’s Lamay Lodge ’employs’ llamas as lawnmowers © Sarah Reid

Some of my best eco-hotel experiences

I’ve been lucky to visit some pretty sweet eco-hotels around the world. Two I reviewed recently include Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, which operates off the grid and is staffed by local Bedouins, and Australia’s Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, which has a phenomenal edible garden. Other recent standouts include Venture North Safaris’ stunning Cobourg Coastal Camp up in Australia’s Arnhem Land, which has its own freshwater source and an abundance of bushtucker on its doorstep, and Mountain Lodges of Peru, which manages a collection of remote, super-sustainable luxury lodges in Peru’s Sacred Valley region. I had the pleasure of staying at its Lamay and Huacahuasi lodges, and was really impressed to experience how MLP has worked so closely with the respective local communities to deliver both a five-star experience for guests and a wonderful opportunity for local people to share their culture while learning how to be industry professionals. I didn’t spot a single piece of single-use plastic at either hotel, which shows that if MLP can do it in one of the remote corners of Peru, any hotel can (keep your eyes peeled for my article about my trip in the UK’s Adventure Travel Magazine).

During my last trip to South America I also experienced two of San Pedro de Atacama’s top sustainable hotels including Tierra Atacama, which recently became Chile’s first fully solar-powered hotel (with the world’s best pool with a view!), and Explora Atacama, which also has a pretty impressive sustainability policy, while in Argentina I spent a very comfortable night at Finca Valentina, which is single-use plastic free, recycles greywater, and showcases stunning local textiles throughout the property.

Feynan Ecolodge was designed in harmony with its rugged, remote location © Sarah Reid

Can all-inclusive and big hotel chains be sustainable?

Absolutely! Many eco-hotels are so remote that they are all-inclusive by necessity. Feynan Ecolodge and Mountain Lodges of Peru properties are good examples – while guests may not have the option to physically spend their tourism dollars outside the hotel, they contribute to the wider community simply by staying at a hotel that employs local staff and sources its produce, textiles, and other supplies locally.

Big hotel chains, too, are getting in on the action. Anantara and AVANI hotels ditched plastic straws in all of their Asia hotels from the beginning of this year, and Marriott International unveiled a comprehensive sustainability and social impact plan at the end of last year. As Brooke mentioned, Six Senses is also strongly committed to safeguarding the pristine landscapes its properties sit on.