The High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for People and Nature, with over 85 member countries , is calling for a 30 x 30 target: a global endeavor by governments to safeguard 30% of the land and ocean areas by 2030 . The initiative comes with growing scientific evidence that large sections of the earth must be conserved in a natural state to address both the biodiversity and climate crises [3,4,5].
Hotel development needs space. The geographical environment shapes the selection of a location. A treeless site offers various advantages such as visibility, accessibility and costs efficiencies in surface condition work and construction. A terrain with dense vegetation may result in site planning challenges but also be sought-after by both guests (desire for undisturbed nature) and operators (monetizes pristine environment). When planning, developing and operating a hotel and reporting on the sustainability efforts and outcome, it is about high resolution data focusing on the space the hotel is located at. The energy used, the water pumped, the waste produced and recycled, the employment created and so on are all inherently spatial. In other words, impacts are related to a specific location but with global significance. Nature and biodiversity are also spatial. And the space taken by nature and the resulting ecosystem services are critical to the hospitality sector (See previous Hospitality Net World Panel: The solutions nature provides).
Remote, relatively pristine and accessible destinations enjoy a growing number of visitors, thereby driving further infrastructure development. A conundrum for the hotel sector?
Ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15  and the hopes of a Paris-like agreement on biodiversity, let's tackle the following questions:
Should the hotel industry refrain from developing in remote or rich natural areas?
Or should the industry continue to develop its infrastructure in those areas so as to raise funds for protection and preservation work as well as restoration of degraded natural habitats?
As an additional question to consider (optional):
Properties in urban or suburban areas also clearly benefit from ecosystem services. What are examples of best practices in regards to hotels supporting biodiversity protection and restoration?
 High Ambition Coalition (2022). HAC Member Countries. https://www.hacfornatureandpeople.org/hac-member-countries
 High Ambition Coalition (2022). Why 30x30?. https://www.hacfornatureandpeople.org/why-30x30
 Waldron A., et al. (2020). Protecting 30% of the planet for nature:costs, benefits and economic implications. https://www.conservation.cam.ac.uk/files/waldron_report_30_by_30_publish.pdf
 IPBES (2019). Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. https://ipbes.net/global-assessment
 Dinerstein, E. et al. (2019). A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets. Science Advances, 5(4). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2869  UNEP (2022). UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15). https://www.unep.org/events/conference/un-biodiversity-conference-cop-15
Should the hotel industry refrain from developing in remote or rich natural areas. Or should the industry continue to develop its infrastructure in those areas so as to raise funds for protection and preservation work as well as restoration of degraded natural habitats?
The transition between cultural anthropology and physical planning is landscape led
From the architecture and planning standpoint, there is a shift away from "human-centric” design towards ”planet-centric” design, which considers all forms of life and the health of our planet. A hallmark of this movement is that building and infrastructure planning is ultimately landscape led. This is a critical question for the hotel industry during the planning phases of a new destination: At the considered site, what is (or what was the previously existed) the relationship or tradition between man and local nature, landscape or body of water? The answer is the starting point and the land heritage to be preserved. As a result of this preservation, cultural value is defined. This is the key to continuity and authenticity, for what comes next - linking past, present and future, engaging and integrating locals, newcomers and visitors.
Regenerative hospitality development can be a positive game-changer for existing communities. There's an opportunity for hoteliers and asset owners to play a larger, more meaningful role in the community, if they are willing to engage with the individuals and businesses that are affected by a new project. Getting their views enables a smoother transition between social planning and physical planning.
Developing in remote areas with little to no functioning infrastructure presents many challenges, especially when the local population is dispersed. Will people be displaced or driven to the necessity of relocating? In spite of the numerous hurdles and risks, there does exist a strong need for hospitality teams to lead the way, to implement scalable, sustainable strategies and to demonstrate that new development and regeneration (restoring nature and natural resources) don't necessarily refute one another.
Without the hindrance of an existing, outdated or disfunctional infrastructure, circular solutions and systems can be more easily implemented in their purest of forms by taking advantage of local attributes, local sources and of course a no-waste principle. Numerous studies over the past few years demonstrate the potential role of a circular economy for tackling biodiversity loss.
According to the study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy could tackle biodiversity loss by eliminating waste and pollution to reduce threats to biodiversity, circulating products and materials to leave room for biodiversity, and regenerating nature to enable biodiversity to thrive. https://www.sitra.fi/en/articles/protect-biodiversity-with-circular-solutions/
There is no argument against the fact that disrupting virgin soil for new infrastructure, the carving out of pristine nature for foundations and the entire process of construction are interventions that are destructive to the planet. The growing global consciousness and the ambition within the hospitality industry to face the climate issues means there is a willingness to provide alternative solutions which protect local biodiversity as well as heal and replenish what humans have destroyed. A strong will to preserve the local culture also exists, but being aware that whatever changes are made there is an impact in socio-economic terms and on the physical environment.
It is essential to be mindful about where we build hotels and develop tourist destinations. After the past challenging two years of pandemic, it has become clear that we need to find a delicate balance between conserving ecosystem health and supporting livelihoods in areas heavily reliant on a tourism-based economy. While there is no single answer as this is an evolving practice, a few key principles stand out.
- Protected areas conserving critical habitat are to be respected and hotels must adhere to local regulations governing where development is or isn't allowed. It is important to consider that if we are successful in achieving 30x30, this will mean a vast increase in protected areas banning tourism development. Every region will of course have varying rules, and the network of protected areas spanning the Great Barrier Reef is a great example of how zoning at different levels of protection can be successful to meet ecological, social and economic needs. This in mind, the hotel industry needs to reckon with the idea that not every site is sustainable to develop.
- Sustainable development of a region including the necessary infrastructure to responsibly manage tourist populations can actually improve conditions and achieve greater harmony between the natural and built environments. A major issue of mass tourism is that tourist populations overwhelm existing infrastructure and exacerbate available resources and pollute ecosystems. As one example, we are working with Corona / ABinBev as they establish Corona Island in Colombia to ensure that the island implements the highest standards of sustainable operation. This includes installing long-term infrastructure to address energy, drinking water, wastewater, and waste management needs that the island will continue to benefit from and operate responsibly following the brand's takeover.
- Hotels that are truly woven into the tapestry of the local economy and ecosystem are easy to spot and are most desirable by an eco-conscious millennial traveler. I will share a few examples I have recently visited first-hand: La Duna near La Paz, Baja, Mexico is directly working on protecting the coastline from motor vehicles, stewarding a forest of 300-yr old cacti, experimenting with permaculture and regenerative agriculture practices to restore ecosystem health, supporting "blue carbon" projects to restore seagrass and mangroves that sequester carbon and protect the coastline, collaborating with local fishers cooperatives, and operating their resort fully off the grid with solar energy, solar showers, composting toilets, and on-site garden. They embody not only responsible best practice, but are going much further to bring value back into their community and the land and sea they share. Playa Viva in Zihuatanejo, Mexico is another beautiful example of a hotel dedicated to regenerating the ecosystem they coexist with. Through their regenerative farm, reforestation efforts, turtle sanctuary run for over 20 years by local elders (already seeing turtles they have fostered returning), investing in the economic development and education of the local community, off-grid energy and water, and through their Regenerative Trust that donates 2% of all guest bills to their community and ecosystem efforts, their impact is also clearly captured in their publicly available impact reports.
- Scale matters. Mass tourism overwhelms infrastructure and ecosystem limits and brings tourism a negative reputation. Decentralizing tourism, creating opportunities for home stays, and promoting locally-led experiences "off the beaten path" can all more effectively distribute wealth from the tourism industry throughout local economies, distribute the burden of increased tourist populations, and offer the authentic experiences this next generation of traveler is seeking.
While 30x30 is an ambitious goal, it sets a global target that governments, companies, and communities can rally behind. Even if a technical 30x30 is not achieved, every action we collectively take in these next 8 years will have magnified impact on the future of our communities and our shared blue planet. The tourism and hospitality industry has a critical role to play in both supporting and celebrating this effort.
We are all fundamentally a part of nature, a member of the ecosystems we live in. Travel reminds us of our inherent connection to the rest of life we share this planet with. As such, the way we travel, the way we gather, the way we live is critical to building systems of resilience.
About two-thirds of the world's oceans and three-quarters of the land area of our planet have been massively impacted by humans. True wilderness exists on only 2% of the planet's land surface. From this, the answer is quite clear. The focus in the development of new hotels and other touristic infrastructure must be on already developed or even degraded sites. These offer a huge potential, not only because they are often easier to reach, but also because guests will appreciate the well-communicated approach of turning destroyed areas back into something like intact nature.
Yes, the hotel industry should refrain from developing in remote or rich natural areas. These developments that have high environmental and social costs have been carried out for the pleasures of a tiny minority for a few decades. Developing more unique experiences in remote areas means continuing to put profit first with hotels that cater for well-off guests, while we know that they are the populations with the highest footprint and yet suffering the least from the effects of the climate crisis and of biodiversity loss.
Instead, the hospitality industry should focus on investing in what it already has since the existing buildings in remote areas were not necessarily built sustainability. There are more and more examples of hotel programs for biodiversity conservation but there is still some work to be done to make it the new normal. And to go beyond these programs with a holistic approach.
Existing remote hotels and resorts have a duty to become models. They have to prove that they are contributing more than they are damaging, that they are actually investing funds to protect and preserve their local ecosystems and that they are able to restore degraded natural habitats in the long run.
To do so, their infrastructures will have to be reviewed as well as their operations and their services, which could keep many tourism professionals busy for this exciting challenge ! Leaving the era of sustainability to enter that of contribution and regeneration requires that new developments be considered with new criteria and that existing properties be aligned with new requirements.
This is a very tricky question! On one hand, the best option not too harm the environment would definitely not to build anything. On the other hand, building a hotel can be a beneficial to the local population, so who comes first, planet or people? The decision of building or not building should be based on various factors: How much is the project impacting the fauna and flora? Is there a way to make it beneficial? Is it helping the local population? If the project is harming nature and not giving jobs or limited to the local population, then that should be a no. Now in certain instances, giving employment to the locals will protect the nature as they will stop exploiting it to gain money (I am thinking of cutting forests or coral, chasing certain animals for examples). There is a way to have win win partnerships, where both planet, people and profit are align, but they may require parties to adjust and determine what sacrifice they are willing to make to make this work.
On WE(i) Think latest magazine on Regeneration, we have some interesting examples of regenerative projects that are built in a way to protect, preserve and enhance the local environment as well as the life of their populations, in urban and resort destinations.
I believe the answer to these questions lies in the desired reason for a new project build, and the intrinsic ethos of the decision makers. If the anticipated outcome for development is purely economic, then the planned tourist accommodation build should not take place. While a sound economic result for any new development is inherently critical to success and sustainability over time, it cannot be the only desired result. If, however, the decision makers are fully aware of their responsibility to develop with care and respect, and plan to support the local communities and focus marketing efforts on attracting guests who can travel to the destination with the lowest carbon footprint possible, then that sets the scene of how the business intends to function over time.
A best practice example of a property supporting biodiversity protection and restoration despite proximity to a busy tourist hub is the Hotel Antumalal in southern Chile. The hotel was designed in the 1940's by Jorge Elton, a renowned Chilean architect who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
A stunning piece of Bauhaus architecture, the hotel was inserted into 5 hectares of gardens overlooking the Villarrica lake. The defining rule of the new build was to ensure not one tree would be cut down during construction, and that all building materials would be sourced locally, and by local people. Snowmelt from the flanks of the neighbouring volcano continues to provide the property with water and a turbine generates onsite electricity. More than 75 years after inception, the gardens are filled with endemic species and the building continues to nestle comfortably within nature proving that coexistence is possible, and profitable, when conceived in the correct way.
The hotel industry is critical for the support of communities, neighbourhoods and the environment around every single hospitality project in a very responsible way - creating access to remote and rich natural areas being key. The onus is on the type of hotels/residences/glamping locations or lodgings that are to attract guests, residents and the neighbourhoods alike. It all starts with a focus on the environment around and how all stakeholders align and address biodiversity protection and preservation.
The traditional hotel style with hundreds of rooms, numerous buffet outlets, with hundreds to sometimes thousands of guests.. would not be the best bet in nature's most pristine areas. Mass tourism has proven to give backseat to biodiversity protection, doing good for communities and preserving the natural habitat. More curated and targeted groups of promadic travellers create less negative impact. They connect with the locals, seek common interest and have come with a purpose. This is what the hospitality of the future means in its route to embrace biodiversity! Quality over quantity and purpose over profit.
There are many off-grid properties located within nature reserves that are solely focused on biodiversity protection and environmental restoration. If you look at the way these properties are built – very minimalistic, some are mostly tent-like structures, constructions around nature rather than destroying nature to facilitate buildings, very cautious of designs and layout to maximize natural resources (sunlight, wind) as much as possible, using environmentally friendly building materials and construction methods. These properties are either carbon negative or in some cases even carbon positive.. and for them, it is important to have efficient operations, but also a flourishing local natural environment that has the capacity to sequester more carbon than the property is giving off.
The focus on Communities and neighbourhoods brings back healthier flora and fauna. Here is the how: A property established in nature-reserves where wildlife is protected within raises awareness for endangered species and serves as a basis to protect these species from poachers, for instance. Such locations, are now bringing guests into the equation – creating awareness dives within the social aspect and not just the environmental anymore!
Not only through tourism can funds be raised to further conservation but this approach can turn into global advocacy – creating an understanding for why these areas need to be protected – and how we as guests, travellers and consumers play a huge role in this conservation. Job creation is a pivot, too. The greater the biodiverse agenda, the more awareness and advocacy gets spread and the more jobs are created on site, driving economic growth.
Bringing the right kind of awareness, traffic and support to these environments are crucial! The industry should continue developing within these areas but we MUST do it strategically, and the top priority must be conservation of the surroundings – the environment, species living within, and the locals living around.
If the area in question is not under attack from poaching and logging, and doesn't need protection - hands off! Leave it to do what it has been doing perfectly for thousands of years. However if it is deteriorating and or in need of protection, this model of sustainability featuring luxury hospitality is a great alternative. It also helps to persuade local governments to turn away from lucrative options like logging, once it becomes clear that money can be made in eco-tourism, while helping the environment!
Where there is demand for tourism experiences, travellers will find a way, whether we like it or not. That's what we've seen with shared accommodation services, communities displaced when demand outstrips supply, with people free camping across destinations – providing limited benefits to communities but utilising the (often) scarce resources. So, should we limit the supply and let market forces take hold? Or perhaps we would be more sensible to engage policy levers that drive real change in our developments. To make sure that when developing in areas of rich natural assets (and quite frankly all areas, urban and rural), we do so in a way that protects and preserves whilst telling the story of our connection to nature.
But our policy response isn't yet where it needs to be.
Until policy catches up, we should be developing in a way that considers the impact – utilising resources that are sensitive to and reflect the natural assets, considering how and where we develop, and working with professionals who understand how to minimise impact for the long-term sustainability of hotel developments - for example through EarthCheck Design. The EarthCheck Design program specifies that new developments, site drawings and building plans must demonstrate how flora and fauna will be protected, resulting in no net loss of biodiversity. Should the project be unable to avoid loss of biodiversity values (habitat & species), the project must offset those losses in an equal compensation of biodiversity values. Biodiversity offsets must be done through a land bank or a land trust – a verified way. Hospitality can be done in a way that protects and nurtures our environment. We just need to remember that what's good for business can be good for the planet!
Yes, we need hospitality development to both cater to growing demand and to ensure conservation of biodiversity. It is not sustainable to rely exclusively on tax or donor funded conservation. We need the business community to be a part of it, and to make it financially viable. Other reasons why (regenerative tourism) hotels should continue to be allowed also in remote areas is that they provide employment to local communities. They offer an opportunity for visitiors to get to know and learn from those, and to understand the immense need and value of biodiversity conservation.
Many of the entrepreneurs and changemakers whom we have featured as part of the Sustainability Leaders Project focus on exactly this: the nexus between social sustainability and sustainable rural development, and tourism business. Inkaterra hotels in Peru come to mind - a truly inspiring example of how biodiversity and its conservation can be included in hotel offerings. Or, Ishita Khanna's work at the - indeed very remote - Spiti Valley in India. Les Carlisle is a legend for championing wildlife conservation in Africa. All those examples involve hospitality AND wildlife encounters and protection, as part of why people would travel there.
What we have to make sure - as with all new hospitality development - is that there is strict adherence to regenerative tourism and net positive business models: including climate, biodiversity and local community. Anything else should be avoided and no longer be allowed.
The central question posed to the panel is: should the hotel industry refrain or not from developing in remote or rich natural areas? Although I may be accused to have imbibed too much of the Dutch directedness, my immediate answer would be that it should! Considering the alarming conclusions of the last IPCC report and looking forward to the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 we should face the truth and admit that an industry that has such negative environmental impacts on climate and on biodiversity cannot grow for ever. The only possible exception are those operations that can prove in a science-based way to be restorative, to be able to enter an area environmentally and socially impoverished and regenerate it sustainably.
The importance of biodiversity loss cannot be underestimated, and like climate change with which it intersects, immediate action is required. While there are obvious steps that we must take, some of the most impactful actions may be less obvious.
For many in the tourism system, the immediate response is that tourism can be a means of protecting ecosystems. The development of tourism in or adjacent to natural spaces will support the preservation of these locations. And while that can be true, and there are some great examples of tourism as a catalyst for protecting natural spaces, it is important to remember that tourism doesn't automatically lead to these outcomes. Hoteliers need to collaborate with the stewards of these lands and local communities to ensure outcomes that protect the environment. In achieving the best results for all stakeholders, strategic commitment and work is required.
While these discussions about whether hotels and eco-resorts can support ecosystem protection may seem like the most important contribution we can make to biodiversity – it is not. This line of thinking takes the pressure off everyone running a hotel or tourism operation that isn't beside a national park. It is just not enough to say – “My hotel is in a city. Biodiversity isn't my problem”.
Where can every hotelier make a difference for the preservation of biodiversity? Many of the pressures leading to biodiversity loss and deforestation come from our demands from our suppliers. For example, our need for products containing palm oil leads to deforestation in tropical countries worldwide. Our demand for seafood leads to the collapse of fishing stocks and aquatic ecosystems. It is time for hospitality to address our supply chains and their impacts on the great challenges we face. Biodiversity loss is an existential crisis (yes – another one), and we need to be part of the solution.
Finding an ecologically intact destination: A needle in a haystack?
A group of multi-disciplinary scientists aimed to find out how much of our planet is ecologically intact and came to the conclusion that less than 3% of the world's land remains undisturbed and unspoiled . Those ecosystems are surely a prime target for preservation work. No development of any sort should take place in those areas. Another 20 to 50% of the planet's surface is under minimal influence from human's footprint . The bulk of those locations are either extremely cold or very arid. These offer proactive conservation efforts. Tourism and hospitality development here (if development at all), must undergo very strict procedures and requirements. There are too many stories and examples in our sector of commodification of nature and space where dispossession (e.g. property rights), privatization of commons (e.g. water), formation of enclosures (e.g. beach front, forest trails) have and are still negatively impacting the socio-spatial environment . The way forward: restoration?
Restoration: A response to already damaged habitats
The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration  is a response to unabated degradation of ecological biodiversity with the stated goal of “Preventing, Halting, and Reversing the Degradation of Ecosystems Worldwide”. Biodiversity plays a critical role in the provision of ecosystem services which are the services nature delivers to humans (e.g., the production of fertile soils and pollination for crops, filtering air and water). Quantifying and valuing the ecosystem services for the hotel sector remains difficult, but it is clear that many processes, from the sourcing of construction material (e.g. timber) to provision of food and beverage, rely on functioning ecosystems.
Since restoration occurs after an ecosystem has been damaged or destroyed, this should be the very last resort moving forward.
Since any development incurs various sets of impacts which then require some form of restoration, this would indicate that any new hotel development must be:
- met with strict impact assessment,
- matched with the highest possible standards (e.g. in construction)
- supported with a clear conservation and restoration plan and
- lead by and to the benefit of local communities.
Regeneration: Where greater opportunities lie
Regeneration offers greater opportunities moving forward. By aligning communities, the physical environment and hospitality re-development, hotel companies can be looking at rebuilding degraded areas, refurbishing old buildings, considering converting existing space and renewing established infrastructures. This is a chance for revitalization of urban space. This is also an opportunity to tackle biophilic design and creating a unique experience so desired by travellers.
For the Urban Development: Hotel as a Center-piece of Deep Ecological Zones
Together with my colleagues Arjan van Rheede (Hotelschool The Hague) and Robert Schønrock Nielsen (Copenhagen School of Design and Technology), we propose a framework to not only understand the relationship between nature and urban spaces but also expand on the relationship between ecology, the individual, their community and urban society. We label this as 'Deep Ecological Zone', where nature is at the centre of experiences and at the centre of business decisions. This implies a transformation of our building stock to include nature-based features. Urban hotel and restaurant buildings are pre-destined to provide a safe space for communities of local and visitors to meet and develop meaningful connections, to work, learn, restore and recharge batteries; all elements of a regenerative experience.
 Plumptre, A.J., Baisero, D., Belote, R.T., et al. (2021). Where Might We Find Ecologically Intact Communities? Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 15 April. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2021.626635
 Riggio, J., Baillie, J.E.M., Brumby, E.E., et al. (2020). Global human influence maps reveal clear opportunities in conserving Earth's remaining intact terrestrial ecosystems. Global Change Biology. 05 June. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15109
 Devine, J. & Ojeda, D. (2017). Violence and dispossession in tourism development: a critical geographical approach. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25(5), 605-617. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2017.1293401
 UN (2022). Preventing, Halting, and Reversing the Degradation of Ecosystems Worldwide. United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/