Abu Dhabi

A desert state that owes up to 80% of its government revenues to fossil fuels could be seen as an unlikely player in the arena of green and sustainable tourism

But while the United Arab Emirates may rank seventh in the world when it comes to oil reserves, its leaders have sufficient foresight to realise that this resource is not infinite. And, when coupled with factors such as water scarcity and energy use from widespread air-conditioning, for example, there is a clear mandate for environmental-policy change in the Emirates.

The government of the United Arab Emirates, based in the capital Abu Dhabi, has responded to this mandate by setting ambitious targets to improve its environmental standing and hopefully create a sustainable future for its citizens. The government predicts that the contribution of oil to the economy will drop to just 36% by 2030 as other sectors, such as tourism, take up the slack.

The clearest sign of this environmental commitment is the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC), also known as Masdar. Its key initiative is the $22bn Masdar City project, which aims to create the world’s first zero-carbon and zero-waste municipality, housing more than 50,000 people.

Despite its considerable fossil-fuel reserves, Abu Dhabi is also pushing ahead with renewable and clean technology projects. The highly efficient Masdar City will be powered by more than 200MW of on-site renewable energy systems. Together with “the world’s biggest single-site solar power plant” (the 100-MW Shams 1), the Emirate is on its way to achieving the goal of 7% of energy production capacity from renewables by 2020.

“Over the last 40 years we have experienced an amazing transformation, from an economy based on pearl diving, fishing and agriculture, into a global hub of commerce, finance, tourism, and a key player in the global energy markets,” said Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chief executive of Masdar in a recent speech. “Today, we recognise that our future depends on yet another transformation...from a country that produces hydrocarbons, to one that is fully capitalising on its energy expertise and assuming a leadership role in the renewable energy sector.”

Ambitious green targets for Tourism

This environmental leadership role is also being applied to the tourism industry. Led by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), the sector is aiming to make savings of 10% in energy, 20% in water and 20% in waste-to-landfill by the end of 2010. “These ambitious targets are aimed at improving the environmental performance of hotels so that they are in line, if not better than, the world’s greenest hotels,” says Nasser Al Reyami, ADTA’s director of tourism standards.

These energy and waste cuts are being developed against the backdrop of a wider governmental initiative known as the Environment, Health and Safety Management System (EHSMS). Essentially a framework to combine private and public sector organisations in the development of a sustainable economy, the EHSMS has been well received by local hoteliers. Training workshops have been organised to help hotel owners and managers realise how they can achieve the energy and water savings targets established by the initiative.

“This training is a big help,” says Nicole Donato of Platinum Hotel Apartments. “A number of our guests express concern for the environment and they often put forward suggestions—this shows it is an issue and that working together for a better environment can benefit the hotel business.”

Hotels take initiatives to improve sustainability

Aside from taking part in the EHSMS initiative, Abu Dhabi’s hoteliers are undertaking a variety of projects to improve the sustainability of their facilities and services. For example, hotel-apartment provider Vision launched a Green Initiative Campaign in late 2009 to improve the environmental awareness of its staff. The scheme was supported by the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, which judged various poetry, essay and art competitions as part of the green training.

Vision also threw its weight behind the WWF’s Earth Hour in March, which involved turning off all lights and appliances for one hour. “The simple act of turning lights off sends a powerful message that if individuals take small steps, collectively we can make a huge difference in reducing our carbon footprint. Mindful of the 2010 Earth Hour motto, ‘Earth Hour, Every Hour’ we’ve committed to long-term goals for sustainability,’” says Richard G. Haddad, Vision’s general manager.

Other hoteliers are also investing directly in clean technology and renewables. The Aloft Hotel recently announced plans to use solar power to heat 90% of the water for its 408-bedroom hotel at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC). The scheme consists of 560 solar panels, covering a total area of 2,300 square metres, installed on the roof of the ADNEC car park.

Premier Inn, part of the UK’s Whitbread group, has begun building its first Abu Dhabi hotel within ADNEC. It will be a 13-storey building with 242 guest rooms. “We are very mindful of environmental issues when designing our hotels in the Gulf region,” explains Geoff Cook, Director of Property Development for Premier Inn Hotels in Dubai. “The desert climate means that water in particular is viewed as a precious resource. In Abu Dhabi, we are complying with the local “Estidama” [sustainability] environmental legislation in the building design.” Green measures include a district cooling system providing centralised chilled water for air conditioning dispensing with the need for individual chillers, flow aerators, grey water recyling and solar energy panels.

Meanwhile, Starwood plans to open the first of its green-focused Element Hotel chain in the Emirate in 2012. All Element hotels pursue LEED certification, which requires environmentally-friendly measures such as roofing materials that reflect heat from the sun, the use of alternative energy sources, comprehensive recycling systems and water and energy conservation, including the installation of low-flow faucets and fixtures, compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances.

Abu Dhabi to host international green tourism conference

To emphasize the progress of its hospitality sector and source new ideas on how to develop further, Abu Dhabi will be hosting the World Green Tourism conference in November. One of the speakers, along with Stephen Farrant of the International Tourism Partnership, will be Arnfinn Oines of Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

“My talk will focus on responsible business and the importance of seeing it [responsibility] as an integral part of business, “ Arfinn explains. “I will use Six Senses' ‘Decarbonizing’ approach [carbon absorption] as an example and explain what we are doing in terms of energy, water and waste management.”

According to Oines, hoteliers in Abu Dhabi and other regions that are looking to improve sustainability need to understand that carbon management is about long-term profitability and overcoming financial risk. “Oil and water prices are likely to rise, which opens up the door for profitable investments in clean energy and efficiency matters. Abu Dhabi will increasingly have to face and deal with energy and water challenges in order to develop sustainably,” he says.

Abu Dhabi’s hotel sector undoubtedly faces challenges in trying to improve its sustainability. But the transformation undertaken over the last 20 years, along with neighbouring Dubai, is ample proof that this is one area of the world ready and able to embrace change. The Emirate will have to put this adaptability to the test over the coming years as it seeks to reconcile its considerable appetite for growth with increasing energy costs and scarcer access to water and other commodities. However, by harnessing resources that are in plentiful supply, such as solar energy and human capital, Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector should be well placed to offer future visitors not only one of the most unique experiences in the region but crucially one of the most sustainable.

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