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In Embracing Impact Tourism, SA’s Hospitality Sector Must Be Wary Of Greenwashing

  • 5 min read

Whenever somebody’s researching their next leisure or business travel destination, a few standard factors will play into their decision. Are flights affordable and readily available? What are the accommodation and transport options like? And what are the must-eat food spots? Increasingly, however, visitors of all kinds are looking for more than that. 

Rather than jetting into a country and exploring, or doing whatever business they need to, people want to know that they’ve also had a positive impact on their destination of choice. With growing awareness of the climate crisis, visitors want to have a positive environmental impact wherever possible. 

But that desire for a positive impact also extends beyond the environment and into overall societal well-being. Travellers also want their impact to be authentic rather than the result of greenwashing (a phenomenon where companies mislead customers about their green practices) or token community initiatives that don’t make a tangible difference.  

As an indicator of how important impact tourism is becoming, a recent study found that 76% of travellers want to make their trips more sustainable. For South Africa to remain a viable business and leisure tourism destination, the local hospitality sector must embrace impact tourism. 

Someone who knows first-hand how important it is that hospitality providers take a holistic approach to impact and sustainability is Gary Koetser, CEO of Century City Conference Centre and Hotels. The group, which recently took home a silver at the Africa-wide WTM Responsible Tourism Awards, has baked sustainability into its core offerings. 

“When the Conference Centre first opened in 2016,” he says, “Cape Town was in the midst of a one in 400 hundred year drought. We could already see the impact that a major climate event would have on the hospitality sector. It only strengthened our resolve to put sustainability at the heart of our offerings, bolstering our resilience while playing a positive environmental role.” 

But sustainability is something he’s also personally passionate about. 

“As the father of two growing boys, I spend a lot of time thinking about the world they’ll inherit one day,” he says. “I want it to be one they can thrive in and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can play a part, however small, in ensuring that it is.”  

Among the early steps the group took to ensure sustainability in the Conference Centre and its attendant hotels and restaurants were water management, recycling and waste management, and various energy saving initiatives. Examples of its proactive stance on water management include the use of non-potable water in all of its ablution facilities along with the use of aerated showers and timers on bathroom taps.  

As Koetser points out, however, the group also knows how important it is to keep innovating around sustainability. 

One such innovation is the solar PV system installed on the Conference Centre’s roof. Commissioned in 2017, the complete solar PV system at Century City Conference Centre consists of over 800 photovoltaic modules split over two roofs, totalling 260 kWp in size. It recently added a 120kWp system to the roofs of the hotels. Collectively, the solar PV systems are expected to generate enough clean electricity annually to reduce carbon emissions of the group by 25%. It also recently installed solar inverters in the Conference Centre, allowing it to store any excess energy and reducing the need for diesel during periods of load shedding.  

As Kim Weber, Group Commercial Manager of Century City Conference Centre and Hotels, points out, people also want to be empowered to act sustainably while they’re at a conference or staying in a hotel. 

“For many of our guests and delegates, that means being able to access everything they need without necessarily having to rent a car or use a ride-hailing vehicle,” she says. “We’re privileged enough to be able to offer guests a wealth of accommodation, restaurant, and shopping options within easy walking distance. They also have easy access to public transit, such as the MyCiti bus service, which can deliver them quickly and sustainably to some of Cape Town’s biggest attractions.” 

The group additionally makes it easier for guests to behave sustainably by providing recycling bins in all public spaces and using only glass water bottles across all of its properties. From a conferencing perspective, meanwhile, it connects exhibitors with stand builders and marketing material suppliers who are committed to sustainability. 

According to Weber, the group also understands that sustainability goes beyond environmental concerns. 

“For us, sustainability rests on four pillars ,” she says. “In addition to the environmental focus, we also have pillars that focus on community, commercial sustainability, and culture.” 

As Koetser points out, it’s this kind of holistic, data-driven, approach that sets hospitality providers who are serious about sustainability apart from those using greenwashing (a practice rooted more in marketing than actual change) to attract travellers concerned with impact. 

“We view sustainability as a big responsibility,” he says. “By taking a data-centric approach, we are able to measure our initiatives, look for opportunities and hold ourselves accountable internally.”

“Make no mistake,” Koetser concludes. “We know we’re not perfect and that there will always be more that we can do. But with the whole industry pushing for sustainability, we’ll all end up doing better.”