Twenty years or so ago, the words luxury and sustainable were rarely side by side. Expensive taste was more likely to be big and brash than purpose-driven and environmentally sensitive. Travel was no exception, and there were no limits to what money (and a large carbon footprint) could buy. As we dive into a new decade, things are quite different.

While a bling-heavy breed of luxury travel still exists, there is a rising tide of the more thoughtful. In an age where most stuff is available at the click of a button, luxury is less about "things" and more about experiences. It’s about careful craftsmanship, unique cultures, untamed landscapes, and going slow. 

The shift is timely; amid the climate crisis, it’s more important than ever to make travel count. Whether funding vital conservation efforts or uplifting communities, luxury travellers can do their bit without compromising a jot of fun. After all, any experience built upon a genuine love for a place, landscape, or community, will always surpass those that don’t.

Aerial view of a wooden building near a beach on the edge of dense forest. The deck has several people on loungers or sat at the tables. Luxury tents are to the left
Sunset over the East Mountain at Kasiiya, Costa Rica © Kasiiya

High-end, low-impact accommodation 

Luxury accommodations have a significant advantage when it comes to sustainability: exclusivity. Generally speaking, where there are fewer people, there is less toll on the environment. 

A case in point is Costa Rica’s upscale lodges. On the Península de Osa, where old-growth rainforest tumbles down into the wild Pacific, Lapa Rios’ 1000-acre nature reserve hosts just 30 guests at a time – howler monkeys pop by for breakfast, and scarlet macaws fly overhead. Over on the Caribbean coast, the owners of Kasiiya Papagayo is building low-impact bungalows so slowly that nature has time to grow around them. Both pristine landscapes would be at risk from exploitation if not for the financial support of conscious travellers. 

Using high-end, low-impact tourism to fund the protection of an ecosystem and its surrounding community is a proven formula. In South Africa, luxury experiential travel company andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve is home to one of the country’s largest populations of black rhino thanks to conservation efforts paid for in part by visitors. In Indonesia, Misool’s off-grid diving resort funds a private marine reserve larger than New York City’s five boroughs combined.

A boardwalk crosses a ditch leading into wild grassland. Several large hills are in the distant
Wildland in Scotland supports rewilding of the surrounding environment © Holly Tuppen / Lonely Planet

Meander through ancient olive groves on the Greek island of Ios, and you are most likely enjoying the conservation efforts of the exclusive Calilo Resort – having bought a quarter of the island, its owners will only develop 1% of it. And, in Scotland, the Wildland portfolio of carefully-restored properties supports rewilding efforts across over 200,000-acres of mountains, streams, peat bogs, and forests. 

Read more: Back to nature: 8 rewilding projects you can visit in Europe

Grandiose conservation projects aren’t the only way for luxury accommodations to be sustainable. Green energy and sustainable design is a financial investment, so high-end properties are well placed to take the plunge. Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort is one of the Caribbean’s most sought-after hotels overlooking Aruba’s prized palm-fringed sands. It’s also the greenest; 618 solar panels, in-room energy-saving measures, and an ozone-based laundry system has helped it achieve carbon neutrality.

City-slickers can get in on the act, too. Over in Denmark, Villa Copenhagen’s Earth Suite is made from entirely recycled materials. In Germany, Aqua Hotel is the world’s first high-rise passive house – with energy coming entirely from renewable sources. Five ITC Hotels across India are powered 100% by renewable energy, as is Inspira Santa Marta in Lisbon.

A man holding a cocktail shaker stands behind a well-stocked bar and smiles towards the camera
The best sustainable luxury accommodations employ locally © Kirsten Ellis / Cayuga Collection

Sourcing staff and products locally

It’s not all rosy; the "have it all" extravagance of luxury travel can lead to terrifying volumes of waste and carbon emissions. The travel industry’s largest source of carbon emissions is the movement of goods around the world, such as furnishings, supplies and food. Luxury hotels, in particular, need to get better at sourcing locally. Food, the world’s largest contributor to deforestation, also needs to be carefully monitored; not just what’s cooking, but also how much. 

With this in mind, the most sustainable hotels balance exceptional service with what’s best for the planet. Few do this better than the Cayuga Collection in Central America. As founder Hans Pfister comments, “Hotels often imitate someone else’s version of luxury and that can get dull. I want to prove you can put nature and people first while delivering a luxury experience.”

One way Cayuga Hotels does this is by ensuring that over 90% of employees are local, and involving them in sustainability solutions. Cayuga also cuts waste at the source, rather than relying on recycling. This means working with suppliers to reduce packaging and opting for homemade rather than branded products.

Many luxury hotels shy away from sustainable initiatives because they fear push back from guests. But when employees can explain the positive impact “most guests will understand,'' says Hans. Other exemplary actions include the no-beef policy at Soneva in the Maldives, and Nikoi Island’s natural cooling systems in Indonesia. 

Sustainable travel goals for 2020

How to make a sustainable choice 

Going green is so in vogue that everyone wants a slice of the sustainability pie. As welcome as this is, it can lead to greenwashing – where marketing claims outshine concrete action. It’s more important than ever for travellers to identify who’s walking the talk. 

Unfortunately, there’s no quick win for making a sustainable choice. It’s a case of doing your homework, and not being afraid to ask questions where information is lacking. If in doubt, opt for independent, locally-owned properties, that are usually more passionate about surrounding communities and landscapes.  

An excellent place to start is always a hotel or lodge’s website. Look for a dedicated sustainability page that breaks down what the property is doing in terms of energy reduction, sustainable food sourcing, waste reduction (including food waste), human rights, fair wages, responsible recruitment, and supporting biodiversity – even in city centres. Rather than a whole list of nice-sounding aims and aspirations, look for targets, facts and figures. 

If it’s a new hotel, does it have a green design label like LEED, and have the developers taken into account the needs of residents and wildlife? Is the destination suffering from overtourism? If yes, does it need a new hotel? 

There are some places to turn for guidance. For luxury lodges that get stuck into serious conservation efforts, The Long Run and National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World are a good bet. Eco certifications include the Green Tourism Business Scheme, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Fair Trade Travel and Earthcheck.  

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