As wealthy consumers take on different priorities and tastes, so the luxury travel market has had to look for more creative ways to engage them
Guest blogger Holly Ashby asks: Is sustainability the future of luxury travel?
WHEN WE think of luxury travel, we tend to conjure up images of unlimited indulgence. Spectacular hotels complete with helipads, service that caters to every passing whim, and conspicuous consumption are all mainstays of the luxurious end of the travel market. Yet as people’s ecological awareness grows – and the importance of authentic experiences overtakes the need to be seen to be rich – the luxury travel market is changing, with sustainability becoming a new priority.
The word ‘luxury’ comes from the Latin ‘luxus‘ – which means excess – and it can be hard to imagine true luxury involving any kind major restraint. With hotels importing white sand, pouring huge amounts of water into artificial waterfalls, fountains and swimming pools, and owning their own private jets, huge parts of the luxury travel industry still rely on major extravagance.
While it is likely that there will always be a market for this kind of indulgence, luxury travel providers have begun to diversify by offering experiences that are outside of the usual high-end mould. Realising that the people with expendable wealth are getting ever younger and have different priorities and tastes to the generations that came before them, luxury travel has had to look for more creative ways to engage them.
There is also a move away from holiday home ownership in the emergence of property investment funds that provide high-end, luxury house sharing. Large and poorly planned developments of second homes have had a negative impact on beautiful and sensitive areas. As well as this, the proliferation of second home ownership in desirable areas has had its part in turning communities into ghost towns, as properties are wastefully left empty for much of the year. While this is unlikely to go away any time soon, collective ownership of properties is a way for wealthy people to enjoy private residences across the world with much less of an impact.
Adventure holidays are another marker of changing tastes. Four billion dollars was spent in 2013 on adventure travel by America’s wealthy, making it clear that high net worth individuals are increasingly interested in what they consider ‘real’ experiences. Inside many luxury hotels, people would be hard-pressed to say which part of the world they were in, whereas now, people want to try local food, get to know the community, and be involved in something more authentic.
With this desire for authenticity has come a heightened awareness of social responsibility. The industry still has to provide the pillars of high-end travel in the form of beautiful surroundings, convenience and great service, but now people want to know that these things are not being made available at the expense of the local environment or community. People expect their travel providers to be taking steps towards sustainability.
The performative aspect of being ecologically aware can even lead them to go to great lengths in order to have the most green experience to later discuss with friends. Wealthy travellers have the resources to pursue a certain standard of environmentally-friendly travel that other people may find difficult to access, and can also give back to the community that is hosting them in a profound way.
In the context of inequality and mounting environmental issues, the wealthy are finding wastefulness and unnecessary consumption increasingly uncomfortable. Many care about people, wildlife and conservation, and feel that contributing to the care of these things is part of the enjoyment they derive from travel. However, this is not the only thing that is driving the industry. Luxury travel is enticing people simply by being creative, innovative and delightful, giving them an experience they would not have elsewhere.
There are plans for a hotel in Beijing that will house a rainforest; the inclusion of green ‘living walls’ on hotels; sensitively built cabins in stunning woodland; and private island resorts surrounded by tropical rainforests and reefs which promise ‘luxury that treads lightly’. Sustainability in luxury travel is turning the tide on traditional travel providers by outdoing them in both inventiveness and upscale living.
Mounting pressure to take ecological issues into account, the expectations of their customers and the establishment of sustainability-minded industry norms (such as letting customers re-use their towels and bed linen) is likely to further push luxury travel into being more environmentally aware. As wealthy consumers reject irresponsible and damaging customs within the travel industry, and what is seen as eco-tourism transforming into generalised good practise, the future of luxury travel may just be a sustainable one.
All images © Michael Cowton Photography/Essential Journeys