How will Hotels Respond to the Looming Water Crisis?

By Deborah Popely Assistant Professor, School of Hospitality Management , Kendall College | April 30, 2017

The World Economic Forum identified water scarcity as among the top five global business risks in the next ten years. Global demand for water is expected to exceed available supply by 2040, driven by population growth, economic development, and over-exploitation of groundwater reservoirs.(1) Water is a critical resource for the tourism industry and water conservation is considered a key management issue for the tourism industry.(2) At present, tourism accounts for less than one percent of total global water consumption; however, at the regional level tourism can place significant stress on water supplies and even compete with local demand, particularly at peak season.(3)

Tourism can also place stress on wastewater treatment capacity, potentially affecting local water quality. Water challenges are increasing in tourism destinations in the United States, Australia, Central America, Europe, the Middle East, and China. According to the World Tourism Organization, By 2020, tourism's contribution to water use is likely to increase with 1) increased numbers of tourists, 2) higher hotel standards, and 3) and increased water-intensity of tourism activities. This could produce economic and social tensions that could sour the relationship between hotels and other community stakeholders in some locations.(4) It is imperative that hotels and other tourism businesses monitor water use and incorporate efficiency and conservation practices to address this crisis.

Water and Hotels

Adequate water supplies are especially important to hotels due to the water-intensity of the services they offer and their customers' patterns of water use. Guests used water when washing or using the toilet, using spas or swimming pools, or using restaurants and bars. Numerous studies have shown that people use an estimated two to three times the amount of water in hotels as they do at home. It is estimated that hotel guests use between 84 and 2000 liters of water per day and up to 3423 liters per guest room. Researchers have identified five key factors affecting total water use in hotels: 1) climate, 2) category of hotel (e.g., star level), 3) number of rooms, 4) occupancy levels, and 5) visitor services within the hotel.(5) They estimated that the half the water consumed in the hotel was used in public areas (e.g., reception, restaurant, kitchen, lounges, pools, gyms, etc.)(6) . Nearly one-third of the water consumed in guest rooms was hot water for bathing. The presence of a golf course can increase water consumption by 87%. In addition, water use is linked to increased energy use in hotels, particularly those that depend on desalinated water.(7)

Water shortages disproportionately affect hotels because many of the most popular tourism destinations are located in water-stressed coastal regions, on islands, and in arid climates. In these regions, water scarcity can drive up utility costs and create other challenges for hotel managers. Some accommodation providers can spend up to 20% of total utility expenses on water.(8) High water costs are particularly prevalent in water scarce environments such as small islands that may rely on desalinization or water transported by ship. Water costs are likely to rise in the future as destinations invest in water systems to ensure continuity of supply.

Water Conservation Strategies

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Eco-Friendly Practices: Corporate Social Responsibility

The hotel industry has undertaken a long-term effort to build more responsible and socially conscious businesses. What began with small efforts to reduce waste - such as paperless checkouts and refillable soap dispensers - has evolved into an international movement toward implementing sustainable development practices. In addition to establishing themselves as good corporate citizens, adopting eco-friendly practices is sound business for hotels. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 95% of business travelers believe the hotel industry should be undertaking “green” initiatives, and Millennials are twice as likely to support brands with strong management of environmental and social issues. Given these conclusions, hotels are continuing to innovate in the areas of environmental sustainability. For example, one leading hotel chain has designed special elevators that collect kinetic energy from the moving lift and in the process, they have reduced their energy consumption by 50%  over conventional elevators. Also, they installed an advanced air conditioning system which employs a magnetic mechanical system that makes them more energy efficient. Other hotels are installing Intelligent Building Systems which monitor and control temperatures in rooms, common areas and swimming pools, as well as ventilation and cold water systems. Some hotels are installing Electric Vehicle charging stations, planting rooftop gardens, implementing stringent recycling programs, and insisting on the use of biodegradable materials. Another trend is the creation of Green Teams within a hotel's operation that are tasked to implement earth-friendly practices and manage budgets for green projects. Some hotels have even gone so far as to curtail or eliminate room service, believing that keeping the kitchen open 24/7 isn't terribly sustainable. The May issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to integrate sustainable practices into their operations and how they are benefiting from them.