how sustainable hotels are redefining luxury

Last week Porter and I were in the southeastern section of Sri Lanka in an area called Yala National Park. This part of the country is teaming with the kind of animals that about a year ago we only got to see curled up on winter nights on Porter’s beloved couch in our Boston apartment via Planet Earth. But here in Yala, we literally saw a leopard take down a deer after only about twenty minutes on safari. I’m a vegetarian, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the coolest thing I’ve ever seen (is that wrong?).

While we were exploring Yala, we stayed at a hotel that’s been gaining a ton of exposure these past few months because 1: it’s brand new, and 2: it has the kind of look that detonates Instagram virality. It’s called Wild Coast Tented Lodge and you might have heard of it or already unknowingly have paused in your scrolling to take in its “cocoon” shaped luxury tents that circle manmade watering holes and have interiors that look like they belong on the set of Out of Africa. It’s one of those once in a lifetime locations that is so experientially cutting edge (there’s no fences in the resort, so elephants, wild boar, monkeys, etc. can wander right through the camp at any moment) that, regardless of its stance on sustainability, it would probably be booking up a year in advance.

But it was here, in one of those very tents with their walls of recycled space-suit material and the soft sound of rain and monkey feet on our rooftop that I realized something: in our generation, sustainable hotels are going to have a leg-up on their unsustainable competitors because being a sustainable hotel means holding yourself to a standard that our modern age has come to define as the epitome of luxury. The majority of hotels we photograph for are on the forefront of the sustainable travel sector, so this has been on my mind for while, but let me walk you through my thought process:

The Food 

Right now the world is all kinds of hyped-up about organic, local food and produce, vegan and vegetarian options, and non-chemically treated fruits and veg. I could not be more excited about this as someone who’s a vegetarian, and as someone who’s married to someone who is growingly neurotic about the endless list of bad things that can be lurking in the food we eat. (Port literally said to me the other day, “I feel like I can taste the difference between corn-fed and grass fed-meat.” This from the boy who used to wolf down five fast-food burritos in one sitting in high school….).

In all seriousness, though, sustainable hotels are willing to put their money toward ensuring their food is sourced responsibly and chemically-untreated. Their hotel menus are a list of what’s local and what’s fresh, which simultaneously allows their clientele to engage in a cultural food experience, not only eating in a “green” way, but also encouraging them to try the local cuisine. Jackfruit is a great example of this here in Sri Lanka, which is often used as a meat replacement and can be prepared in almost a dozen different ways (and somehow every single one tastes completely different!). When you go with a sustainable luxury hotel, the level of the quality of ingredients isn’t just top of the line in terms of taste, but in terms of its contribution to your and the planet’s health, and I think that’s what people want these days.

Bed & Bath

This is along the same vein, but nowadays our society is defining luxuriousness by the “organicness” of not just food products, but basically everything (except for clothing, but, as you know, we’re working on that one!). Sustainable luxury hotels focus on having bedding and bath products being chemically untreated, and, again, locally sourced. The cinnamon smell of the locally-made body wash at Wild Coast is something I’ll never forget, and I love how incorporating local products across the board allows the experience of a place to be all the more immersive. There are plenty of deliciously-smelling products that aren’t organic or in any way good for the planet, but I’m of the belief that sticking to sustainability in this sector of guest’s experience of a place also heightens the sense of being somewhere truly one-of-a-kind. Even the fact that sustainable hotels are cleaning your rooms with nontoxic eco products creates this kind of “they genuinely care about not just my experience but my health” thinking that, I think, adds to the positive energy and appeal of these sorts of places.

Lack of Garbage

This one is huge for me because there is literally nothing worse to me than littering. I know, I know, people who litter don’t deserve capital punishment, and we’ve all probably done it more than once in our lifetime, but to me it deflates the beauty of even the most stunning place in about a millisecond. Why I always say to Porter when we’re passing through a place riddled with a garbage coastline. It physically hurts me to see, and even if you do your part to throw away what’s lying about it kind of feels like an impossible task. I just feel like there has to be a better way to incentivize developing countries to put their waste in the waste bin, and we need our best minds on that stat!

But back to sustainable hotels…there’s no garbage. Anywhere. Like, zip. From plastic straws to plastic packaging, truly eco hotels steer clear, and that means the grounds are impeccable. This past year we’ve had the chance to work at or with some very special, top tier properties, but just because you’re a five star doesn’t mean guests won’t leave trash on their table or by the pool or even on the ground here or there. At a sustainable luxury hotel, though, this literally cannot happen, because there isn’t any trash to be left, not even so much as a to-go cup. I love this, and I love seeing the inventiveness of sustainable hotels in different parts of the world in how they go about it (at Wild Coast our straws were tiny reusable bamboo sticks, at Gili Lankanfushi, they were metallic). It’s like you’re getting a crash course on how to be “greener” when you return home without even realizing it.

Smoking Policies

This is a quick one, but every sustainable hotel we’ve worked with has had a no smoking policy across the board that I could cheer for. I know this probably isn’t making them super popular with some demographics, but the idea of going to a really nice hotel and then having someone light up next to you at the pool is just totally at odds to me (especially if there are kids around!). Sustainable hotels don’t let that sort of thing happen, and I’m all for it.

Design

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you know that Port and I are big believers in this kind of quirky theory that the more exposure to sunlight the materials around you (and on you) have had, the more positive energy they contain. You can roll your eyes at that, and I totally won’t blame you, but I really think there’s something solid to it, and at sustainable luxury hotels so much of the material and design are focused around reclaimed wood and furniture that’s been made new again that it just kind of carries this warmth to it from the very early stages that makes every room feel more inviting. At a place like Wild Coast it also helps each space stay in tune with the vibe of its location and not at odds with it. The design of a place can be absolutely top tier, but if it’s not really in response to the experience you’re having in a place to me, (and I think to more and more people) it’s not authentic enough for our generation. (This is part of why I think places like Azulik Tulum are so dang popular these days).

Wildlife

This is the last one and really only pertains to sustainable hotels in rural settings, but when you have a sustainable luxury hotel, one that respects its environment in every possible sense, local animals flock to it. Sometimes this is super literal, like in the case of Wild Coast, but whether it’s the beach chickens standing on your feet in the Maldives or monkeys and water monitors padding up to your front door at Tri hotel (more on this place later this week) sustainable hotels attempt to set themselves up so animals feel like you’re on their turf and not the other way around. This means you get to experience wildlife like you probably pictured in your head when you were first planning your trip and discourages guests from engaging in the kind of wildlife experiences that don’t benefit local animals (like elephant rides) because they already feel like they’ve engaged with those animals in the most natural setting imaginable.

So there it is, our two cents (or rupees in this part of the world) on why a sustainable approach to luxury is actually going to edge out the non-sustainable competition in the coming decade. It might be a little optimistic, but the world certainly seems to be heading closer and closer to a tourism industry that really cares about the environment its built within and ensuring its guests walk away feeling as though they truly got to exist in harmony with that environment. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that we’re right…

xx

Anna Lisa & Porter

*Thank you to Wild Coast Tented Lodge for hosting our stay. As always, all thoughts & opinions remain our own.

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