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Is the knowledge gap too wide to innovate responsible accommodation?

February 28, 2017
Harold Goodwin
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Is the knowledge gap too wide to innovate responsible accommodation?

Christopher Warren 9th February, 2017

There is currently insufficient research to assist the transition for tourist accommodation to become a low carbon sector that also uses water sustainably. After reviewing 110 academic resource-saving studies  Christopher Warren and Susanne Becken found significant research gaps that leave us still unclear how accommodation can make deep game changing savings.

What the Gaps cover

These gaps include:

  • renewable energy
  • renewable water
  • non-hotel accommodation types
  • building design
  • climate and cultural influence
  • smart technology
  • guest engagement

Lack of Data

They could only find a small number of studies which detail consumption amounts, so there is insufficient data to establish benchmarks and track savings (only 15 studies provided energy and 13 studies offered water benchmarks). This limitation is made worse by the lack of studies which measure the influence of seasonality and climate over time (an important when considering Climate Change and adaptation).

They found many studies lacked detail that allows us to unambiguously interpret findings. Overall the studies used different measures and terms making it hard to compare results and build a body of knowledge. Only a few studies indicated a return on investment, which is worrying as new technologies tend to be sold on the idea of a financial benefit.

Without clarity, deep savings become more difficult because there are in fact a multitude of factors which influence consumption. This demonstrates that technical efficiencies alone cannot be relied upon as the sole method to save. Building a solid body of knowledge and developing the skills to run accommodation more sustainably is therefore essential; since it is human behaviour that controls resource use by how a firm is run, how savings methods might be organised and how guests can consume less.  To stimulate service innovation we require a more consistent research approach and to link expertise that tests and refines solutions.

Lack of Coverage

Tourism is a global sector yet most of the research into resource saving at tourist accommodation has been conducted in Europe (38%), Asia (mainly China, 26%) and North America (19%). The Middle East only had two papers and the Southern Hemisphere only records 20% of the total output. Of the eight papers whose primary focus was water saving, none covered the Middle East and Africa. Since local climate, building design and culture are important variables in resource use there is obviously a great need to redress the imbalance and conduct innovative research in the South (see research opportunity below). Likewise there were only six papers focused on guest engagement (tiny when considering guests can account for half of the energy and water used in hotels). Most of the papers concentrated on hotels with a small number covering camp sites, shared economy and small operators. These findings clearly spotlight ‘known unknowns’ which we must address.

Why this is important now

The urgency to bridge the research gap is also a global challenge as tourist accommodations’ environmental footprint is very likely to be underestimated. This is because the shared economy has been outpacing traditional accommodation growth, and statistics exclude unofficial hosts, so the size of the sector is far larger than authorities estimate and more complex. Therefore the level of consumption, versus aspirational carbon reduction targets, may present a larger challenge than originally thought. The sector’s consumption is further aggravated by ageing building stock and changing climates. Meanwhile, tourism grows exponentially, so while an accommodation may show energy and water savings per guest night, absolute resource use could remain unchanged. Without holistic knowledge to help the sector innovate and become more sustainable, consumption is most likely to rise and with it carbon emissions and water use.

What we should do

Tourism should now establish collaboration networks between scientists, practitioners, and entrepreneurs which bridge the knowledge gaps and accelerate sustainability-oriented innovation.

How we might do it

Findings from our study lead to the following proposed research framework (see figure below - adapted from Warren & Becken, 2017). If we want to close the research gap and generate new knowledge then we need a holistic approach that includes key influencing elements, more consistently presented findings, to share and built upon. Networks linking expertise must conduct research which addresses clear savings targets and identify paths to achieve them (e.g . if we want to save 50%, then we need to take this action). The ICRT-Australia is conducting an international research study on responsible service innovation and is an example of collaboration; expressions of interest to participate are welcomed. The knowledge gap will not be too wide if we start collaborating now.

Proposed integrative framework to advance research and theory of energy and water savings in tourist accommodation. Adapted from Warren & Becken, 2017

Adapted from Warren & Becken, 2017 Int. Journal of Tourism Research

ROE (Return On Environment)

For more information contact:
Christopher Warren

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