The Report

Can luxury resorts solve the global water crisis?

Can luxury resorts solve the global water crisis?

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Decades ago, only the rich drank imported bottled water. Now, two women are hoping the elite will start a new (old) trend: drinking local water.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, there are around 12.7 million hotel rooms around the world, and another 1.3 million are in development, half of them being built in the Middle East and Africa. These days, bottled water is as common a sight in hotel rooms as thin-screen televisions and mass-produced art. In most developing parts of the world, bottled water is increasingly sought after, both by locals and visitors.

Given that hotels generally charge for bottled water, this represents an important revenue stream. But there is a negative side: hotels must deal with a flood of empty single-use plastic bottles. In coastal areas, some plastic bottles invariably end up at sea, where they contribute to a marine pollution problem that is turning into a catastrophe for sea life. Shipping water also is costly, generates carbon emissions and most plastic bottles are made using virgin resin, derived from oil.

In 2008, a forward-thinking hospitality executive decided to rectify the wastefulness of single-use plastic bottles at his luxury hotel properties. Sonu Shivdasani banned the import and sale of the bottles at his Soneva resorts. Instead, the company filters, bottles and sells its own water onsite, in bottles that are then collected and reused. This eliminates the emissions associated with transporting bottled water into the resorts, located in the Maldives and Thailand.

Now, a startup is tapping into this same well of thinking. Whole World Water, which officially launched on World Water Day, March 22, is hoping to bring the practice of onsite water treatment and bottling to the wider hospitality industry.

The effort is the work of Karena Albers and Jenifer Willig, a pair of environmentalists and entrepreneurs who count Shivdasani, entrepreneur Richard Branson, industrial designer Yves Behar, actor Edward Norton and environmentalist David de Rothschild among the influential supporters and trustees of their effort.

While Whole World Water is being established as a for-profit, member-based venture for resorts, it has also created the Whole World Water Fund, a charitable organization, through which all participating resorts contribute 10 percent of their proceeds from the water sales. The fund, administered by ClimateCare, will then use the funds to develop water treatment infrastructures in communities around participating resorts. (This model is similar to one used by Shivdasani, who also donates proceeds from water sales to clean water projects –- albeit he contributes a larger share, at 50 percent.)

Turning tides

Albers and Willig acknowledge that packaging waste and emissions generated from food transport are major issues that defy easy solutions, but they see the hospitality industry –- particularly luxury resorts –- as agents for change.

"We all have to ask ourselves, when do we get bamboozled into drinking bottled water? But we did. It became the thing to do, especially at high-end resorts," Albers says. Whole World Water, she says, is "trying to get people up to speed on what we need to do to protect natural resources."

Karena Albers

That said, Albers and Willig believe they will be more successful if they give consumers a better option to plastic-bottled water rather than trying to immediately force a change of habit.

"People are buying bottled water [at high-end resorts] more than they are asking for tap" in places such as restaurants, Willig says. "So we said let's offer a brand that satisfied that request, and this way we can wean them off branded bottled water."

The hope is that consumers will come to find the Whole World Water option a more chic, appealing one. At the same time, perhaps they'll start to think differently about single-use plastic bottles. At the same time, Albers and Willig want to provide a new option to travelers who might consider bottled water the only safe option based on the part of the world they're visiting. On some remote islands or in developing parts of the world, "there are not a lot of options so people are more comfortable with branded bottled water," Albers sats. "But in urban settings such as New York, there is definitely more demand for tap water."

Just as local food has captured the attention of travelers, so can water –- as long as it is clean and safe. "We're in a big movement over local food," Albers says. "Why did water get taken out of that equation? Why shouldn't water be local? We will get local water councils cognizant of the fact that municipal water has every right to be as clean as bottled water."

Jenifer Willig

Business plan

Whole World Water has already engaged nearly 20 high-end resorts, including Banyan Tree Hotels, Branson's Virgin Hotels, Sovena and three Ritz Carlton properties. These member companies, and others that join in the future, must agree to three basic conditions: paying a $1,000 annual membership fee (this covers marketing and promotional expenses); installing a secondary water filtering system to further purify the hotel's tap water and then bottle it in the Whole World Water glass bottle, which is later collected and reused; and donating 10 percent of water bottle sales to the Whole World Water Fund.

Banning sales of single-use branded plastic water bottles from third parties is not a membership requirement. "We are not mandating that they can't sell bottled water in plastic," Willig says. "We have to walk before we can run."

It's up to members to decide whether they'll continue offering plastic bottles, therefore, but they'll all likely push the Whole World Water option, and not just because its good for marketing purposes. According to Whole Water World, hotels and resorts can boost their own revenue by becoming their own water vendors. Based on a case study, the company says switching to onsite bottling can increase a hotel's profits from bottled water by around 22 percent, since the filtration systems are relatively inexpensive. Plus, the resorts can cut shipments of bottled water by using the onsite system, thereby reducing their carbon footprints and waste generated.

The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that travel and tourism contribute around $6 trillion to the global economy, which is around 9 percent of the global GDP. Albers and Willig believe they can attract enough members to Whole World Water to raise $1 billion each year for the Whole World Water Fund, to help the estimated 1 billion people around the world who lack access to clean, safe water sources.

The pair says their goal is to show that if drinking local water –- even water that is perceived to be very unsafe –- can be shown to be safe at a fancy resort, then it can also be done at the municipal level.

They also hope to expand the Whole World Water model beyond water. Many resorts already grow a portion of their own food. Why not add a program to divert a portion of restaurant profits to support sustainable agriculture outside the walls of the resort?

(Thumbnail image courtesy of Creative Commons)

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure