MAIN STREET — Increasingly a hotel’s environmentally-friendly policies are becoming just as important as its pool, spa or proximity to main attractions.

Research shows that more tourists and meeting planners are paying attention to their impact on the environment and are booking trips that offer opportunities to make a positive, lasting impression on a destination. The Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), a nonprofit funded by City Hall to help promote Santa Monica as a tourist destination, wants to capitalize on this growing trend by raising awareness about a community that has embraced going green.

“We have been a green destination long before it was trendy,” said Kim Baker, director of marketing for the CVB. “[City Hall] developed the Sustainable City Plan in 1994, long before ‘The Inconvenient Truth’ came out, before green washing and all the celebrities got behind it.”

“It’s an infrastructure thing,” Baker added. “[Living sustainably is] built into the fabric of the community. We live and breathe it.”

But it’s not only the city’s policies that protect the environment.

In addition the ban on smoking in outdoor dining areas and public parks and the use of alternative fuels to power the Big Blue Bus, the city also value social responsibility.

Earlier this year, CVB staff decided to put their words into practice. Instead of shipping their traditional tradeshow booth and materials to the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress conference in Vancouver, the CVB used what it earned in savings and purchased shoes for kids in need. CVB partnered with Santa Monica-based TOMS Shoes, which matched the donation with $12,000 worth of shoes going to kids at the Virginia Avenue Project, as well as those living in third world countries.

“Being chosen as the recipients of Santa Monica CVB’s donation is an incredible gift to our kids. It sends a strong message to them that their community and the bigger world care about them,” said Shelly Wood, executive director of the Virginia Avenue Project, a local nonprofit geared towards mentoring at-risk youth.

Sustainable tourism refers to a level of tourism activity that can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the socio-cultural, economic and natural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Santa Monica relies heavily on tourism business, with more than 3.8 million people visiting the city each year from outside Los Angeles County.

These visitors spend $788 million annually, and bring in hotel tax revenues of $20 million to the city, according to the CVB. Approximately 11,500 jobs are supported by the tourism industry.

The shift towards more sustainable travel took place in 2005-06, said Brian Mullis, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit dedicated to educating businesses, destinations and travelers about ways to conserve and preserve.

Market research shows that at least two-thirds of people walking into a travel agency today are looking to make a positive impact on the places they visit, essentially traveling with a purpose. More people are becoming familiar with the term “carbon footprint.”

“What we found is that sustainability to a large extent has become part of the corporate and consumer culture, having evolved past what was predicted to be a fad,” Mullis said. “More and more industry leaders are accounting for their impact on community and the environment.”

“More travelers are aligning purchasing decisions with their values.”

That means meeting planners are looking for hotels that are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, that offer organic, locally-grown meals and use environmentally-friendly cleaning products. Meeting planners are also looking for communities in which they can easily volunteer their time, such as serving food at a local homeless shelter or donating old suits to Chrysalis, which helps the unemployed in Santa Monica find work.

“Social responsibility is a hot topic,” Baker said. “When companies are coming into a city to do business, many are asking themselves what are they doing to better the community they are visiting. Santa Monica has many opportunities to volunteer, whether its helping children or protecting the environment through Heal the Bay. Many of our staff and board members serve on nonprofits in the community and we are able to help make that match for visitors wanting to give back.”

For the leisure traveler looking to relax and have fun, there are plenty of green options when it comes to hotel stays.

The Sheraton-Delfina, the first major hotel to receive City Hall’s sustainable certification, uses oxidized water as a cleaning fluid. The hotel has an electric car to drive guests to local destinations and offers parking discounts to people who drive electric cars or hybrids. Employees also clean stretches of Pico Boulevard, picking up litter and cigarette butts.

“In almost every way we are always thinking about what we can do to be greener,” said Kara Altice-Montes, general manager for the hotel. “We have a green meetings program where we are able to provide green aspects to events. We have water coolers instead of water bottles, offer recycled paper if needed … .”

Megan Kelly, director of marketing and sales for The Ambrose, the first LEED-certified hotel (existing building) in the United States, said her employees take pride in being sustainable, as do the guests. The hotel hired a green meetings planner to help coordinate and implement sustainable policies. The kitchen serves food grown locally and organically. There’s beach cruisers available for guests to rent so they don’t have to drive and a shuttle for carpooling. The hotel also donates goods to homeless groups.

“I think there are some people to whom sustainability is very important to them and others it may just be an afterthought,” Kelly said. “We have the opportunity when they come to Santa Monica to educate them about being sustainable and living in a responsible way and that’s the great thing about our city. It’s a really fun place to visit and you can stay at a luxury hotel but still be making responsible decisions.”

at first glance, tourism may seem like an enemy of sustainability. To travel, one needs to take some form of transportation that will most likely increase carbon emissions and contribute to global warming. The excess associated with leisure travel also seems to be in conflict with conservation.

However, Mullis said traveling can also help promote sustainability, with tourists becoming exposed to natural habitats that they may not have been aware of before. Falling in love with the natural beauty of a destination can stick with a guest for the rest of their life and encourage them to live a green lifestyle. Also, more reserves or national parks could be created because countries see the value they have in attracting guests.

Mullis said more airlines are offering carbon offsets, and some are experimenting with alternative fuels, which can help lessen the guilt associated with traveling. He said more needs to be done at the federal level to create mandatory reductions in emissions.

The good news is that more destinations around the world are starting to promote sustainability, Mullis said, even if it is for somewhat selfish reasons.

“They want travelers to believe in sustainability because they tend to stay longer and spend more.”

And isn’t that the goal for any destination?

kevinh@smdp.com

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