Alexandre (Alex) Tsuk, founder and Chief Experience Officer at BookGreener.com, in this interview shares his thoughts on the current state of tourism sustainability in Bali and Asia. He also reflects on his challenges and achievements as founder and CEO of BookGreener, and presents his new initiative, RefillMyBottle.
- When Alex first heard about sustainability and how his views on the topic have changed since then;
- How BookGreener evolved from a hotel booking site into an active community of 50 hotels in Bali;
- 5 key lessons he has learned from developing BookGreener.com;
- Current trends linked to hotels and sustainability in Asia;
- How the RefillMyBottle initiative helps travellers reduce and avoid plastic waste.
Alex, do you remember the first time you heard about sustainability linked to hotels (or tourism) – and your thoughts back then?
I was running a group of hotels and restaurants in Laos back in 2010 and got asked by an International Aid Organization to speak in front of a group of small Burmese operators on how to promote their properties online. I researched and realized how hard it was for them to stand out from the competition and how much work was needed to meet the expectations of modern travellers. I also realized that there was no dedicated platform to promote responsible tourism properties.
Each ecolabel is promoting their members, but many places are too small, cannot afford or simply do not believe in labels. I thought it would be very useful for travellers wanting to stay green to have one website listing them all, based on a self-assessment.
That’s when the seed got planted.
How has your view on tourism and sustainability changed since then?
For 4 years I developed BookGreener 1.0 – we identified about 4,500 green resorts, listing their eco practices. Unfortunately, the website never got ENOUGH traction, sustainability not being a strong criterion when booking accommodation.
People will always choose where to stay based on price, location and facilities first. As I notice over and over, sustainability is not a criterion to select a property, but it is often the main reason why people return there.
With the emergence of Airbnb and many other websites promoting the sense of place as the main draw to a destination, I can see a shift in the expectations of travellers. They are looking for transformative experiences, rejuvenation. And eco properties are usually one step ahead of the competition in this field.
As the father of two kids, Mia and Oskar, how does being a parent influence your work and thinking, linked to tourism and sustainability?
Good question. My kids asked me once what I was doing for a living and after a few days of reflection, I told them I was making friends. What a cool job to brew friendships every day. BookGreener 2.0 is now an active community of 50 change-makers in the hospitality industry. The members support each other and come up with tangible solutions to local social and environmental challenges. I am proud to see them care about Mama Bali and telling their friends and sometimes strangers of the impact of some destructive behaviours.
You have been building the BookGreener community since October 2012. What was the initial vision and objective? And (how) have those changed since?
The goal has always been the same, make a tangible impact on the idea that if we could make an impact in Bali, Bali being such a famous brand, it could spread to other destinations. If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere!
I believe that sustainability = community. We have started a brotherhood of like-minded business owners, natural givers who all share the same vision for Bali and the desire to take part in a movement for positive change. We are the ones we have been waiting for. By supporting one another, we grow together, solve our challenges and of course, come up with ideas to make an impact. We have created committees on Water, Waste, Soil and Education and the members brainstorm how to tackle challenges related to these topics.
In your view, which are the main tourism sustainability challenges that Bali (where you live) faces today?
Like many destinations nowadays, overtourism has a huge impact on this small island. As in any situation, communities are quick at pointing fingers at the other groups and blame them for… pretty much everything.
The locals claim rightly that all the trouble comes from tourism and that they were living in harmony with better control of their limited resources before foreigners decided to build everywhere. And tourists point the fingers to the locals who throw garbage everywhere, burn their trash etc. Everybody is partly right. The problem is that it leads nowhere, as no one is taking responsibility.
The situation is critical: the grounds of Bali are drying up and every year people are digging deeper to access freshwater (see Bali Water Program for details on the current situation). There is no proper waste management and the rivers and oceans are getting more and more affected. The soils of Bali are also spoiled and more and more land is being sold to build, build, build!
But if you ask me now the main challenge Bali is facing, I would say the lack of collaboration between all the parties involved. It seems like a lot of people are doing great things and want genuinely to make a positive impact, but the efforts are not coordinated.
5 key lessons you have learned from developing the BookGreener project so far?
- It is important to fail fast. It took me four years to pivot BookGreener…
- We are the ones we have been waiting for: no one will rescue us and we can make a change by coming together and having a caring attitude towards each other.
- Profit is always the priority and it needs to be honoured. When we talk to resorts about sustainability, we focus on energy and water efficiency and savings before talking about waste and pollution, which is often not a source of savings.
- Go with the flow: nothing can be achieved if the time, the spirit is not right. Patience is key.
- Always listen and accept to be vulnerable, show up fully, as people appreciate honesty and transparency.
Which aspects of starting, running and growing a responsible (online) tourism business such as the BookGreener.com platform do you find the most difficult?
All three have their joys and pains, it is beautiful to see a group of people come together and achieve amazing things and it is always great to welcome newcomers, eager to give to the community.
Having managed a group of 4 hotels and 7 restaurants in Laos, with 350 employees earlier in your career, which aspects of day-to-day hospitality management did you find the most rewarding? And which the most challenging?
I loved every moment of it and miss it sometimes, the beautiful connections with the team and simple and happy moments we shared. I believe that as management, our goal is solely to take care of our employees, make them happy at work and put ourselves in a position to serve them. It’s a virtuous circle, if the staff is happy, the suppliers, guests, the community is benefiting directly and the profit comes naturally.
Of course, working with people from a different culture is very challenging but by putting myself in a position where I had everything to learn, it made it easier to get accepted.
What achievement with BookGreener are you most proud of so far?
The members initiated Refill Bali, which is now turning into www.refillmybottle.com, a map of where people can refill their water bottles. We developed an app so travellers know where to refill their bottle as they go. A very simple, practical idea and we can measure the impact in terms of the number of bottles saved.
The members of BookGreener are ambassadors of RefillMyBottle, help fund it through local events and help grow the network around their property. Just after 6 months of operation, we received unsolicited funding from a Dutch travel agency – Better Places – and we have opened chapters on other islands of Indonesia and even in Switzerland! If anyone reads this and wants to start their own map of where to refill your water bottle, for free or a minimum fee, get in touch.
Which trends do you observe regarding hotels and sustainability – in Asia especially?
Oh man, it is a hard one. Unfortunately, I don’t see the ship moving in the right direction. Chinese tourists are flooding the market and their expectations in terms of sustainability are still low even though that is changing as well.
The good news is the ones that embrace sustainability win: their staff is happier and turn-over is lower than in non-green hotels, travellers appreciate and reward the properties with great reviews, it becomes a key point of differentiation.
If you look at the ranking on TripAdvisor, the greenest hotels usually make it to the top of the list. The key is not so much to focus on what the hotel is doing in terms of sustainability, eco-efficiency etc. but to emphasize the guest benefits: staff take better care of the guests, the food is better etc.
Thank you, Alex.
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