Balancing luxury and sustainability

By Barbara Bohn

Ho Kwon Ping, more commonly known as K.P. Ho, has seen – and implemented – a lot of change in the Asian hotel sector since he founded Banyan Tree Holdings in 1994. The Singapore-based company, of which he is executive chairman, has about 47 hotels and resorts, along with spas, retail and golf courses in 24 countries. Ho spoke with HOTELS shortly after exiting the stage at HICAP (Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific) in Hong Kong last week, where he received a lifetime achievement award.

HOTELS: Some of the panel discussions this week have touched on the double-edged sword of tourism and sustainability: Hotel development and tourism can support local communities, but they also impact fragile environments. How do you advise hoteliers to manage?

K.P. Ho: Most management companies (are) quite large and quite global in view, so they’ve probably gotten a pretty progressive attitude toward sustainability. But owners are not necessarily the same way, and particularly in resort areas, construction companies are not necessarily that aware. Neither are architects. You’ve got architects who plan beautiful, humongous projects, but it requires completely flattening a piece of land and clearing the soil. The contractor then pushes all the soil away and the soil washes down to the sea and destroys coral, etc.

K.P. Ho

My take on this is that sustainability for tourism projects in beautiful, pristine areas is not just the responsibility of the operator. The operator’s capability to affect things is actually relatively marginal – let’s not use so much soap, don’t change your linen, we won’t continue to use plastic – that’s all fine and good as a continuing exercise, but it’s the one-off things like when the contractor razes all the trees because it’s easier to build, then he’ll replant some trees but they’ll all be baby trees compared to the huge forest, or the owner, who just wants to make money and just packs as much as he can inside, so in any tourism project there’s got to be a lot more players involved who believe in the sustainability of the project, starting from designers to owners to operators.

Banyan Tree Lang Co 

H: Is the conversation easier to have today than it has been in years past?

KPH: Sure. I think the owners were the most difficult people. Owners and contractors. Designers were on the bandwagon early on, management companies for sure, construction companies generally are not very green, and owners in Asia have not been very green. To put it another way, everybody is green until the greenness changes to the color of money… If you can be green without any sacrifice, everybody wants to be green. But when there’s a trade-off, that’s the real test. And I think owners, by and large, if there’s a test of greenness, they’ll sacrifice one green for the other green.

Banyan Tree Samui

H: How would you say the definition of luxury has changed? How do you see it changing in the future, especially in Asia?

KPH: I think luxury across the world, in consumer goods as well as in hotels, has changed. Luxury in the past was for people who were less secure about their economic status. Luxury was a marker of your wealth. And therefore it had to be highly visible… Perhaps I am speaking as an economist, but it’s understandable for generations of people who were impoverished by the war, in Europe or in Asia, to need to show how far they’ve come. They need to show they have made it. So luxury was a marker of status.

And markers have come to be overt. You still have them today, with luxury products like Louis Vuitton. You want to own a Louis Vuitton because it’s branded. You have to have that logo there. But more and more, among people who are more confident of their social-economic status, millennials for example, in Europe and America and here, are more confident about that.

Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru

So to me now, my tagline that we use in our hotels is choice is luxury. To be in a situation where you can choose. If you are really, really poor, you can’t choose anything at all. But you look at the millennials today, they’re not super-rich, but they embody this notion of luxury. My kids will never be caught dead drinking a McDonald’s coffee. They have to have a Starbucks … because they are more discerning about coffee, not that it’s expensive. They’re happy to take a low-cost carrier because what difference does it make to get from one place to another, but they will only stay in a hotel that is great. Or they will go shopping and they will buy something from Zara, because it’s kind of cute, but they’ll pair it with something from Prada, because it’s beautiful. They have the self-confidence not to use luxury as a marker or a symbol of status, but as something that expresses their ability to choose, and it expresses their lifestyle.

That’s why luxury is very experiential now. That’s why tourism talks about experiential tourism because you want to experience new things. That to you is luxury now. Not just staying in a fancy hotel. To go for a trek in Timbuktu, because that is something that makes you feel richer. There’s more authenticity about what luxury is all about. Not just physical status symbols.

 Lăng Cô

H: Experiential, though, also means that there are more people trekking through and having an impact on fragile environments. Is there a better approach?

KPH: My feeling is that the danger for Asia and Africa overall and other countries is that as there is more mass tourism, there is going to be much more degradation of the environment.

One possible reaction would be let’s stop everybody traveling. That’s not good for these economies. So the question is how to do it sustainably. I’ve always been an opponent of the localism movement you have in America and in Europe where in order to make the carbon footprint small, let’s not travel. Let’s not buy bananas from Guatemala, let’s just buy them from down the road. That’s fine and great for a rich country to say, but if poor countries can no longer export their products, even though they are cheaper, people won’t buy them, because they say the carbon footprint is too big, or people won’t travel…

But the solution for it shouldn’t be ‘don’t fly airplanes anymore.’ The solution for consumers should be once (airlines, for example) do develop a viable way of travel, but it might be more expensive, support it. Go in a more expensive way of traveling because it’s helping the environment to be possible.

So essentially the answer is that sustainability is critical, but we shouldn’t just take the faddish idea of sustainability and immediately choose what in the short term seems to be the most sustainable, because it can actually devastate people’s lives.


Banyan Tree Holdings was founded with the core value of driving sustainable development. By adopting EarthCheck's rigorous framework for benchmarking and certification, Banyan Tree Hotel & Resorts are able to deliver sustainable tourism outcomes as energy emissions, water use and waste production are managed and closely monitored and benchmarked against industry best practice.

EarthCheck helps destinations and organisations across the world to be not only sustainable but profitable enterprises which are good for the planet, good for the communities in which they operate and good for business. Most importantly everything that EarthCheck undertakes is underpinned by evidence based scientific data and performance based metrics.