Nature can be found where it is least expected. Cities, among the world’s most popular tourist destinations for decades, are increasingly emphasizing their green, natural areas to enhance their appeal and capitalise on their environmental assets. Concrete wastelands have become green oases, plants have sprouted on walls and rooftops and rusting infrastructure has blossomed into gardens. No two ways about it: green is gaining ground in cities — even in hotels!
What is urban ecotourism?
Ecotourism is a form of sustainable tourism. Traditional ecotourism involves natural rather than urban environments, but lately that has been changing.
Traditional ecotourism gives tourists a chance to observe nature up close and enjoy its benefits. Urban ecotourism shares the same goals — but in the heart of the city. It could also be defined as a specific kind of tourism spawned by the growing number of green oases in big cities.
Contrary to popular belief, urban ecotourism has many advantages compared to its country cousin. Ecotourism in natural settings often requires building infrastructure to accommodate visitors. Although these facilities are often designed to have the smallest possible environmental impact, they can still damage the very places that people in search of communing with nature come to see. In cities, they already exist, and in sufficient number to cope with large crowds of visitors.
Moreover, traditional ecotourism appeals to people already aware of environmental and sustainable tourism issues. In contrast, urban ecotourism can raise the consciousness of tourists less attuned to these issues and introduce them to sustainable practices.
Urban ecotourism reconciles concrete and nature. Urbanites get more enjoyment out of their cities when they go around a corner and see trees, flowers, a beehive and a birdhouse back where they belong after having long been banished from their environment. Ecotourism rolls out the green carpet not just to mitigate air pollution, but sound and visual pollution as well.
Might this be a mere fad? Apparently not: it looks like ecotourism is here to stay. As the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP 21, takes place in Paris from 30 November to 11 December, many cities are making their voices heard to show their commitment to the planet's environmental future. And COP 21 has a tall order: finding a legally binding global agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C.
As part of the "Green Near Me" campaign, the City of Paris has developed a crowdsourcing app that citizens can use to report locations in their neighbourhoods they think could be turned into green spaces. In Amsterdam, one idea borders on the bizarre: phosphorus recovered from urine in some public toilets is recycled into fertiliser.
The lungs of city life
Central Park is famous for being New York's green lung, but the growth of urban ecotourism aims to breathe new life into every city and draw tourists as eager for culture as they are for fresh air.
In Nice, in the South of France, the Promenade du Paillon, a 12-hectare green walkway boasting 1,600 trees, 6,000 shrubs and 50,000 perennials, has replaced an old coach station. A reflecting pool and a mist plateau opposite the Mediterranean refreshes strollers on their walks.
On New Zealand's east coast, ecotourism took an even more surprising turn when a penguin colony adopted the town of Oamaru as their home. The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is a delight for locals as well as tourists, who watch in wonder as the birds waddle back to the beach at sunset after spending a long day in the sea.
Entire eco-quarters, veritable green islands changing the face of cities, are popping up around the world. In London, for example, environmentally-minded tourists visit BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy (fossil) Development), an entirely residential eco-quarter south of the Thames that has achieved outstanding results, reducing its environmental footprint by 50%
The charms of city farms
A growing number of urbanites are players in their cities' green revolutions, planting flowers on the smallest available plots of land to brighten up their neighbourhoods. Some have even had the idea of reintroducing agriculture into the city: a flourishing concept that follows the locavore trend. Urban farming is booming. In addition to individual or community vegetable gardens cropping up here and there, actual farms are being created in cities today. Chicago, for example, boasts the world's biggest vertical (and indoor) farm: FarmedHere. In Tokyo, the Pasona Company has turned 16,500m² of office space into a farm growing rice, vegetables, fruits and even spices.
Green hotels, too?
AccorHotels knows a thing or two about kitchen gardens! The Group encourages hotels, whatever the available surface area, to cultivate a space and serve guests the harvested products. In France, the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel probably has the city's biggest kitchen garden: 650m² of fruits, vegetables, flowers and aromatic herbs as well as four beehives and a chicken coop — ideal for fresh eggs for Sunday brunch! The ingredients in some of the dishes dreamed up by chef Andrew Wigger of The Frame, the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel Hotel's California-inspired restaurant, are 100% from the garden.
The hotel is by no means an outlier. Nearby, a stone's throw from Sacré-Coeur, the Mercure Paris Montmartre grows its own grapes on the rooftop garden, echoing the famous Paris hill's vineyard. Further south in France, bees buzzing around on the roof of the Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port, which has five hives, make honey that guests will slather on freshly baked bread at breakfast a few floors below.
Even more surprising, the Novotel Siam Square in Bangkok, Thailand produces spirulina, a microorganism high in protein and amino acids. In Côte d'Ivoire, tomatoes, onions and other vegetables growing on the Ibis Abidjan Plateau hotel's rooftop terraces are bursting with sunshine — but not pesticides!
Nothing could be more beautiful than green spaces. For example, a magnificent natural pool surrounded by greenery awaits swimmers at Switzerland's Novotel Lausanne Bussigny. French botanist and researcher Patrick Blanc has designedgreen walls that cool down hotel interiors in the heart of cities: the one at the Sofitel Dubai Palm Resort & Spa boasts 170 varieties of plants from France. The Novotel Auckland Airport also has a beautiful example in its lobby — a lovely way to welcome tourists to New Zealand and give them a beautiful glimpse of urban ecotourism before heading out to see the Oamaru penguins.