During the tumultuous April months of 2020, as large portions of the globe went into lockdown, the internet became awash with images of a world cleansing itself from the stain of human activity. Pictures of crystal blue Venetian waters and profoundly clear views of the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas were shared online, racking up millions of likes on Twitter and Instagram. 

For many, those sights were a powerful reminder of what could be achieved if big business took a backseat and climate change became policy makers’ number one priority. For others, those photographs simply served as positive motifs, brightening up otherwise gloomy in trays stuck in a pandemic-stricken news cycle. 

Fast forward 18 months, and climate change is back on the news agenda as extreme weather events have decimated countries across the globe. Between floods that devastated parts of China, Germany and Belgium, record-breaking heatwaves in North America and Pakistan, and wildfires blazing across swathes of Turkey, Greece and Italy, the earth, it seems, is far from ‘healing’. In fact, it is in terminal pain. 

As if the scope and scale of such events wasn’t enough, there is now ample science to support the notion that these extreme weather catastrophes are caused by human activity. Speaking of the heatwave that sent temperatures in the Canadian village of Lytton soaring to 49.6ºC, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) argued that it would be “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”. Meanwhile, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clarified that a future plagued by drastic fluctuations in temperature is now “inevitable”. For policymakers and political maestros, the agenda could not be clearer: not only does more need to be done to cut waste, reduce carbon emissions and build more sustainable cities, but preparations for a new reality of fires, floods and heatwaves are well under way. Like other industries, the hospitality sector has been striving to be more sustainable, cutting down its greenhouse gas emissions, which accounts for around 1% of the global total, according to a 2018 UN World Tourism Organisation report.

Driven by the International Tourism Partnership (now the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance), which has devised targets for hotels aligned to the Paris intergovernmental climate agreement – along with rising energy costs and public scrutiny – hotels have strived to avoid a negative environmental footprint. For some, this has meant making practical changes to how these ventures are run, with groups such as IHG pursuing plastic reduction methods and updating waste recycling initiatives. In other quarters, the sustainability trend is redefining what a hotel should be: birthing an increasing number of eco-resorts crafted for environmentally conscious consumers. These projects run the gamut from ambitious carbon neutral resorts powered by renewable energy sources to hotels built with sustainable resources and small hideaways located in eco-reserves.

Not only are these ventures being built with increasing scope and scale – particularly in places such as the Middle East where ‘sustainable tourism’ is a guiding mantra – but world-renowned architects are being enlisted to build them. In Puerto Escondido, Mexico, for instance, Alberto Kalach’s Casona Sforza hotel has generated headlines for its flowing design centred around a series of round-roofed brick volumes, specifically calibrated to build a stylish environmentally responsible hospitality venture.

Others, such as the prolific Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley, have found fame by advocating a more sustainable approach to hotel construction. In Bensley’s case this means repurposing train carriages into luxury suites in Thailand’s 40-hectare Khao Yai National Park.

An eco-friendly approach

Nestled high up in the Swiss Alps in the hamlet of Les Giettes in Valais, resides the Whitepod eco-luxury hotel. Comprised of eighteen pods and a series of alpine chalets, the project is the work of David Montalba, founder of an eponymous architecture and design company based in Santa Monica and Lausanne. Having grown up in Switzerland, Montalba was invariably drawn to the challenge of working in the alps, a part of the world he has a fond affinity for. He also saw a “connectivity” between Whitepod and the rugged, rolling hills of California.

“They’re not necessarily the same scale or angle,” he explains. “[But] there’s this sense of openness and contrast between buildings, and the landscape is something that’s always really been profound to me and our practice. We really liked the idea and approach of trying to touch the earth gently with a light footprint.”

Montalba’s design takes the form of a versatile sustainable resort built around the novel concept of ‘modern eco-luxury’ that is sensitive to history and place. Alongside the pods, which are a contemporary take on age old ritual-centred dwellings, Montalba’s nine eco-chalets (soon to become 21) are a fresh take on vernacular mountain buildings, constructed from larch from local forests. An emphasis on energy efficiency permeates all aspects of their design: triple glazing combined with radiant-heated concrete flooring helps combat heat loss, while water supplies are obtained from a well filled from mountain streams and snow melt to generate electricity.

“Ultimately it’s about not being wasteful, harnessing energy and creating the spaces and lifestyle we want with a minimal negative impact on the climate, the environment and the people around us.”

David Montalba, Montalba Architects

Likewise, the construction process was meticulously devised to leave as “light a footprint” as possible with wooden panels and a zinc roof fabricated nearby before being assembled on site.

As Montalba puts it, while sustainability “means a lot of different things”, one thing all of these myriad project’s share is a focus on how energy is obtained. “Ultimately it’s about not being wasteful, harnessing energy and creating the spaces and lifestyle we want with a minimal negative impact on the climate, the environment and the people around us,” he says. “So, things like being conscientious of where we’re getting the materials from are a crucial aspect of sustainable design.”

A sustainable answer

With sea levels rising and technology capable of harnessing wind power, the rise of the self-sustaining floating hotel has become another part of eco-centred hospitality, enabling complex, multifaceted properties to reside on water. While it might be more of a vessel than a hotel as such, the ‘anthenea’ pod designed by naval architect Jean-Michel Ducancelle is billed as the world’s first floating hotel suite. Fitted with five south-facing solar panels, the saucer-shaped invention harnesses the sun’s rays to power its electric motors and mechanical systems, making it a half-hotel half-boat hybrid.

Meanwhile, Finnish architectural firm Sigge architects is currently working to complete 16 floating hotels to serve tourists and fans that will be visiting Qatar for the FIFA World Cup 2022. Based in Qetaifan island in close proximity to Lusail International Stadium, the properties are billed as a sustainable solution to accommodate some of the 1.5 million tourists expected to attend the event.

For Turkish architectural design studio Hayri Atak (HAADS), floating hotels might be the answer to a more sustainable form of energy generation in their own right. The group recently unveiled its plan to build a floating eco-hotel capable of powering its own electricity through a propeller like motion.

Spanning over 35,000m2, with a vast 700m2 lobby area, the cylindrical structure aims to harness tidal energy by rotating 24 hours a day in a vortex-like pattern, utilising the water current and converting the energy into electricity. Solar panels situated on the roof provide additional power input, while the exterior collects rainwater for reuse, keeping on-site gardens irrigated rather than going to waste.

While the group insist that “feasibility studies at the implementation stage are still in progress”, it plans to launch the first leg of the project in Qatar, setting a completion date of 2025. If successful, HAADS envisage the floating concept as a blueprint that can be developed in alternative locations. “[The] Eco Floating Hotel is not limited to being a project that is planned to take place only in Qatar,” says Kübra Turk, a spokeswoman for the group.

Along with Qatar, Middle Eastern states stand at the forefront of the green tourism revolution as they seek to diversify their assets and transition their economies away from black gold. Saudi Arabia is developing several major ecological tourism projects, including an outlandish Red Sea Project comprising an archipelago of 90 islands, mountains, sand dunes and dormant volcanoes. To ferry guests around a landmass that resembles roughly the size of Belgium, an entire transport network, including an airport, will be powered by renewable energy. Elsewhere in other countries hard hit by the financial depression caused by the pandemic, architects and developers will need to work hard to justify to investors why building more sustainable, energy-efficient hotels is not only good for the planet but for the bottom line.

“I think the best thing we can do to push sustainability is to show clients the value and return on investment that it has, not only from a marketing perspective, but from an actual use perspective,” Montalba says. “Oftentimes, it just means a little more thoughtfulness and investment upfront.”

Of course, as Montalba notes, while building grandstanding eco-resorts from scratch is a noble pursuit, often the most sustainable thing developers can do is reuse existing buildings.

“The most sustainable thing we can do is reuse buildings that exist and not build new buildings. As much as I like making new buildings, I don’t have such an ego that I feel like I need to make my mark everywhere,” Montalba says. “I’m more excited about finding opportunities for clients that are creative solutions through design. There needs to be more thought put into that and more appreciation for that. We live in a world where you can order something and it’ll be here in an hour. Everything’s just so instantaneous. It just shouldn’t be that way.”


The number of floating hotels Sigge architects is working on to complete for the FIFA World Cup 2022.

Sigge architects


Percentage of the hospitality industry’s greenhouse gas emission out of the global total.

UN World Tourism Organisation