Last resort

Hyatt closes its Alila resort in Zhejiang – but what was the eco-problem?


No longer taking reservations: the Alila resort in Anji

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mark Hoplamazian, chief executive of Hyatt Hotels, told the newspaper that he was so burnt out during the pandemic even a carefully cultivated spiritual life couldn’t save him from the stress. “I have to admit to you, I’ve been through a number of really stressful periods that I literally couldn’t actually access that mindful moment I had come to rely on so much,” said Hoplamazian, 57, a regular practitioner of meditation.

It’s no wonder that Hoplamazian feels anxious. In addition to the pandemic-induced global slowdown in tourism, Hyatt has had a different problem in China. In late February, its boutique hotel brand Alila announced that it was closing down its hotel in Anji in Zhejiang province. Without giving too many details, a brief statement said the venue had ceased operations “due to local planning adjustments,” although it added that anyone who had reserved a room would be refunded. Alila is now left with only one other Chinese resort in Wuzhen, also in Zhejiang.

Opened in 2016, the luxury hotel was located in Anji, a quiet little backwater about a two-hour drive from Hangzhou. The resort traded on its close proximity to the lush bamboo groves and white tea plantations that Anji has become famous for (it’s believed some of the scenes in the Oscar-winning movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed in Anji).

It was also right next to the Fushi Reservoir, offering guests a beautiful view over the water.

But being atop an important source of local drinking water has become a problem for the resort. Over the years, the quality of the water in the reservoir has deteriorated so rapidly that locals were not even allowed to visit the area. Human activity and discharged waste from the hotel only added to the pollution.

Hotel management expert Xia Zifan told Jiemian, a news portal, that over the years a lot of residents have complained to the local government about the pollution generated by the hotel vis-a-vis the Fushi Reservoir, though the concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears. “Hotel investors often prioritise economic opportunities over environmental issues. That is not a long-term solution,” she chided.

Beijing Business Today acknowledged that the issue only came to light when a new environmental inspection team was sent to Anji to examine the water quality.

“The Alila Anji Hotel is located next to a local drinking water reservoir. This year, an inspection team from the central environmental protection department came to Anji and pointed out that some of the conservation methods were improper… Since the Anji government has always taken the safety of drinking water sources as one of the largest projects to ensure people’s livelihoods, we then took the initiative to protect the environment, choosing to shut down the Alila Hotel,” a local official told the newspaper.

In the last few years, local governments around the country have worked hard to counter water pollution, closing down venues that violated environmental regulations. In tourist hotspots like Hainan, Yunnan and Qinling (a mountain range in Shaanxi province), older hotels that came under scrutiny were forced to close.

More recently, the Hisea Floating Hotel in Fujian province – which charged up to Rmb7,000 ($1,082) a night to guests – became a hot topic on the internet when it was closed down for causing extensive damage to the surrounding marine ecosystem.

“Hotels in general are extremely destructive to the environment. Building a hotel in the middle of the ocean not only takes up maritime space, but a lot of local hotels’ sewage systems are not as sophisticated as foreign hotels, so they could generate a lot of environmental pollution,” Xia further told Jiemian.

Meanwhile, the Anji government says it will fully compensate Alila for the closure of the resort. “We have communicated with Alila Hotel many times and the hotel operator has agreed with our disposal plans. At present, Alila has also agreed that it will use the compensation to build a new resort within the county. It will use the funds to carry out relocation planning and construction,” the official told Beijing Business Today.

Industry insiders reckon that with the increased attention on environmental issues, developers now have to consider the costs of conservation in their budgets. “If a hotel wants to develop sustainably, it must also consider the environmental and ecological impact of the location,” explained Zhao Huanyan, a hotel consultant. “Now that the conception of conservation has become so prevalent, developers must seek approval from relevant environmental protection departments before the commencement of any hotel project. After all, nature is shared by everyone and should not be used for private profit.”

Whether the local government in Anji can give Hyatt a similarly spectacular (but non-polluting) location is probably a prime concern for the US hotel group. Additionally there are the revenues foregone during the relocation and construction of the new Alila – as well as the issue of how to compensate and retain staff during this rebuilding period.

But the shuttering of the Anji hotel hasn’t stopped the brand’s expansion plans for China. The hotel chain is planning to open two more resorts in the country, one at Wuhan’s East Lake and another lakeside hotel in Suzhou’s scenic Taihu area. Hopefully, Hyatt’s Hoplamazian will rediscover his sense of calm when these new properties open for business.

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