Q&A: Uga vice president Marcelline Paul

by: Felicity Cousins | November 28, 2023

Sri Lankan-owned Uga has six resorts which practice long-term sustainability strategies to address environmental, social, cultural, economic, quality and human rights issues in the country, with a particular focus on communities and the environment. Its Uga Ulagalla resort has one of the largest solar panel farms of any hotel in Sri Lanka and keeps the need to draw power from the grid to a minimum. Sustainable Hotel News caught up with Uga vice president, Marcelline Paul to talk about the GSTC, if luxury can be sustainable, the work it does with Sri Lankan women, and how the country is developing its responsible tourism offering.

Why was it important for Uga to align with the GSTC?

MP: The GSTC is recognised as the global authority on sustainability criteria for hotels, tour operators and destinations. It recognises and credits ‘certification bodies’ like Travelife or Vireo who conduct audits and deliver the official, internationally recognised certification. We think it’s important for the entire industry to align themselves with GSTC. It’s a very comprehensive and integrated approach that looks at all aspects of ‘operational’ sustainability including energy, water, waste, hazardous materials, wildlife, supply, community, legal, marketing and training. The GSTC put us to work on all these tracks which involve the entire company helping create a shift in culture and perspective from top management down to the way we engage with communities around us, supply chains and distributors.

Can luxury really be sustainable?

MP: A resounding yes. Luxury is in the eyes of the beholder, is it not? Service is luxury, privacy is luxury, space is luxury – luxury is not necessarily synonymous with excess or opulence. It’s about ‘shifting perspectives’ both that of the traveller and the staff. Housekeeping is a good example – luxury is not having towels or linen changes on a daily basis and both our clients and our teams need to work together – if you like – to help minimise laundry.

Water and waste management – how do you measure this and its progress?

MP: Travelife provides a framework for monitoring and measuring water and waste. You can only manage what you can measure so it’s all about measuring and keeping records and then being able to compare with your past performance and benchmark against other comparable hotels, not only in Sri Lanka but in ‘peer’ destinations in our case like India, Thailand or Vietnam.

Training staff and setting up or reviewing processes and procedures to minimise the use of water or waste is key, and then the engineering teams at each hotel need to keep records, looking out for peaks and troughs which in the case of water, may be the result of unseen leaks or faulty fittings.

With waste it’s all about reusing or recycling where possible, or finding suitable / certified partners who then dispose of things like oils or e-waste appropriately. We also need to communicate our ethos and intentions to guests who in turn help us reduce consumption.

Does Uga do anything with AI food waste technology? 

MP: Not yet is the short answer – we have not yet implemented AI tech to monitor waste. We are due to ‘rectify’ this next year. Sustainability is a journey and this is something certification bodies tell us – audits are tough but ‘soft’ at the same time – they want to see progress year on year, they want to see action plans. We are still very much on the journey and so much is happening with AI – we are closely following everything to do with tech and how new tech can help us on the journey.

Is Uga single-use plastic free?

MP: Not quite 100 per cent but very close. We removed single use plastic water bottles a very long time ago and we have never used single plastic toiletries. All our water is glass bottled. Some suppliers still deliver in plastic containers but we are working with them on alternatives in some cases and in other cases we’ve simply changed suppliers. We are phasing out clingfilm as well.

You’ve just opened a hotel this month – what sustainable initiatives does it have in place and will all new hotels prioritise sustainability?

MP: All the sustainability practices we have put in place for all other hotels are being implemented at Uga Riva, our new hotel and will be implemented in all our upcoming developments. Our sustainability strategy from a conservation and community development perspective revolves around three pillars – Woman, Water, Wildlife and we look at each hotel through these three lenses.

Our focus at Uga Riva is not only to employ women from the local community, but also to empower women around us when we look at our supplies and also at our experiences. Our new property is situated in Negombo, part of the country we refer to as the ‘coconut belt’ because much of the land is used for coconut cultivation (as well as pepper and pineapple). With this in mind we are developing experiences with the interests of these communities and plantations in mind – such as bike rides, and visits to local farms. We are reaching out to understand the needs and challenges of our local community in terms of healthcare, access to clean water and we are also looking at the wildlife angle as well with a particular focus on birds.

How is Sri Lanka working towards responsible tourism? Are there government initiatives in place?

MP: Yes, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) is the regulatory body for the tourism industry. It has a formal (signed MOU) agreement with GSTC and a contract with one of the official accredited certifiers – Green Destinations. There is a Sustainability Framework and there is a new Tourism Act being drawn that will prioritise sustainability.

Donors, USAID, Australian AID and the EU are heavily involved providing technical assistance to the government across a variety of programmes from helping the Promotions Bureau articulate new sustainable tourism narratives, and sustainable / community driven product development such as the PEKOE Trail ( a 300km hiking trail in the central highlands) to programmes to clean up beaches, helping government agencies like Forestry and Wildlife or the National Child Protection agency reform and advance sustainable practices. Still a long way to go through – but there is definitely much more dialogue amongst stakeholders and more dynamics.

What environmental initiatives does Uga take part in? 

MP: Over the last three generations, the Sri Lankan elephant population has declined by as much as 50 per cent. Listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), current estimates suggest there to be around 6,000 Sri Lankan elephants left on the island, with just under three quarters of these majestic creatures living outside protected areas. Habitat loss, and in particular, deforestation, has squeezed elephant ranges and brought them into conflict with rural communities. In 2019 alone, over 350 elephants perished as a result of an intensifying human-elephant conflict (HEC).

At Uga Ulagalla and Uga Chena Huts we work closely with our local community to help address the issue. In 2020, we partnered up with Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, chair of the Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka. Under his guidance we established the Elephant Research Centre (ERC) where we conduct presentations and workshops to educate travellers as well as jeep drives with expert naturalists in our local area. We also fund projects that alleviate local instances of HEC, such as the establishment of correctly positioned electric fencing, geofencing and community programmes to educate our local villagers.

What’s your wish for sustainability as someone who works in the hotel sector?

MP: Our wish is that Sri Lanka is able to grow sustainably. We strongly believe we need to articulate a new narrative for Sri Lanka Tourism around conservation of our natural assets, the preservation of our heritage and the wellbeing of communities. We would like to see more niche tourism, from wellness to adventure, from culinary to wildlife… stimulating travel to remote communities thereby spreading the tourism dollar more equitably, creating something that lessens our dependency on the limited carrying capacity of our traditional assets like Sigiriya, Temple or the Tooth or Galle Fort (over-tourism).

We would like the government to reform and strengthen the institutions regulating tourism and promoting Sri Lanka, to modernise and be more productive and professional. We strongly believe the country needs to move on from trying to attract ‘numbers’ of tourists to a more quality based approach, which implies understanding customer segments and profiles in a way that we articulate narratives that bring travellers that fit the profiles we want, avoiding the ones we don’t – such as large cruises (other than Colombo) or mass tourism operators.

Uga Riva opened earlier this month.