Luxury with a Purpose: Discover Responsible Villa Rentals
Something is blocking daylight. I look up, sad to see my skylight windows covered by a thin layer of October snow. Winter in Sweden is as certain as taxes. In less than ten seconds, I’m searching for travel destinations where you wear jackets as fashion statements, rather than as means for survival. I picture a luxury beach side villa rental, complete with palm trees and an infinity pool where I rest my arms, gazing towards the sunset as I wax philosophical.
The idea of luxury travel is expanding, ranging from exclusive indulgence to local immersion where unique experiences trump all. No matter what camp you’re in, I have great news. Luxury drives sustainability in a big way. To our readers, the link comes as no surprise, as we further explored it through a feature on sustainable glamping in stunning nature locations.
The luxury sector, aware of generational preference changes, acts aggressively on a wide range of sustainability efforts, covering environmental, social, and cultural issues in the communities they inhabit. The key to success lies in turning it into a seamless and authentic experience, not detracting from the core reason for the visit. These trends will see their way into the overall travel sector, making luxury a perfect case study for travel related companies wishing to capture a bigger market share.
A few months ago, I became aware of an exciting development in the responsible tourism space, a sustainability label for conscious luxury vacation rentals, Qalia. In cooperation with owners and operators, Qalia’s framework allows guests to book a property, safe in the knowledge it conforms with their principles of responsible practices. I reached out to founder and CEO, Marc Ribail and through continuous interaction, it became obvious he has found an incredible opportunity, both in terms of societal benefit, and business. The market is growing from both angles, sustainability and luxury, and making the sustainable choice the default one makes perfect sense.
Having worked for 20 years with luxury rental brands in Asia and Europe, Marc is the right person to lean in. During our conversations, his commitment to sustainable change rang true, a mission to restore balance between our impact as travellers and the ecosystems we find ourselves in.
Marc, you have extensive experience in the luxury villa rental segment on a global level. During that time, has the essence of luxury changed, and if so, how?
Hello Richard and thank you for the opportunity to share my insights on responsible and sustainable tourism in the luxury villa rental industry.
Luxury has witnessed a substantial shift over the past decades. Until the mid 80s, luxury accommodation implied opulence, extravagance, and excess. Luxury villas came far and few between, as the idea of renting a private home owned by a stranger for your holiday had not yet become mainstream.
Then, Ian Schrager invented the concept of boutique hotels; properties not defined by size alone, but also with a more experiential side. It represented the early stage of smaller, more intimate environments, with a quest for subtle and genuine all-round experiences for guests. We went from lavish settings with fairly basic services, compared to the present, to personal decor with a home-away from home feeling, including refined dining and spa treatments. Shortly thereafter, designer hotels followed; and all of a sudden the late 90s became all “design-ish”. I’m very fond of Design Hotels, a marketing company curating exceptional properties, as I used to manage a member property.
Back to luxury villas. Thanks to global economic growth coupled with the expansion of air travel, the period 1995-2008 saw the opening of new and less travelled destinations. This led to rapid and widespread real estate development, with the construction of “luxury” villas available to rent as alternatives to hotels, sometimes with better service and always with a more private setting.
The decade following the 2008 financial crisis saw the emergence of refined services in luxury villas, with hospitality professionals moving from the hotel to the rental industry. Villas became a serious contender in relation to boutique and design hotels.
In the past 10 years, and as the world reopened after the global lockdowns, Millennials and Gen Z lead the way with more assertiveness regarding conscious travel, and the environmental and social impacts of our choices. The essence of luxury follows suit, evolving towards a more holistic, slow, and responsible approach. Today, it’s about offering discerning travellers an immersive and exclusive experience, also rooted in responsibility, cultural enrichment, and mindfulness of the environment and oneself.
What does luxury mean to you, personally?
It means the privilege of having time to experience the world’s finest offerings while respecting the planet and its people. It’s about enjoying impeccable service, breathtaking surroundings, and cultural authenticity, all the while knowing that our actions leave a positive legacy for future generations and contribute to our inner betterment.
What does Qalia stand for, literally, and in business?
Qalia is an intentional misspelling of “Qualia”, which philosophers used to define the nature of our subjective, conscious experiences. It is also the Latin word for quality. In a business context, Qalia represents our commitment to responsible luxury villa rentals through practices and etiquette at all levels. It is the embodiment of our dedication to preserving the environment, celebrating local cultures, and providing guests with unparalleled experiences while being mindful of our impact.
Is there an archetypal Qalia member?
I prefer not to categorise them in typical personas, as it would be too restrictive, but a shared aspect would be a commitment to making a difference, a belief in the hummingbird effect where small actions in one area have the potential to cause life-altering events in another. Over the course of many conversations with villa owners, managers and agencies, before and after our inception, we realised motivations differed, but values and ideology remained similar. For example, you can appreciate and seek the finer things in life while being conscious of your impact on the world. A second group, defined as frequent travellers, value authenticity, cultural immersion, and sustainable practices in their private life. Or perhaps they work in the sustainability sector or with a company promoting these principles. The commonality lies in the understanding that Qalia represents a path to transfer personal or corporate ethos into their properties and make a positive contribution to their destination and establishment.
What is the most effective way to get someone to choose responsible accommodation?
Within 2 to 3 years, it will be the norm. It is inevitable. Until then, encouraging travellers to consider sustainability goes through convenience, cost-effectiveness, and transparency. It is no longer a niche market. We see public and private actors involved in the tourism ecosystem join forces to raise awareness and push such accommodation forward. We have long realised that travellers appreciate simplicity, so it’s crucial to ensure easy identification and smooth booking systems for sustainable choices. In addition, offering competitive pricing, or at least on a par with competing accommodations, as well as being transparent about eco-friendly practices and benefits, without the pressure of reaching perfection, can sway their decision. Ultimately, like any product or service, when sustainability aligns with convenience and affordability, it becomes the more appealing choice for travellers.
Cities and residents blame rental platforms in major urban areas for locals facing exorbitant rents in the city core. Is regulation needed, or are there other solutions?
While numbers do not lie, it is a sensitive topic because of the multiple complexities that go beyond the lodging theme. Private rentals have brought many benefits like tourism development, which is good for local businesses, up to a point admittedly, and generated a surge in employment to build and service these properties. Touristic popularity sometimes leads to housing shortages and increased rents in urban areas. We need balance, and regulation should be a part of the solution, as hoping for voluntary policies from owners and operators seems futile.
However, in establishing these legal restrictions, I find an inclusive approach, like collaboration between businesses, local authorities, and communities, to be crucial, as suggested by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) destination framework. Innovative methods, for example setting quotas for short-term rental units as in Barcelona, implementing higher taxes as France voted for recently, and encouraging responsible tourism can help address these issues without stifling the sharing economy.
How does the luxury segment lead the way to a more responsible accommodation sector?
One of my favourite topics. Luxury has more often than not been a trailblazer in all industries. Obviously, the opulent and decadent brands show otherwise, but to me, these have a different approach which is less connected to inner betterment. I see luxury and responsible tourism aligned with the four pillars of excellence, know-how, tradition and innovation. By setting high standards, investing in green technology, supporting local communities, and crafting mindful experiences for guests, luxury properties can influence the entire industry. Leading by example, openly sharing the outcome, and proving that responsible practices are not only ethical but also prosperous strategies for driving positive change across the accommodation sector.
Do you find brands hesitant to speak up about their sustainability credentials, i.e. greenhushing?
Greenhushing and greenwashing are two elephants in the same room, closely linked. Hushing remains a challenge as some companies stay silent due to fear of criticism or greenwashing allegations. It is a matter of education and awareness combined with managing expectations from travellers. For brands and their clients, it’s essential to understand the meaning of sustainability, and avoid the false perception that it means perfection. The way forward is through conscious communication, clear and transparent, to demonstrate the journey we are on, and to apply an inductive approach where we learn from our mistakes for the greater good. We as consumers must encourage this transparency, which in turn will make brands more accountable for their sustainability claims.
What is the number one location in the world for you when you envision a successful marriage between sustainability and luxury?
When I think about the perfect blend, my mind wanders to my experience in the Maldives. This tropical paradise, with its over-water bungalows and commitment to eco-friendly practices, exemplifies the synergy of opulence and environmental stewardship. The Maldives showcases that luxury and sustainability can coexist harmoniously, inspiring travellers to appreciate and protect our world’s treasures. This is epitomised by Six Senses’ Soneva Fushi, the first hotel of the group where sustainability and mindful luxury experiences constituted the foundations of the resort built and operated by Soni and Eva.
Thank you, One Planet Journey, for this opportunity to discuss the evolution of luxury, our commitment to responsible tourism through Qalia, and the path forward for sustainable accommodation in the luxury segment. Let’s continue to strive and thrive for a world where luxury means leaving a positive impact on our planet and its people, including ourselves, rather than extravagance.
We appreciate your insights, Marc, and for bringing the light of responsible tourism to a segment of luxury travel that has flown under the radar compared to hotels. With a multitude of criteria, different levels of recognition, and help in communicating their efforts, Qalia has the potential to make the luxury accommodation sector accelerate its sustainability agenda. Once guests get accustomed to sustainable practices, there is no going back. It’s only the start of an ongoing quest for improvement.
Qalia’s approach to sustainability dovetails our own here at One Planet Journey. It’s imperative to reach segments of travellers outside the traditional sustainability subgroups. Getting more people involved and excited about the topic will drive wider and deeper adoption on the supplier side. To achieve this, sustainability can’t dominate the guest experience, it has to be a natural companion operating in the background. Small quiet nudges which aggregate into a revolution.
Follow Qalia to find out which villas have joined the responsible tourism label on the member website.
Do you think luxury can accelerate sustainability in the travel sector? Have you rented a luxury villa? If so, where? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.