Sustainable Travel, Luxury Travel And Golf Vacations Are Getting Easier To Plan

Larry Olmstead, Forbes Magazine

“For as long as I can remember, Audubon International has been the gold standard for meaningful eco-certification in golf, but in recent years, the reputable non-profit organization has quietly expanded its programs to include everything from hotels and resorts to master-planned communities.

When they started with golf, Audubon International was at the forefront, and almost single handedly spearheaded the widespread adoption of concrete benchmarks and practices for certification. This was built around an audit process golf courses could go through, and the course would then have to meet multiple detailed criteria to receive Silver or Gold Audubon certification. The process has several key sustainability areas, from wildlife to water reclamation to chemical reduction, and most recently they have made a big push in desert environments such as Scottsdale with new criteria targeting turf reduction and even state of the art air conditioning efficiency for clubhouses.

Later, Audubon International partnered with the United States Golf Association (USGA) to create the higher tier Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP), aimed more at new courses and major renovations, with sustainability being designed in from the ground up. Today there are around 700 golf facilities certified in the program, most of them in North America.

The bottom line is that the Audubon Certification is very well-known by golf travelers – and also the only such endorsement most of them know, recognize and trust. For years it has been easy for golfers who care about sustainability to locate and choose these courses. But now it is getting easier for non-golfers as well. Audubon International is celebrating its 35th birthday this year and due to the greatly increased demand from consumers, has been making a big push into clarifying the rest of suitable travel with several additional certification programs including Green Lodging, Green Hospitality, Sustainable Communities and its newest, Signature Sanctuary Platinum Certification. This last one is comprehensive and aimed at new developments, putting whatever a resort community has in the way of hotels, real estate, public areas, golf courses and clubhouses all under one sustainability management program.

In one of the biggest expansions in Audubon’s three-plus decade history, Marriott’s Global Golf Division, which oversees nearly 50 resort courses, achieved ACSP for Golf Certification for all but one of its stateside courses and is underway with efforts to add the majority of international courses to the list. At the same time, Marriott Vacations Worldwide has been actively partnered with Audubon International for more than a decade, and was the biggest lodging brand to jump on the Green Lodging Program, committing to enroll all eligible properties. Notable examples of Marriott destinations with Green Lodging certification already include the luxury Florida JW Marriott Marco Island Beach ResortMarriott Kauai Lagoons on Maui, HI, and the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee GA. This is one of the top luxury golf resorts in the entire Bonvoy family, a fantastic boutique hotel (I’ve been) with five standout eighteen hole courses by top designers, plus one of the nation’s best golf academies, top tier spa and amazing lake amenities.

Other ongoing Audubon International partnerships of note include Invited (formerly known as ClubCorp), one of the largest owners-operators of golf courses and clubs in the industry. They recently announced a commitment to achieve for Golf Certification for all U.S. courses.

By adding its recognized third-party certification to hotels and resort and residential communities, Audubon International is beginning to make it much easier for well-meaning but befuddled travelers who care about sustainability to plan a trip.

The new Signature Sanctuary Platinum Certification was just launched in March 2023, and a notable example is the new high-profile Black Desert Resort in St. George, Utah. I’ve written here at Forbes about St. George before, which has been emerging as one of the nation’s new hotspots for both golf and all forms of outdoor recreation (it just took over from Hawaii’s Kona as host of the Ironman World Championship). Black Desert is an all new, very sustainability-minded resort community with residences, a resort hotel (under construction) and a now open Tom Weiskopf designed golf course that is managed by industry leader Troon Golf and getting rave reviews. It is bringing a PGA Tour event to Utah in 2024, the Black Desert Championship.

Another prominent example is the Bahia Beach resort community in Puerto Rico, home to a wonderful luxury St. Regis hotel, a very good golf course and tons of open space, nature paths, parkland, gardens and beachfront. Bahia Beach is the first resort in the Caribbean to be awarded the Gold Signature Sanctuary certification by Audubon International, while its golf course independently achieved ACSP certification.

Like St. George, Puerto Rico is another currently red-hot golf travel destination that is trending upwards, with increased flight capacity to the island, and 18 courses, more than a third of which are rated among the best in the Caribbean, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Atlantic Islands by Golfweek, with star architects including Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, and Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Sr. The island has its own PGA Tour event, the Puerto Rico Open, and hosted the Latin America Amateur Championship.

Because the island’s tourism board, Discover Puerto Rico, has increasingly made responsible tourism part of its mission, they have been in talks with Audubon International to expand the Bahia Beach success island wide, bringing in the rest of the golf courses and major resort communities. Given that Puerto Rico is extremely biologically rich, home to rare bioluminescent bays and the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system (El Yunque National Forest), the partnership makes a lot of sense, and the next objective is to achieve Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certification programs for other Puerto Rico golf and hospitality partner properties.

Several other Caribbean islands are following suit, and Apes Hill, a luxury golf community in Barbados with a new resort, newly redesigned eighteen and new short course, has enrolled. Apes Hill already has ACSP for Golf certification for its new course, and like Bahia Beach, plans to pursue certification for the entire property as well.

Cabot Golf, one of the world’s most highly regarded operators of pilgrimage resorts with “must play courses” from Scotland to Canada, is also working with Audubon. The original Cabot resort, Cabot Cape Breton, has two courses – the two highest ranked public layouts in Canada and both World Top 100 publics – both of which have been designated as Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary members. Cabot is planning to debut its own new luxury golf, beach and activity centric Caribbean luxury resort community in December. Cabot St. Lucia is generally regarded as the world’s single most anticipated new golf course opening of 2023, and the company is also building a from the ground up golf resort in Canada’s Revelstoke (Audubon certification often takes 6-9 months after opening, so while many new projects are planning on it and seeking it, they take a while to make the list).

With all five of its courses individually certified in ACSP, Big Cedar Lodge near Branson, Missouri is one of the world’s largest golf resorts to have embraced sustainability. Big Cedar is owned by longtime conservation philanthropist Johnny Morris, also has a huge private nature reserve, and has been in talks with Audubon about resort-wide certification. It’s collection includes two of the top 100 public courses in the country, and its newest, Payne’s Valley, is an amazing layout and the first public eighteen in the country designed by Tiger Woods.

There are many more maples, but the biggest current drawback to consumers looking to travel more sustainability is that the non-profit’s website has not kept up with the pace of change in the industry, and is still a bit confusing and clumsy to use, with the various certifications overlapping and no really easy way to search, though you can filter certified members by location and type of certification. It’s easier to find top resorts and hotels with certified golf courses and start there, but for non-golf properties or the hotels themselves, it takes more work. This is likely to change, and quickly, because applications for the Green Lodging program have skyrocketed since 2020, following the fast-growing consumer demand for sustainable travel. There has also been a notable spike from overseas, and within just a couple of years, there are expected to be a lot more Green Lodging members, while golf courses and resorts continue to come on, including many brand-new ones.”


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