Photograph by Richard Cummins, Corbis
From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
After spending a decade searching out the world’s most innovative sustainable tourism projects, I would have bet my last dollar that this road would never lead to Las Vegas, where “alternative energy” is more apt to be the name for the newest cocktail rather than a conservation strategy. Yet here I am on the Strip, staring at neon lights turning the night into day and passing billboards for million-dollar jackpots and a Lady Gaga concert. I’m headed to CityCenter, a new resort complex whose six U.S. Green Building Council LEED certifications make it the single largest concentration of eco-rated buildings in North America.
“Massive,” is my first thought as I enter the expansive lobby of Aria—CityCenter’s 4,004-room flagship hotel. It houses a river—84 feet long, Maya Lin–designed, and made entirely from recycled silver—that is part of a multimillion-dollar art collection. CityCenter encompasses three other hotels besides Aria, connected to an indoor shopping area nearly the size of two Manhattan city blocks, along with 2,400 private residences and more than five football fields’ worth of convention space. Can something of this size—and the attendant hordes of conventioneers—possibly tread lightly on the planet?
That a gambling corporation—MGM Resorts International—is behind this cutting-edge development makes me even more skeptical. The son of a blackjack dealer, I learned early that the kind of green Vegas is committed to is cold, hard cash.
Yet the staggering investment to build this place—8.5 billion dollars, making it the single largest private construction project in U.S. history—has afforded features to make any eco-techie drool, in a top to bottom approach that is among the most impressive I have come across. In addition to using nontoxic paints, sealants, and adhesives, builders recycled 95 percent of construction debris, keeping thousands of tons of steel, concrete, paper, and plastic out of Nevada’s landfills. In a region where the water table is dropping, water conservation technology saves some 50 million gallons a year. All of this—and more—leaves me wondering if Vegas, after decades of unflinching waste and extravagance, has finally entered rehab.
“Las Vegas can be a leading green destination,” insists James Murren, MGM’s chairman and CEO. “Designing CityCenter was about creating a healthier environment for our guests, for the planet, and for the 12,000 people who work here. And, yes, about bringing in the money, too.”
Despite cost overruns said to approach $380 million that nearly derailed the project, Murren maintains that the enterprise is viable. When I point out crowds of stylish twentysomethings filling the bars, shops, and restaurants, he adds, “That’s one of our target audiences. Members of the so-called millennial generation are more environmentally aware; they look for organic menus, embrace the latest technology, and like to party. Our goal is to bring them in now and keep them coming back.”
Setting aside for a moment what sounds like a creative strategy to seduce a new generation to gambling, Murren may be onto something. According to a Time magazine poll, nearly 50 percent of Americans surveyed said protecting the environment should be a priority, and a study by the financial consulting firm Accenture found that Forbes Global 1000 companies that ranked highest in sustainable practices also outperformed their competition in shareholder profits. For MGM, going green might deliver the real jackpot.
After exploring CityCenter’s 67 acres of futuristic-looking curved glass and angled steel by bike (courtesy of their bicycle valet service), I cruise back to Aria feeling like George Jetson re-entering my space-age home. Smart controls that monitor energy use recognize me when I first step into my room and then “remember” me when I return, cueing my favorite song and soft lighting as soon as I open the door. Behind the scenes, a natural gas cogeneration electricity plant—the first on the Strip—reduces emissions and uses waste heat to provide hot water, while in the public areas, an advanced floor-based airconditioning system avoids wasting energy on cooling empty spaces near the ceilings. Other than some billionaire private homes, Aria may be the first resort to offer this space-age technology to guests, a harbinger of what we might one day find even in run-of-the-mill interstate motels.
But there’s something vaguely disturbing in all this green grandness. Like the rest of Vegas, CityCenter is a “Big Gulp” version of reality, from soaring lobbies to cavernous casinos. With 61 floors, Aria alone has a huge environmental footprint. This pushes up against a growing argument, led by urban preservationists, that recycling (i.e., renovating) old buildings, rather than putting up new ones, should be the priority if green is really the goal.
“A sustainably designed project of CityCenter’s size and magnitude is certainly commendable,” Thierry Roch, executive director of Historic Hotels of America, tells me over the phone. “However, renovating existing buildings is a much better way to save natural resources and have less of a negative impact on the environment.”
Indeed, he cites the Skirvin Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. Originally built in 1911, it languished for nearly two decades, boarded up. When it was renovated instead of being demolished, not only was the city’s historical character preserved, but costs were lower.
Still, expecting companies to stop putting up new buildings is unrealistic. And other sustainability experts argue that if a global green economy is really going to take root, sustainable practices must be used on the full spectrum of construction, from small eco-lodges to large-scale urban developments. Because of CityCenter’s size, huge construction firms that worked on the project were introduced to environmentally friendly building techniques, resulting in an increase in the number of green building suppliers.
In true Vegas fashion, MGM has gambled on the biggest, glitziest, and most ambitious eco-debut of any major travel destination in the world. Although the lessons are still to come, CityCenter might well prove to be the tipping point when “green” hotels move from niche to mainstream. Has Sin City turned penitent? Not quite, or at least not yet. But the environmental movement has now arrived in the unlikeliest of places.
Editor at large Costas Christ writes about sustainability and tourism issues. E-mail your comments to Travel_Talk@ngs.org.