Why you should care
India and China have the world’s most polluted cities. Their luxury hotels are turning that into a business strategy.
When Barbarae from Austria visited the Cordis Hongqiao Hotel in Shanghai in January, she loved the simple check-in process, the extra-large bed, the electric drapes and the fancy wine glasses in her room. But there was something less common that also struck her, which she mentioned in a review on travel site Booking.com: “the special air-filter program.” That experience didn’t come cheap: The hotel’s rate typically hovers around $250 a night. Yet for the “haves” who can afford it, it’s worth it.
Windows in the hotel are always closed, and all air that enters the Cordis Hongqiao passes through two layers of filtration. Every one of the hotel’s 396 rooms has a pollution monitor that shows the levels of PM2.5 — particulate matter so small it can get stuck in a person’s lungs. The hotel claims the air inside is usually 10 times better than outside. But the hotel isn’t alone in China, or in the region.
Indian and Chinese cities routinely lead the world in terms of air pollution. According to a 2019 report by AirVisual, the global air pollution monitoring group, seven of the 10 most polluted cities are in India. China follows close behind; 22 of the 50 most polluted cities are in that country. Now, as the two Asian economic giants attract more and more travelers, their top-end hotels are competing with each other and foreign challengers by increasingly offering guests the most basic but critical of “luxuries”: clean air.
The Cordis Hongqiao introduced its double-filtration system in 2018. The Fairmont Beijing joined up with Swedish air purification firm Blueair in 2017 to install filters in all of its more than 220 rooms. A year earlier, in March 2016, Beijing’s China World Hotel — the chain is better known globally under the Shangri-La brand name — unveiled purifiers built by American firm Honeywell in all of its rooms. Every room in the H’Elite Hotel in Guangzhou is now also equipped with an air filter.
The guest ratings have improved.
Emil Leung, Cordis Hongqiao Hotel, Shanghai
In India, the Oberoi, one of New Delhi’s oldest hotels, opened after renovation in January 2018 with 40 air filters. The Taj Hotel in the Indian capital’s diplomatic enclave has installed devices that function like plants and emit oxygen. It has also introduced filters that it says keep out 70 percent of PM2.5 matter. The Leela and Jaypee hotels in Delhi have employed similar measures. And the ITC Maurya — which hosted U.S. presidents Barack Obama (2010 and 2015), George W. Bush (2005) and Bill Clinton (2000) — introduced an air purification system in all of its 438 rooms last Christmas. The ITC group plans to use the clean air system in four other hotels: in Gurugram, Agra, Jaipur and at its second property in New Delhi.
For ITC Maurya, it has been one of their major initiaives. Verifying just how much of a difference these filters have made to air quality is difficult in the absence of an external audit. It’s also hard, industry analysts say, to quantify just how much these hotels have benefited in terms of guests returning to them because of the clean air on offer. But QleanAir Scandinavia, a firm working in at least 25 countries to raise awareness about the impact of air quality on the health of individuals and industries, has in recent reports cited poor quality of air inside rooms as a reason why many hotels don’t get the reviews they otherwise might receive. On the other hand, good reviews — such as the one from Barbarae for the Cordis Hongqiao — can lure other guests too. That’s been the hotel’s experience, says Emil Leung, managing director of the Cordis Hongqiao.
“The guest ratings have improved since [the new filtration system was installed],” says Leung. “Guests with any respiratory problems and any kind of allergies also find it very comfortable here.”
For high-end Chinese and Indian hotels, ensuring wealthy business and leisure travelers are indeed comfortable is increasingly critical at a time their market is more crowded than ever. Beijing, for instance, had 52 five-star hotels in total in 2008, when it hosted the Olympics. It’s added 62 new luxury hotels in both 2015 and 2016. The number of rooms in luxury hotels in India expanded by 35 percent between 2013 and 2018.
Global competition is also rising for Chinese and Indian hotel chains. The Hilton group entered India only in 2000, but today has 20 hotels in the country. The group has 27 hotels in China at the moment but plans to expand to 100 by 2025. And clean air is a battleground. The Hilton hotels globally allow guests the option of a Pure Room, for instance. These rooms boast — in addition to other wellness facilities — an air purifier. But these air purifiers are targeted at removing viruses and bacteria from the air, whereas fine particulate matter is the more potent air pollution threat in Indian and Chinese cities. The Pure Rooms typically cost about 7 percent more than usual rooms, and the Indian and Chinese chains are making it a point to ensure they don’t distinguish among guests: All rooms have the air filtration technology.
To be sure, that semblance of equality is just that. With room rates that rarely dip below $250 a night, these hotels are sanctuaries of clean air only for the privileged — they’re out of reach for the majority of Chinese and Indian nationals who continue breathing in dangerous pollutants. In New Delhi, for instance, particulate matter levels often go off the global scale that measures them up to a level of 1,000, especially in the days after Diwali, the festival of lights when millions of firecrackers are lit. In those smog-filled days last year, when doctors were warning that breathing that air was akin to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, a friend thought out loud: “I think I might move.” I couldn’t blame her.
And guests who stay at these cocooned luxury hotels are still exposed to polluted air when — and if — they step out. University of Chicago research last year showed that New Delhi residents, for instance, are losing nine years of their lives because of current air pollution levels. Globally, it’s estimated that ambient air pollution in both cities and rural areas causes nearly 4 million premature deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
But even with that exposure, these hotels offer those travelers who can afford it a key ingredient for a good night’s rest. A 2017 Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment study found clean air contributes to improved sleep quality and cognitive performance. When you’ve got a billion-dollar deal to negotiate in New Delhi or Beijing the next day, you might opt for a clean-air bubble to sleep in. These hotels are counting on that.