(Bloomberg) -- As guests at the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba sweat over treadmills and stationary bicycles in the hotel gym, a large monitor tells them how many watts they’re pumping into the local electrical grid.

“I always tell my guests that nothing is free here, you even have to produce your own energy,” said Bucuti’s owner Ewald Biemans, whose unorthodox approach to power generation has helped turn the 33-year-old property into the first certified carbon-neutral hotel in the Caribbean.

The gym’s scoreboard is a bit of a gimmick, but behind the scenes staff work obsessively to maximize energy and minimize waste at the 104-room hotel set on one of Aruba’s most pristine beaches. Last month, the United Nations recognized their work with the Global Climate Action Award, the first time the decade-old prize has ever gone to a hotel, in part because it believed Bucuti’s methods could be adopted across the industry.

The core of the resort’s green strategy was installing the island’s largest privately run solar panel system, which produces about 20% of Bucuti’s electricity— the maximum allowed by Aruba’s law. The hotel receives the rest of its energy from Aruba's grid, which includes the Vader Piet wind farm and a solar array that generate about a quarter of the island's energy.

But the operation’s great carbon leap came around 2015, when it undertook renovations to comply with U.S. Green Building Council efficiency standards, known as LEED. This year, it became the only hotel in the Caribbean to earn a gold certification.

Now, those picture windows that take in vistas of the Caribbean are double-paned, air-filled and insulated. The traditional air-conditioning system has been replaced with a hyper-efficient variable refrigerant flow cooling system, and motion sensors regulate its use when guests are out.

“It reduced our footprint so dramatically that we could actually advertise it,” Biemans said in a telephone interview. “So people who understand and know about LEED—and search out a resort that is environmentally friendly—automatically come to us.”

Many of the resort’s other innovations are low-tech and low-cost. Food is locally sourced, when possible, and portions have been calibrated to reduce waste. The hotel has cut the trash destined for the landfill by 62% through an alliance with local pig farms and recyclers. Biemans banned single-use plastics and Styrofoam twenty years ago, a step Aruba only took this year.

All that has reduced the hotel’s carbon emissions from 31 kilograms a room per night to 19 kilos. The process was tracked by Natural Capital Partners, the nonprofit behind the CarbonNeutral Protocol, a standard for businesses trying to minimize their environmental impact. Biemans covers the 19-kilo carbon gap by buying offsets from UN-certified wind farms in Aruba and India.

Offsets are a popular way for businesses to neutralize their emissions—allowing them to purchase credits from environmentally friendly companies, often at lower costs than making structural changes to lower their own CO2 emissions. These offsets range from tree-planting to clean-energy projects, and calculating how much carbon is actually saved or removed is an inexact science. For Biemens, the offsets cost about $5,000 a year, a fraction of the hotel’s $1 million annual electricity bill. 

Tourism is a carbon-intensive business, especially if air travel is involved, but it’s also the lifeblood of the Caribbean and makes up a large part of Aruba’s economy. Greenwashing has proliferated as travelers become more eco-conscious. And many hotels are taking token steps toward conservation like eliminating shampoo bottles and asking their guests to reuse towels.

Any serious accounting of emissions, however, should include not only carbon generated from a hotel’s own operations, but those along its supply chain, including food and transportation. Even by those standards, Biemens has gone further than many in his industry by sourcing products from local farms that employ sustainable practices and financing local environmental groups.

“You can’t say, ‘let’s take the tourism away.’ So how can we make tourism as green as we possibly can?” said Sarah Marchildon, with the UN Climate Change Secretariat, which recognized Bucuti. “This is a perfect example of how it can be done.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has hammered Caribbean tourism and cut Bucuti’s occupancy rate by about 25%, but the downturn hasn’t dampened Biemans’ green ambitions. By 2021, he expects the resort to be “carbon negative”—sequestering and saving more carbon than it’s producing. To get there, he’s becoming a partner in a wind-farm, boosting local purchasing and going paperless.

Born and raised on a farm in Austria, Biemans says his love of animals and the outdoors has always been at the core of his business model. “I realized a long time ago that Aruba is in the nature business—we are not in the tourism business,” he said. “Who is going to go to a place where the water is polluted, the beaches are dirty, the countryside is destroyed? They might as well stay home.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.