According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2015, travel and tourism constituted 9.8% ($7.2 trillion) of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. This rapidly growing sector of the global economy now supports one of every eleven people in the labor force worldwide (“Economic Impact Analysis”). But, how did tourism become such an integral part of the global economy? Evidence of recreational travel can be traced as far back as the Egyptians and Greeks in the first millennium BCE. The writings of Egyptian elites indicate that wealthy individuals toured famous monuments and relics constructed by earlier Egyptian societies, such as the Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza. Similarly, affluent Greek statesmen traveled long distances to watch the early Olympic and Pythian Games (Gyr).
However, until the 1940s and 1950s, vacationing and tourism were activities generally restricted to wealthy individuals. Since the end of this era, massive population growth, increased discretionary incomes and leisure times for the global middle class, and advances in transportation (primarily the growth and democratization of the commercial airline industry) have reduced the costs and difficulties of travel and made tourism available for the masses (May 57). However, the recreational travel industry has not only grown because of its democratization, but also because it is highly profitable. Because of tourism’s high profitability, large investments have been made in both the public sector and in the private sector to improve infrastructure, build facilities, and promote the industry (May 57).
Despite all of the growing industry’s positive economic effects, there are also several negative environmental externalities that have resulted from a thriving tourism industry. These negative impacts on the environment arise when the volume of visitor use in an area exceeds the environment’s ability to sustainably deal with said use. Tourism, in its current form, has unfavorably affected local environments around the globe by depleting natural resources through water use and deforestation and by contributing to soil erosion, global warming, a loss of biodiversity, and natural habitat loss. However, as environments shift due to the tourism industry, initiatives to mitigate the negative effects on the environment have arose, such as ecotourism and green hotel practices.
The United Nations Environment Programme identifies specific ways in which recreational travel adversely affects the natural and built environments. First, tourism can lead to a depletion of natural resources by increasing consumption in areas where resources are sparse (“Tourism’s Three Main Impact Areas”). For instance, the tourism and travel industry uses heavy amounts of water to fill pools and fountains, maintain golf courses, and provide other services to guests. This process creates a lot of wastewater and also diverts a vital resource away from locals who rely on it for survival. In dryer climates, such as the American Southwest or the Mediterranean, this overuse of water can have especially severe consequences on the local environment (“Tourism’s Three Main Impact Areas”). The biggest culprit of water exploitation is the golf industry. Golf courses require a lot of water daily and, according to Tourism Concern, “an average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500kg of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers” (“Thailand”). In areas where water resources are restricted, this type of ground-water depletion can decrease water quality, decrease the soil quality, and lead to subsidence (sinking of the Earth’s surface), often contaminating the water supply and hurting the local economy and/or ecosystem (Perlman).
Of course, water resources are not the only raw materials that tourism overexploits. In order to clear land for buildings and collect fuel for the industry, localities can overharvest wood leading to deforestation and a disruption of the ecosystem. For example, as tourism to the Himalayas increased throughout mid-20th century, local Sherpas began to ignore forest conservation traditions. In a short period of time, Sherpas cut down large volumes of trees in order to sell firewood to and profit from mountaineering expeditions to Mt. Everest and other high peaks. Furthermore, during the 1980s, pressures on the forest became more intense as Sherpas began to use profits from firewood sales and trekking work to build inns and large houses (Stevens 257). Additionally, overgrazing in certain areas prevented the forests from recovering and also damaged forest ecology (Stevens 258). Although the extent and nature of the Himalayan deforestation are disputed, an increase in tourism in the region does coincide with “thinned forests, diminishing tree size, changes in forest composition, and scarcity of forest floor deadwood near settlements” (Stevens 267). This deforestation is taking its toll on the local ecosystem. Based on analysis of satellite images, a 2006 study predicted that two-thirds of the Himalayan forests would be gone by 2100. This forest degradation could result in the extinction of up to 25% of the species unique to the region by the end of the century (Owen).
In addition to resource depletion, tourism can adversely impact the environment by producing massive amounts of pollution. Increased movement of people across the globe (1186 million international tourist arrivals in 2015 up from 25 million in 1950), means that transport by plane, car, and train is continuously expanding (UNTWO Tourism Highlights 3). One result of increased tourism, especially air travel, is that tourism is now responsible for a substantial part of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Some studies estimate that a “single transatlantic return flight emits almost half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person yearly” (“Tourism’s Three Main Impact Areas”). In fact, the global aviation industry emits two percent of all human-produced CO2 (“Facts & Figures”).
Increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is most prominently linked to global warming. Over the past 50 years, and especially since the turn of the 21st century, the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded human history. Global warming takes place when CO2 and other greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, and, instead of allowing solar radiation to escape into space, absorb solar radiation and entrap heat. Global warming has already started to, and will continue to, alter climates in both positive and potentially devastating ways. Although certain climates may become more temperate and fertile as a result of a rise in global temperatures, the potential (and realized) negative impacts of global warming are ominous. People living near glaciers will likely experience increased flooding and rock avalanches as glaciers melt and recede, droughts will be prolonged, wildfires will increase in frequency, and sea levels will continue to rise, threatening tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people living in low-lying coastal regions (Kerr 189). By 2100, scientists have predicted that water levels in certain regions could rise 4-6 feet. In addition, ocean ecosystems could be threatened, as coral reefs, some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, could bleach and die due to temperature pressures, effecting thousands of marine species living in those areas (Kerr 189).
One less obvious environmental impact of tourism is increased sewage pollution due to the construction of hotels and other recreational facilities. In many tourist regions, wastewater has polluted the waters, damaging the flora and fauna, and, in certain cases, threatening the health of humans. For example, sewage pollution can transmit diseases, such as typhoid, cholera and hepatitis through seafood (Thullen).
So, how do we, as humans, change the culture and industry of tourism and travel in order to promote sustainability? The answer is not simple. It would be great if people flew less and global CO2 emissions were reduced. However, that solution does not appear to be sustainable. Tourism-based economies would suffer, emissions would likely not be reduced drastically, and most of all, people would likely not want to restrict themselves for society’s benefit. This raises the idea of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which people, in the absence of government regulation or privatization, exploit common access resources (goods that are non-excludable but rivalrous in consumption), such as the atmosphere, for personal gain at the expense of the environment.
While the idea articulated above will not solve the environmental issues related to tourism, there are several initiatives in place to mitigate the negative externalities on the environment created by the mass tourism industry. For instance, the development of the ecotourism industry has benefitted economies across the world while also promoting the integrity of the natural environment. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (“What Is Ecotourism?”). Ecotourism has several advantages over conventional tourism. First and foremost, it promotes local conservation efforts and raises awareness about the harmful effects of mass tourism. Ecotourism can also aid in the development of poorer countries by employing locals as guides and hosts and allowing them to supplement their incomes. In addition, the involvement of locals in the industry often prevents a leakage of income out of the country to large multinational hospitality corporations (Kennedy).
However, while ecotourism can empower local communities and promotes environmentally sustainable practices, the industry is not without flaws or downsides. Labeling areas as protected or demarking them as national parks can displace locals living in those areas and force them to move to unfamiliar, less economically and socially advantageous regions (Kennedy). For example, the Masai people in Kenya have been forced off of their traditional lands and now live just outside of the reserves. This land is inferior to the land inside of the parks, and the Masai have become tourist attractions for Westerners excited by their “primitive ways.” Patronizing practices like compensating people to dance or perform traditional rituals discourages the Masai from pursuing their culture and traditional style of life (Strøm 83-89). Ecotourism can also intrude upon local ecosystems, and tourists often litter and perform other acts that can disrupt the ecology of a given area.
Certain hotel chains have also begun to focus on conservation efforts by promoting biodegradable products, reusing hotel towels, etc. But while it is a positive development that some large chains and other polluters are attempting to clean up a mess they helped create, many of these hotels only make very minor changes in order to label themselves as “ecotourism-friendly” and gain additional revenue (Kennedy). This process of false advertising is known as “greenwashing” (Kennedy).
While ecotourism and green hotels are two of the many ways to combat the environmental consequences of mass tourism, the only true solution to the problem would involve a fundamental shift in the way humans look at the environments of the destinations they visit. In other words, the solution to tourism’s negative effects on the environment would involve a shift in human ethics and morality. If people realize that their actions can harm an ecosystem, and if they do their best to leave the environment in the same condition they found it, many of the negative externalities of tourism would be mitigated. More importantly, a collective shift it attitudes could put pressure on the hotel industry and other recreational industries (i.e. golf courses) to reform their practices and switch to greener methods. These changes, of course, would not solve issues like aircraft CO2 pollution, but it would make people alter their behavior, without diminishing the immense economic success of the tourism industry. Without a fundamental shift in our behavior as tourists, many of the places we love to visit today may not be around for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
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