The Sustainability of Tourism

Xiaonan Huang

Tourism, whether we like to admit it or not, is one of the human activities that is most representative of modern civilization. The rapid advancement of transportation methods, especially the commercialization of air travel, has allowed tourism to reach every corner of the world. Tourism, today, is defined as the following,

The set of relationships and process that are connected with the movement of human beings from their habitual place of residence to another site, be it within their country or beyond, provided that travel is not for the purpose of changing residences or engaging in commerce or other paid occupation” (Tourism [Jstor], P.181)

The network of organizations and services that support the development of tourism is so immense that it can single-handedly affect the economical development and progression of a nation. However, this boom in travel and tourism has both positive and negative impacts, most importantly, negative consequences to the environment and the cultures of the host destinations. This paper sets out to provide an overview on the development of tourism and it’s impact on the surrounding environment followed by possible resolutions that can make it more sustainable for our future generations.

Although tourism can be traced to pre-industrial societies (even as early as the ancient Rome and Greek societies), the act of traveling for leisure, at least up until the 1940s, was only limited to the elite and privileged. However, since the end of the Second World War, the advance in transportation (especially the rapid growth and development of airline industry) has greatly reduced the time and cost of long distance travel. This, along with the rapid development of the world economy and accumulation of personal wealth, has made leisure traveling more accessible to the mass public. Furthermore, the specialization of the social roles and responsibilities has also provided people in the modern age with leisure time unmatched by our predecessors. Therefore, people today are given the opportunity to travel farther and longer to regions of the world that were once unimaginable to the mind. According to the World Tourism Organization, there were over 922 million international tourist arrivals in the year 2008 alone, which means that approximately one-sixth of the total world population has traveled to another country other than their residual country in that year. If we shall include tourism within the residual country, like traveling between states in America, the collective numbers would undoubtedly be even larger in magnitude. With this huge flux of human movement each year, it not hard to image the environmental impact that tourism could bring to the host destinations. There has already been widespread criticisms on the amount of pollution cause by tourism, such as increases in automobile and aircraft exhaustion, untreated sewage poured into the rivers and ocean, mountains of garbage left behind by irresponsible tourists. The following paragraph will focus on the environment impacts that tourism has cause all over the world.

Environmental degradation due to both over- and underdevelopment of host destinations, poor planning, reckless behaviors by both tourists and their native hosts, have already caused many traditional tourist hotspots to lose their attractiveness and continues to threaten existing and new tourist locations. The overdevelopment of costal regions to accommodate the influx of tourists, such as that in Thailand and Hawaii, poses serious threat to the environment and the ecosystem that it supports. During my visit to a tourist hotspot in Thailand in 2008, I had first-hand experience of the unsustainable aspect of modern tourism. The costal region was covered with hotels, leaving only a few palm trees to remind tourist of its exotic past. The beach, which was already only a couple meters long, was dotted with rental beach chairs that were closely positioned side-by-side all the way to the edges sea. The seawater was not clean either. Not only was there a lot of garbage floating around, but there was also a thin layer of petroleum on top of the water was caused by the numerous motorboats that ferry tourists between the beach and the nearby islands. Other than some individual palm trees, there was little that remained of the natural environment once existed. A similar example can be found in Jamaica, where the natural protective barriers once provided by the sand dunes on the beach was destroyed because of hotel and road construction as well as the overuse of the public beach. Underdevelopment of the host destinations, mainly caused by poor planning, can be equally threatening as an overdevelopment. For example, the failure to develop an efficient sewage system to support the influx of tourist will inevitably cause the discharge of sewage directly into environment. Or the lack of efficient water supplies and an over development of tourism can lead to devastating effects on the environment and the local population.

The destruction of natural environments can also be caused by reckless tourist activities and overexposure to human activity.  High concentrations of tourists led by tourism development will undoubtedly bring negative impacts to the environment, especially when the level of usage of natural resources rises above what the surrounding environment could originally support. The extra burden that tourism brings causes problems, such as soil erosion, increased pollution, natural habitat loss, increased pressures on local micro ecosystems and endangered species. For example, the coral reefs in Hawaii have been greatly damaged by its booming tourist industry as they are often stepped on or taken away by snorkeling tourists. The degradation of the coral reefs directly causes the destruction of the unique ecosystem that it supports, endangering hundreds of species of sea organism that depend on it to survive. Furthermore, the destruction of the coral reef also results in the loss of protective barrier against costal erosion, which has already caused the erosion of the sand beaches along the coasts of Tanzania, Bali and Barbados. The conflict between economic interests and environmental preservation also causes the native people of these host destinations to overexploit their natural resources. As most of the exotic tourists hotspots today are located in developing countries, tourism is often considered as the path to achieve personal wealth and prosperity. As Cater mentioned in his paper, the prime interests of the host populations will center around their needs in terms of improved standards of living, especially for those living in third world economies where little resources other than their natural resource endowment is available to them (Carter, P21). The earnings derived from tourism often drive local populations to ignore the long-term sustainability of their local environment for short-term economic gains.

So what can we do to make tourism more sustainable? There are already many innovations and strategies that try to achieve this goal. An obvious example is in the field of energy conservation, with the continued development of fuel-efficient aircrafts. With the large number of international tourists every year (922 million for 2008 alone), the interdependence between tourism and air travel is undeniable.   Recent developments in aerospace technology, such as better engines and winglets at the end of wings, have reduced the fuel consumption of air travel up to 50% less than the previous generation of aircrafts. With the newly released of jumbo aircrafts, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 380 (which has even better engines and made of lighter materials), will no doubt further minimize the environmental impact of air travel. Yet, these new aircrafts have not fully entered commercial use, so their true impact on the environment still remains unknown. Furthermore, as air travel is increasingly becoming the preferred method of travel, one might wonder if these improvements in aerospace technology could catch up with the ever-expanding air travel industry. Another new development is the promotion of eco-tourism, also known as ecology tourism, which promotes travel to fragile, pristine and protected areas in the world in order to educate tourists about the environment and promote awareness. However, these tours are not without their own disadvantages. As A. Tsiongia (2008) mentioned in her paper, habitat fragmentation, pollution from vehicle travel, stressed water supplies and litter, caused by ecotourism itself are some of the most prominent threats to the already fragile ecosystems and endangered wildlife in these sites. Illegal off-road driving by tour guides in the Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve has caused much damage to the natural landscape, while over-eager tourist behavior have driven the native turtles of Costa Rica to leave their nature breading grounds. In other ‘eco’ areas, over-exposure to humans (such as feeding) has forever altered the behavior of wild animals causing them to develop dependence on humans, which decreases their ability to survive in the wild.

I believe that the fundamental solution to make tourism more sustainable lies within the promotion of tourist ethics and environmental awareness to both tourist and the host populations. With the proper ethics, such as cleaning up after oneself or being aware and cautious of the natural environment, the damage that tourism brings can be greatly reduced. Other actions like reusing hotel towels (the Towel Reuse Program) and taking more public transportation can also help reduce the burden that tourism brings to the host environment. Education is also need, especially for host populations of Third World economics, to reconsider both the short and long term benefits of tourism development to their natural endowment. The success of the tourism industry depends upon the natural and exotic environments that nature provides, if we cannot maintain the balance between economic interests and environment preservation then sooner or later these environments will no longer be available for our future generations to enjoy.


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