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The environmental impacts of tourism have gained increasing attention in recent years. With the rise in sustainable tourism and an increased number of initiatives for being environmentally friendly, tourists and stakeholders alike are now recognising the importance of environmental management in the tourism industry.
In this post I will explain why the environmental impacts of tourism are an important consideration and what the commonly noted positive and negative environmental impacts of tourism are.
Why the environment is so important to tourism
The quality of the environment, both natural and man-made, is essential to tourism. However, tourism’s relationship with the environment is complex and many activities can have adverse environmental effects if careful tourism planning and management is not undertaken. It is ironic really, that tourism often destroys the very things that it relies on!
Many of the negative environmental impacts that result from tourism are linked with the construction of general infrastructure such as roads and airports, and of tourism facilities, including resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses and marinas. The negative impacts of tourism development can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends.
It’s not ALL negative, however!
Tourism has the potential to create beneficial effects on the environment by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. It is a way to raise awareness of environmental values and it can serve as a tool to finance protection of natural areas and increase their economic importance.
Positive environmental impacts of tourism
Although there are not as many (far from it!) positive environmental impacts of tourism as there are negative, it is important to note that tourism CAN help preserve the environment!
The most commonly noted positive environmental impact of tourism is raised awareness. Many destinations promote ecotourism and sustainable tourism and this can help to educate people about the environmental impacts of tourism. Destinations such as Costa Rica and The Gambia have fantastic ecotourism initiatives that promote environmentally-friendly activities and resources. There are also many national parks, game reserves and conservation areas around the world that help to promote positive environmental impacts of tourism.
Positive environmental impacts can also be induced through the NEED for the environment. Tourism can often not succeed without the environment due the fact that it relies on it (after all we can’t go on a beach holiday without a beach or go skiing without a mountain, can we?).
Read also: Economic impacts of tourism
In many destinations they have organised operations for tasks such as cleaning the beach in order to keep the destination aesthetically pleasant and thus keep the tourists happy. Some destinations have taken this further and put restrictions in place for the number of tourists that can visit at one time.
Not too long ago the island of Borocay in the Philippines was closed to tourists to allow time for it to recover from the negative environmental impacts that had resulted from large-scale tourism in recent years. Whilst inconvenient for tourists who had planned to travel here, this is a positive example of tourism environmental management and we are beginning to see more examples such as this around the world.
Negative environmental impacts of tourism
Negative environmental impacts of tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use. Uncontrolled conventional tourism poses potential threats to many natural areas around the world. It can put enormous pressure on an area and lead to impacts such as: soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. It often puts a strain on water resources, and it can force local populations to compete for the use of critical resources.
I will explain each of these negative environmental impacts of tourism below.
Depletion of natural resources
Tourism development can put pressure on natural resources when it increases consumption in areas where resources are already scarce. Some of the most common noted examples include using up water resources, land degradation and the depletion of other local resources.
The tourism industry generally overuses water resources for hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and personal use of water by tourists. This can result in water shortages and degradation of water supplies, as well as generating a greater volume of waste water.
In drier regions, like the Mediterranean, the issue of water scarcity is of particular concern. Because of the hot climate and the tendency for tourists to consume more water when on holiday than they do at home, the amount used can run up to 440 litres a day. This is almost double what the inhabitants of an average Spanish city use.
Golf course maintenance can also deplete fresh water resources. In recent years golf tourism has increased in popularity and the number of golf courses has grown rapidly. Golf courses require an enormous amount of water every day and this can result in water scarcity. Furthermore, golf resorts are more and more often situated in or near protected areas or areas where resources are limited, exacerbating their impacts. 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.
Important land resources include fertile soil, forests, wetlands and wildlife. Unfortunately, tourism often contributes to the degradation of said resources. Increased construction of tourism facilities has increased the pressure on these resources and on scenic landscapes.
Animals are often displaced when their homes are destroyed or when they are disturbed by noise. This may result in increased animals deaths, for example road-kill deaths. It may also contribute to changes in behaviour. Animals may become a nuisance, by entering areas that they wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) usually go into, such as people’s homes. It may also contribute towards aggressive behaviour when animals try to protect their young or savage for food that has become scarce as a result of tourism development.
Picturesque landscapes are often destroyed by tourism. Whilst many destinations nowadays have limits and restrictions on what development can occur and in what style, many do not impose any such rules. High rise hotels and buildings which are not in character with the surrounding architecture or landscape contribute to a lack of atheistic appeal.
Forests often suffer negative impacts of tourism in the form of deforestation caused by fuel wood collection and land clearing. For example, one trekking tourist in Nepal can use four to five kilograms of wood a day!
There are also many cases of erosion, whereby tourists may trek the same path or ski the same slope so frequently that it erodes the natural landscape. Sites such as Machu Pichu have been forced to introduce restrictions on tourist numbers to limit the damage caused.
Tourism can create great pressure on local resources like energy, food, and other raw materials that may already be in short supply. Greater extraction and transport of these resources exacerbates the physical impacts associated with their exploitation.
Because of the seasonal character of the industry, many destinations have ten times more inhabitants in the high season as in the low season. A high demand is placed upon these resources to meet the high expectations tourists often have (proper heating, hot water, etc.). This can put significant pressure on the local resources and infrastructure, often resulting in the local people going without in order to feed the tourism industry.
Read also: Types of tourism: A Glossary
Tourism can cause the same forms of pollution as any other industry: Air emissions; noise pollution; solid waste and littering; sewage; oil and chemicals. The tourism industry also contributes to forms of architectural/visual pollution.
Air pollution and noise
Transport by air, road, and rail is continuously increasing in response to the rising number of tourists and their greater mobility. In fact, tourism accounts for more than 60% of all air travel.
One study estimated 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- that’s a pretty shocking statistic! I remember asking my class to calculate their carbon footprint one lesson only to be very embarrassed that my emissions were A LOT higher than theirs due to the amount of flights I took each year compared to them. Point proven I guess….
Anyway, air pollution from tourist transportation has impacts on a global level, especially from CO2 emissions related to transportation energy use. This can contribute to severe local air pollution. It also contributes towards climate change.
Fortunately, technological advancements in aviation are seeing more environmentally friendly aircraft and fuels being used worldwide, although the problem is far from being cured. If you really want to help save the environment, the answer is to seek alternative methods of transportation and avoid flying. You can also look at ways to offset your carbon footprint.
Noise pollution can also be a concern.
Noise pollution from aircraft, cars, buses, (+ snowmobiles and jet skis etc etc) can cause annoyance, stress, and even hearing loss for humans. It also causes distress to wildlife and can cause animals to alter their natural activity patterns. Having taught at a university near London Heathrow for several years, this was always a topic of interest to my students and made a popular choice of dissertation topic.
Solid waste and littering
In areas with high concentrations of tourist activities and appealing natural attractions, waste disposal is a serious problem, contributing significantly to the environmental impacts of tourism.
Improper waste disposal can be a major despoiler of the natural environment. Rivers, scenic areas, and roadsides are areas that are commonly found littered with waste, ranging from plastic bottles to sewage.
Cruise tourism in the Caribbean, for example, is a major contributor to this negative environmental impact of tourism. Cruise ships are estimated to produce more than 70,000 tons of waste each year.
The Wider Caribbean Region, stretching from Florida to French Guiana, receives 63,000 port calls from ships each year, and they generate 82,000 tons of rubbish. About 77% of all ship waste comes from cruise vessels. On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily – compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by the less well-endowed folk on shore.
Whilst it is generally an unwritten rule that you do not throw rubbish into the sea, this is difficult to enforce in the open ocean. In the past cruise ships would simply dump their waste while out at sea. Nowadays, fortunately, this is less commonly the case, however I am sure that there are still exceptions.
Solid waste and littering can degrade the physical appearance of the water and shoreline and cause the death of marine animals.Just take a look at the image below. This is a picture taken of the insides of a dead bird. Bird often mistake floating plastic for fish and eat it. They can not digest plastic so once their stomachs become full they starve to death. This is all but one sad example of the environmental impacts of tourism.
Mountain areas also commonly suffer at the hands of the tourism industry. In mountain regions, trekking tourists generate a great deal of waste. Tourists on expedition frequently leave behind their rubbish, oxygen cylinders and even camping equipment. I have heard many stories of this and I also witnessed it first hand when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
This is a great video explaining the issues on Mount Everest.
The construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution.
Unfortunately, many destinations, particularly in the developing world, do not have strict law enrichments on sewage disposal. As a result, wastewater has polluted seas and lakes surrounding tourist attractions around the world. This damages the flora and fauna in the area and can cause serious damage to coral reefs.
Sewage pollution threatens the health of humans and animals. I’ll never forget the time that I went on a school trip to climb Snowdonia in Wales. The water running down the streams was so clear and perfect that some of my friends had suggested we drink some. What’s purer than mountain fresh water right from the mountain, right? Wrong. A few minutes later we saw a huge pile of (human??) feaces in the water upstream!!
Often tourism fails to integrate its structures with the natural features and indigenous architecture of the destination. Large, dominating resorts of disparate design can look out of place in any natural environment and may clash with the indigenous structural design.
A lack of land-use planning and building regulations in many destinations has facilitated sprawling developments along coastlines, valleys and scenic routes. The sprawl includes tourism facilities themselves and supporting infrastructure such as roads, employee housing, parking, service areas, and waste disposal. This can make a tourist destination less appealing and can contribute to a loss of appeal.
Physical impacts of tourism development
Whilst the tourism industry itself has a number of negative environmental impacts. There are also a number of physical impacts that arise from the development of the tourism industry. This includes the construction of buildings, marinas, roads etc.
Construction activities and infrastructure development
The development of tourism facilities can involve sand mining, beach and sand dune erosion and loss of wildlife habitats. The tourist often will not see these side effects of tourism development, but they can have devastating consequences for the surrounding environment. Animals may displaced from their habitats and the noise from construction may upset them.
I remember reading a while ago (although I can’t seem to find where now) that in order to develop the resort of Kotu in The Gambia, a huge section of the coastline was demolished in order to be able to use the sand for building purposes. This would inevitably have had severe consequences for the wildlife living in the area.
Deforestation and intensified or unsustainable use of land
Construction of ski resort accommodation and facilities frequently requires clearing forested land. Land may also be cleared to obtain materials used to build tourism sites, such as wood. I’ll never forget the site when I flew over the Amazon Rainforest only to see huge areas of forest cleared. That was a sad reality to see.
Likewise, coastal wetlands are often drained due to lack of more suitable sites. Areas that would be home to a wide array of flora and fauna are turned into hotels, car parks and swimming pools.
The building of marinas and ports can also contribute to the negative environmental impacts of tourism. Development of marinas and breakwaters can cause changes in currents and coastlines. These changes can have vast impacts ranging from changes in temperatures to erosion spots to the wider ecosystem.
Coral reefs are especially fragile marine ecosystems. They suffer worldwide from reef-based tourism developments and from tourist activity.
Evidence suggests a variety of impacts to coral result from shoreline development. Increased sediments in the water can affect growth. Trampling by tourists can damage or even kill coral. Ship groundings can scrape the bottom of the sea bed and kill the coral. Pollution from sewage can have adverse effects.
All of these factors contribute to a decline and reduction in the size of coral reefs worldwide. This then has a wider impact on the global marine life and ecosystem, as many animals rely on the coral for as their habitat and food source.
Physical impacts from tourist activities
The last point worth mentioning when discussing the environmental impacts of tourism is the way in which physical impacts can occur as a result of tourist activities. This includes tramping, anchoring, cruising and diving.
Tourists using the same trail over and over again trample the vegetation and soil, eventually causing damage that can lead to loss of biodiversity and other impacts.
Such damage can be even more extensive when visitors frequently stray off established trails. This is evidenced in Machu Pichu as well as other well known destinations and attractions, as I discussed earlier in this post.
Anchoring and other marine activities
In marine areas many tourist activities occur in or around fragile ecosystems.
Anchoring, scuba diving, yachting and cruising are some of the activities that can cause direct degradation of marine ecosystems such as coral reefs. As I said previously, this can have a significant knock on effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
Alteration of ecosystems by tourist activities
Habitats can be degraded by tourism leisure activities.
For example, wildlife viewing can bring about stress for the animals and alter their natural behaviour when tourists come too close.
Environmental impacts of tourism: Conclusion
As I have articulated throughout this post, there are a range of environmental impacts that result from tourism. Whilst some are good, the majority unfortunately are bad. The answer to many of these problems boils down to careful tourism planning and management and the adoption of sustainable tourism principles.
If you are studying the environmental impacts of tourism or if you are interested in learning more about the environmental impacts of tourism, I have compiled a short reading list for you below.
Environmental impacts of tourism reading list
- Outdoor Recreation: Environmental Impacts and Management– A comprehensive overview of the environmental impacts of various types of outdoor recreation, and how these can be best managed.
- Coral Reefs: Tourism, Conservation and Management– This book looks at coral reef science, management, conservation and tourism perspectives and takes a global perspective of coral reef tourism issues covering many of the world’s most significant coral reef destinations.
- Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet: Environmental, Business and Policy Solutions– This book documents how technology and the growing global middle class are driving a travel revolution which requires a new paradigm in managing tourism destinations.
- Managing Environments for Leisure and Recreation– This book urges managers to balance the need for a systematic approach, with the need for a systemic development of an environmental management ethic. It is highly illustrated with over 50 line drawings and includes many case studies from around the world.
- Tourism and Trails: Cultural, Ecological and Management Issues– This book is the first to comprehensively examine tourism trails from a tourism and recreation perspective.
- Natural Area Tourism: Ecology, Impacts and Management– This book provides a comprehensive description of tourism in natural areas allowing readers to understand the scope of, complexities arising from, and possibilities of undertaking successful tourism developments in natural areas.