(Last updated on: 24/05/2022)
Sustainable tourism- have you heard of this term? Probably. That’s because the term ‘sustainability’ has become one of the most commonly used ‘buzzwords’ in contemporary society. But in reality, sustainable tourism is much more than the latest trend…
Today I am going to talk to you about the most important thing in travel- sustainability. While there are companies who claim to be ‘sustainable’ in order to achieve good PR and greenwashing happens more often than any of us wish to admit, the reality is that sustainability is literally a matter of life and death. As highlighted by Guru David Attenborough, amongst many others, if we continue to act in the way that we are, the planet will not survive. And on a smaller scale and in a somewhat shorter time frame, if we continue to holiday in the way that we have been, tourism will not survive.
Sustainable tourism is not a choice, we have no choice- it MUST happen. And in this article I am going to tell you what this means for tourism industry workers, industry stakeholders and us- the tourists.
- What is sustainable tourism?
- Sustainable tourism definitions
- Why is sustainable tourism important?
- The principles of sustainable tourism
- Sustainable tourism: Understanding the impacts of tourism
- Sustainable tourism: Economic impacts of tourism
- Positive economic impacts of tourism
- Negative economic impacts of tourism
- Sustainable tourism: Social impacts of tourism
- Positive social impacts of tourism
- Negative social impacts of tourism
- Positive environmental impacts of tourism
- Negative environmental impacts of tourism
- Depletion of natural resources
- Physical impacts of tourism development
- Physical impacts from tourist activities
- Planning for sustainable tourism
- Basic stages in sustainable tourism development planning
- Formulating an approach to tourism policy and planning
- Why tourism planning is important
- Examples of sustainable tourism
- Sustainable Tourism: Conclusion
- Further reading on sustainable tourism
What is sustainable tourism?
Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing and most important industries and is a major source of income for many countries. However, like other forms of development, tourism can also cause its share of problems.
Sustainable tourism, therefore, relies on the premise of taking care of the environment, society and the economy. Sustainable tourism principles intend to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, whilst maximising the positive impacts. However, this if often easier said than done.
A large majority of global travellers (87 percent) say that they want to travel sustainably, according to the new Sustainable Travel Report released by Booking.com in honour of Earth Day in 2018, and I expect that this figure has increased since then, with a heightened awareness of sustainability resulting from the COVID pandemic. But what does sustainable tourism actually mean and are we really being sustainable?
Sustainable tourism definitions
Sustainable tourism is a tourism form which has received significant attention in recent years, both by the media and the academic community. If you Google the term ‘sustainable tourism’ over 270,000,000 results are returned- that’s a lot!
The body of literature addressing sustainable practices in tourism has expanded exponentially. In fact, there is so much information on the concept of sustainable tourism nowadays that you take take an entire travel and tourism degree focussed on the sustainability management issues!
One of the earliest and most regarded definitions of sustainable tourism was published in The Brundtland Report, where it was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This sums it up pretty well to me. Think about it- if everyone (industry workers, government, tourists etc) continues to act in the way that they have been, will our grandchildren or great grandchildren have the same opportunities that we have had? For example, if litter is dropped on the beach and not cleared up, then future tourists will not want to visit that beach. And if economic leakage is not controlled (i.e. when money spent by tourists leaves the country as a result of foreign owned businesses, imported produce etc) then the local people will see little or no benefits of the tourism and may become unwilling to work in the sector or even become antagonised by it. You see where I am going with this?
Another key definition of sustainable tourism is that of The United Nations World Tourism Organisation who state that sustainable tourism is “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.
According to the The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism should:
- Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
- Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
- Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.
As I pointed out, there is a wide breadth of tourism literature available in today’s market. Some of my favourite academic texts include Managing Sustainable Tourism by David Edgell and Sustainable Tourism by David Weaver. You can also find a wide range of research papers on Google Scholar.
Why is sustainable tourism important?
Sustainable tourism influences positive movements that in return will create successful development by following strategies that allow the positive impacts to outweigh negative impacts.
As you can see from the graph below, the tourism industry is predicted to continue growing at a rapid rate. This means that any negative impacts caused as a result of tourism will also grow, thus indicating an urgent need for these to be carefully managed and mitigated through sustainable tourism practices.
From the depths of the Amazon jungle to the Australian outback, there are few places in the world that have escaped the burgeoning growth of the travel and tourism industry. Unfortunately, in many cases, this has come at the expense of natural resources, local economies and indigenous populations.
A few years ago I visited a place called Dahab on my travels through Egypt, because I wanted visit the ‘Sharm el Sheik of 30 years ago’. I plan to visit the ‘Thailand of days past’ by travelling to Myanmar and I chose the ‘less trodden’ path when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Areas untouched by tourism are becoming more difficult to find. But more worryingly, areas that are untainted or undamaged by tourism are also becoming less common.
If we want to preserve the very things that it is we are going to see (the beach, the mountain, the wildlife etc), then we need to behave responsibly and sustainably.
The principles of sustainable tourism
- Using resources sustainably. The conservation and sustainable use of resources- natural, social and cultural – is crucial and makes long-term business sense.
- Reducing over-consumption and waste. Reduction of over-consumption and waste avoids the costs of restoring long-term environmental damage and contributes to the quality of tourism.
- Maintaining biodiversity. Maintaining and promoting natural, social and cultural diversity is essential for long-term sustainable tourism and creates a resilient base for the industry.
- Integrating tourism into planning. Tourism development which is integrated into a national and local strategic planning framework and which undertake environmental impact assessments increases the long-term viability of tourism.
- Supporting local economies. Tourism that supports a wide range of local economic activities and which takes environmental costs and values into account, both protects these economies and avoids environmental damage.
- Involving local communities. The full involvement of local communities in the tourism sector not only benefits them and the environment in general but also improves the quality of the tourism experience.
- Consulting stakeholders and the public. Consulting between the tourism industry and local communities, organizations and institutions are essential if they are to work alongside each other and resolve potential conflicts of interest.
- Training staff. Staff training which integrates sustainable tourism into work practices, along with recruitment of personnel at all levels, improves the quality of the tourism product.
- Marketing tourism responsibly. Marketing that provides tourists with the full and responsible information increases respect for the natural, social and cultural environments of destination areas and enhances customer satisfaction.
- Undertaking research. Ongoing research and monitoring by the industry using effective data collection and analysis are essential to help solve problems and to bring benefits to destinations, the industry, and consumers.
Sustainable tourism: Understanding the impacts of tourism
In order to ensure that sustainable tourism aims are met, tourism stakeholders need to consider the positive and negative impacts of tourism. They must make sure that the positive impacts are maximised and that the negative impacts are minimised.
Tourism is the largest industry in the world and with that status comes great influence. According to the UNWTO, the impacts developed from the tourism industry can be categorised economically, socially and environmentally.
Below I have summarised the impacts of tourism, to help you further understand the complexity of ensuring sustainable tourism is suitably implemented and managed.
Sustainable tourism: Economic impacts of tourism
Tourism brings with it huge economic potential for a destination that wishes to develop their tourism industry. Employment, currency exchange, imports and taxes are just a few of the ways that tourism can bring money into a destination.
In recent years, tourism numbers have increased globally at exponential rates, as shown in the World Tourism Organisation data below. There are a number of reasons for this growth including improvements in technology, increases in disposable income, the growth of budget airlines and consumer desires to travel further, to new destinations and more often.
Here are a few facts about the economic importance of the tourism industry globally:
- The tourism economy represents 5 percent of world GDP
- Tourism contributes to 6-7 percent of total employment
- International tourism ranks fourth (after fuels, chemicals and automotive products) in global exports
- The tourism industry is valued at US$1trillion a year
- Tourism accounts for 30 percent of the world’s exports of commercial services
- Tourism accounts for 6 percent of total exports
- 1.4billion international tourists were recorded in 2018 (UNWTO)
- In over 150 countries, tourism is one of five top export earners
- Tourism is the main source of foreign exchange for one-third of developing countries and one-half of less economically developed countries (LEDCs)
There is a wealth of data about the economic value of tourism worldwide, with lots of handy graphs and charts in the United Nations Economic Impact Report.
In short, tourism is an example of an economic policy pursued by governments because:
- it brings in foreign exchange
- it generates employment
- it creates economic activity
Building and developing a tourism industry, however, involves a lot of initial and ongoing expenditure. The airport may need expanding. The beaches need to be regularly cleaned. New roads may need to be built. All of this takes money, which is usually a financial outlay required by the Government.
For governments, decisions have to be made regarding their expenditure. They must ask questions such as:
How much money should be spent on the provision of social services such as health, education, housing?
How much should be spent on building new tourism facilities or maintaining existing ones?
If financial investment and resources are provided for tourism, the issue of opportunity costs arises.
By opportunity costs, I mean that by spending money on tourism, money will not be spent somewhere else. Think of it like this- we all have a specified amount of money and when it runs out, it runs out. If we decide to buy the new shoes instead of going out for dinner than we might look great, but have nowhere to go…!
In tourism, this means that the money and resources that are used for one purpose may not then be available to be used for other purposes. Some destinations have been known to spend more money on tourism than on providing education or healthcare for the people who live there, for example.
This can be said for other stakeholders of the tourism industry too. There are a number of independent, franchised or multinational investors who play an important role in the industry. They may own hotels, roads or land amongst other aspects that are important players in the overall success of the tourism industry. Many businesses and individuals will take out loans, to help fund their initial ventures.
Positive economic impacts of tourism
As I explained, most destinations choose to invest their time and money into tourism because of the positive economic impacts that they hope to achieve. There are a range of possible positive economic impacts. I will explain the most common economic benefits of tourism below.
Foreign exchange earnings
One of the biggest benefits of tourism is the ability to make money through foreign exchange earnings.
Tourism expenditures generate income to the host economy. The money that the country makes from tourism can then be reinvested in the economy. How a destination manages their finances differs around the world; some destinations may spend this money on growing their tourism industry further, some may spend this money on public services such as education or healthcare and some destinations suffer extreme corruption so nobody really knows where the money ends up!
Some currencies are worth more than others and so some countries will target tourists from particular areas. I remember when I visited Goa and somebody helped to carry my luggage at the airport. I wanted to give them a small tip and handed them some Rupees only to be told that the young man would prefer a British Pound!
Currencies that are strong are generally the most desirable currencies. This typically includes the British Pound, American, Australian and Singapore Dollar and the Euro.
Tourism is one of the top five export categories for as many as 83% of countries and is a main source of foreign exchange earnings for at least 38% of countries.
Contribution to government revenues
Tourism can help to raise money that it then invested elsewhere by the Government. There are two main ways that this money is accumulated.
Direct contributions are generated by taxes on incomes from tourism employment and tourism businesses and things such as departure taxes.
Taxes differ considerably between destinations. I will never forget the first time that I was asked to pay a departure tax (I had never heard of it before then), because I was on my way home from a six month backpacking trip and I was almost out of money!
According to the World Tourism Organisation, the direct contribution of Travel & Tourism to GDP in 2018 was $2,750.7billion (3.2% of GDP). This is forecast to rise by 3.6% to $2,849.2billion in 2019.
Indirect contributions come from goods and services supplied to tourists which are not directly related to the tourism industry.
Take food, for example. A tourist may buy food at a local supermarket. The supermarket is not directly associated with tourism, but if it wasn’t for tourism its revenues wouldn’t be as high because the tourists would not shop there.
There is also the income that is generated through induced contributions. This accounts for money spent by the people who are employed in the tourism industry. This might include costs for housing, food, clothing and leisure Activities amongst others. This will all contribute to an increase in economic activity in the area where tourism is being developed.
The rapid expansion of international tourism has led to significant employment creation. From hotel managers to theme park operatives to cleaners, tourism creates many employment opportunities. Tourism supports some 7% of the world’s workers.
There are two types of employment in the tourism industry: direct and indirect.
Direct employment includes jobs that are immediately associated with the tourism industry. This might include hotel staff, restaurant staff or taxi drivers, to name a few.
Indirect employment includes jobs which are not technically based in the tourism industry, but are related to the tourism industry. Take a fisherman, for example. He does not have any contact of dealings with tourists. BUT he does sell his fish to the hotel which serves tourists. So he is indirectly employed by the tourism industry, because without the tourists he would not be supplying the fish to the hotel.
It is because of these indirect relationships, that it is very difficult to accurately measure the economic value of tourism. It is also difficult to say how many people are employed, directly and indirectly, within the tourism industry. Furthermore, many informal employments may not be officially accounted for. Think tut tut driver in Cambodia or street seller in The Gambia- these people are not likely to be registered by the state and therefore their earnings are not declared.
It is for this reason that some suggest that the actual economic benefits of tourism may be as high as double that of the recorded figures!
Contribution to local economies
All of the money raised, whether through formal or informal means, has the potential to contribute to the local economy.
If sustainable tourism is demonstrated, money will be directed to areas that will benefit the local community most. There may be pro-poor tourism initiatives (tourism which is intended to help the poor) or volunteer tourism projects. The government may reinvest money towards public services and money earned by tourism employees will be spent in the local community. This is known as the multiplier effect.
The multiplier effect relates to spending in one place creating economic benefits elsewhere. Tourism can do wonders for a destination in areas that may seem to be completely unrelated to tourism, but which are actually connected somewhere in the economic system.
Development of the Private Sector
The private sector has continuously developed within the tourism industry and owning a business within the private sector can be extremely profitable; making this a positive economic impact of tourism.
Whilst many businesses that you will come across are multinational, internationally-owned organisations (which contribute towards economic leakage). Many are also owned by the local community. This is the case even more so in recent years due to the rise in the popularity of the sharing economy and the likes of Airbnb and Uber, which encourage the growth of businesses within the local community.
Every destination is different with regards to how they manage the development of the private sector in tourism. Some destinations do not allow multinational organisations for fear that they will steal business and thus profits away from local people. I have seen this myself in Italy when I was in search of a Starbucks mug for my collection, only to find that Italy has not allowed the company to open up any shops in their country because they are very proud of their individually-owned coffee shops.
Negative economic impacts of tourism
Unfortunately, the tourism industry doesn’t always smell of roses and there are also several negative economic impacts of tourism.
There are many hidden costs to tourism, which can have unfavourable economic effects on the host community. Whilst such negative impacts are well documented in the tourism literature, many tourists are unaware of the negative effects that their actions may cause. Likewise, many destinations who are inexperienced or uneducated in tourism and economics may not be aware of the problems that can occur if tourism is not management properly.
Below I will outline the most prominent negative economic impacts of tourism.
Economic leakage in tourism is when money spent does not remain in the country but ends up elsewhere; therefore limiting the economic benefits of tourism to the host destination.
The biggest culprits of economic leakage are multinational and internationally-owned corporations, all-inclusive holidays and enclave tourism.
I have written a detailed post on the concept of economic leakage in tourism, you can take a look here- Economic leakage in tourism explained.
Another negative economic impact of tourism is the cost of infrastructure. Tourism development can cost the local government and local taxpayers a great deal of money.
Tourism may require the government to improve the airport, roads and other infrastructure, which are costly. The development of the third runway at London Heathrow, for example, is estimated to cost £18.6billion!
Money spent in these areas may reduce government money needed in other critical areas such as education and health, as I outlined previously in my discussion on opportunity costs.
Increase in prices
One of the most obvious economic impacts of tourism is that the very presence of tourism increases prices in the local area.
Have you ever tried to buy a can of Coke in the supermarket in your hotel? Or the bar on the beachfront? Walk five minutes down the road and try buying that same can in a local shop- I promise you, in the majority of cases you will see a BIG difference In cost!
Increasing demand for basic services and goods from tourists will often cause price hikes that negatively impact local residents whose income does not increase proportionately.
Tourism development and the related rise in real estate demand may dramatically increase building costs and land values. This often means that local people will be forced to move away from the area that tourism is located, known as gentrification.
Taking measures to ensure that tourism is managed sustainably can help to mitigate this negative economic impact of tourism. Techniques such as employing only local people, limiting the number of all-inclusive hotels and encouraging the purchasing of local products and services can all help.
Economic dependence of the local community on tourism
Many countries run the risk of becoming too dependant on tourism. The country sees $ signs and places all of its efforts in tourism. Whilst this can work out well, it is also risky business!
If for some reason tourism begins to lack in a destination, then it is important that the destination has alternative methods of making money. If they don’t, then they run the risk of being in severe financial difficulty if there is a decline in their tourism industry.
In The Gambia, for instance, 30% of the workforce depends directly or indirectly on tourism. In small island developing states, percentages can range from 83% in the Maldives to 21% in the Seychelles and 34% in Jamaica.
There are a number of reasons that tourism could decline in a destination. The Gambia has experienced this just recently when they had a double hit on their tourism industry. The first hit was due to political instability in the country, which has put many tourists off visiting, and the second was when airline Monarch went bust, as they had a large market share in flights to The Gambia.
Other issues that could result in a decline in tourism includes economic recession, natural disasters and changing tourism patterns. Over-reliance on tourism carries risks to tourism-dependent economies, which can have devastating consequences.
Foreign Ownership and Management
The last negative economic impact of tourism that I will discuss is that of foreign ownership and management.
As enterprise in the developed world becomes increasingly expensive, many businesses choose to go abroad. Whilst this may save the business money, it is usually not so beneficial for the economy of the host destination.
Foreign companies often bring with them their own staff, thus limiting the economic impact of increased employment. They will usually also export a large proportion of their income to the country where they are based. You can read more on this in my post on economic leakage in tourism.
Sustainable tourism: Social impacts of tourism
Firstly, we need to understand what is meant by the term ‘social impacts of tourism’.
To put it simply, social impacts of tourism are;
“The effects on host communities of direct and indirect relations with tourists, and of interaction with the tourism industry”
This is also often referred to as socio-cultural impacts.
Tourism is, at its core, an interactive service. This means that host-guest interaction is inevitable. This can have significant social/socio-cultural impacts.
These social impacts can be seen as benefits or costs (good or bad). I will explain these below.
Positive social impacts of tourism
There are many social benefits of tourism, demonstrating positive social impacts. These might include; preserving the local culture and heritage; strengthening communities; provision of social services; commercialisation of culture and art; revitalisation of customs and art forms and the preservation of heritage.
Preserving Local Culture
It is the local culture that the tourists are often coming to visit.
Tourists visit Beijing to learn more about the Chinese Dynasties. Tourists visit Thailand to taste authentic Thai food. Tourists travel to Brazil to go to the Rio Carnival, to mention a few…
Many destinations will make a conserved effort to preserve and protect the local culture. This often contributes to the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, the protection of local heritage, and a renaissance of indigenous cultures, cultural arts and crafts.
In one way, this is great! Cultures are preserved and protected and globalisation is limited. BUT, I can’t help but wonder if this is always natural? We don’t walk around in Victorian corsets or smoke pipes anymore…
Our social settings have changed immensely over the years. And this is a normal part of evolution! So is it right that we should try to preserve the culture of an area for the purposes of tourism? Or should we let them grow and change, just as we do? Something to ponder on I guess…
Tourism can be a catalyst for strengthening a local community.
Events and festivals of which local residents have been the primary participants and spectators are often rejuvenated and developed in response to tourist interest. I certainly felt this was the way when I went to the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. The community atmosphere and vibe were just fantastic!
The jobs created by tourism can also be a great boost for the local community. Aside from the economic impacts created by enhanced employment prospects, people with jobs are happier and more social than those without a disposable income.
Local people can also increase their influence on tourism development, as well as improve their job and earnings prospects, through tourism-related professional training and development of business and organisational skills.
Provision of Social Services
The tourism industry requires many facilities/ infrastructure to meet the needs of the tourist. This often means that many developments in an area as a result of tourism will be available for use by the locals also.
Local people often gained new roads, new sewage systems, new playgrounds, bus services etc as a result of tourism. This can provide a great boost to their quality of life and is a great example of a positive social impact of tourism.
Commercialisation of Culture and Art
Tourism can see rise to many commercial business, which can be a positive social impact of tourism. This helps to enhance the community spirit as people tend to have more disposable income as a result.
These businesses may also promote the local cultures and arts. Museums, shows and galleries are fantastic way to showcase the local customs and traditions of a destination. This can help to promote/ preserve local traditions.
Revitalisation of Culture and Art
Some destinations will encourage local cultures and arts to be revitalised. This may be in the form of museum exhibitions, in the way that restaurants and shops are decorated and in the entertainment on offer, for example.
This may help promote traditions that may have become distant.
Preservation of Heritage
Many tourists will visit the destination especially to see its local heritage. It is for this reason that many destinations will make every effort to preserve its heritage.
This could include putting restrictions in place or limiting tourist numbers, if necessary. This is often an example of careful tourism planning and sustainable tourism management.
This text by Hyung You Park explains the principles of heritage tourism in more detail.
Negative social impacts of tourism
Unfortunately, there are a large number of socio-cultural costs on the host communities. These negative social impacts include; social change; changing values; increased crime and gambling; changes in moral behaviour; changes in family structure and roles; problems with the tourist-host relationship and the destruction of heritage.
Social change is basically referring to changes in the way that society acts or behaves. Unfortunately, there are many changes that come about as a result of tourism that are not desirable.
There are many examples throughout the world where local populations have changed because of tourism. Perhaps they have changed the way that they speak or the way that they dress. Perhaps they have been introduced to alcohol through the tourism industry or they have become resentful of rich tourists and turned to crime. These are just a few examples of the negative social impacts of tourism.
Globalisation and the Destruction of Preservation and Heritage
Globalisation is the way in which the world is becoming increasingly connected. We are losing our individuality and gaining a sense of ‘global being’, whereby we more and more alike than ever before.
Globalisation is inevitable in the tourism industry because of the interaction between tourists and hosts, which typically come from different geographic and cultural backgrounds. It is this interaction that encourage us to become more alike.
Many people believe globalisation to be a bad thing. BUT, there are also some positives. Think about this…
Do you want an ‘authentic’ squat toilet in your hotel bathroom or would you rather use a Western toilet? Are you happy to eat rice and curry for breakfast as the locals would do or do you want your cornflakes? Do you want to struggle to get by when you don’t speak the local language or are you pleased to find somebody who speaks English?
When we travel, most tourists do want a sense of ‘familiar’. And globalisation helps us to get that!
You can learn more about globalisation in this post- What is globalisation? A simple explanation.
Loss of Authenticity
Along similar lines to globalisation is the loss of authenticity that often results from tourism.
Authenticity is essentially something that is original or unchanged. It is not fake or reproduced in any way.
The Western world believe that a tourist destination is no longer authentic when their cultural values and traditions change. But I would argue is this not natural? Is culture suppose to stay the same or it suppose to evolve throughout each generation?
Take a look at the likes of the long neck tribe in Thailand or the Maasai Tribe in Africa. These are two examples of cultures which have remained ‘unchanged’ for the sole purpose of tourism. They appear not to have changed the way that they dress, they way that they speak or the way that they act in generations, all for the purpose of tourism.
To me, however, this begs the question- is it actually authentic? In fact, is this not the exact example of what is not authentic? The rest of the world have modern electricity and iPhones, they watch TV and buy their clothes in the nearest shopping mall. But because tourists want an ‘authentic’ experience, these people have not moved on with the rest of the world, but instead have remained the same.
I think there is also an ethical discussion to be had here, but I’ll leave that for another day…
Standardisation and Commercialisation
Similarly, destinations risk standardisation in the process of satisfying tourists’ desires for familiar facilities and experiences.
While landscape, accommodation, food and drinks, etc., must meet the tourists’ desire for the new and unfamiliar, they must at the same time not be too new or strange because few tourists are actually looking for completely new things (think again about the toilet example I have previously).
Tourists often look for recognisable facilities in an unfamiliar environment, like well-known fast-food restaurants and hotel chains. Tourist like some things to be standardised (the toilet, their breakfast, their drinks, the language spoken etc), but others to be different (dinner options, music, weather, tourist attractions etc).
Do we want everything to become ‘standardised’ though? I know I miss seeing the little independent shops that used to fill the high streets in the UK. Now it’s all chains and multinational corporations. Sure, I like Starbucks (my mug collection is coming on quite nicely!), but I also love the way that there are no Starbucks in Italy. There’s something great about trying out a traditional, yet unfamiliar coffee shop, or any independant place for that matter.
I personally think that tourism industry stakeholders should proceed with caution when it comes to ‘standardisation’. Sure, give the tourists that sense of familiar that they are looking for. But don’t dilute the culture and traditions of the destination that they are coming to visit, because if it feels too much like home….. well, maybe they will just stay at home next time? Just a little something to think about…
On a less philosophical note, another negative social impact of tourism that can have significant consequences is culture clashes.
Because tourism involves movement of people to different geographical locations cultural clashes can take place as a result of differences in cultures, ethnic and religious groups, values, lifestyles, languages and levels of prosperity.
The attitude of local residents towards tourism development may unfold through the stages of euphoria, where visitors are very welcome, through apathy, irritation and potentially antagonism when anti-tourist attitudes begin to grow among local people. This is represented in Doxey’s Irritation Index, as shown below.
Culture clashes can also be exasperated by the fundamental differences in culture between the hosts and the tourists.
There is likely to be economic inequality between locals and tourists who are spending more than they usually do at home. This can cause resentment from the hosts towards the tourists, particularly when they see them wearing expensive jewellery or using plush cameras etc that they know they can’t afford themselves.
Further to this, tourists often, out of ignorance or carelessness, fail to respect local customs and moral values.
Think about it. Is it right to go topless on a beach if within the local culture it is unacceptable to show even your shoulders?
There are many examples of ways that tourists offend the local population, often unintentionally. Did you know that you should never put your back to a Buddha? Or show the sole of your feet to a Thai person? Or show romantic affection in public in the Middle East?
A little education in this respect could go a long way, but unfortunately, many travellers are completely unaware of the negative social impacts that their actions may have.
Increase in crime, gambling and moral behaviour
Crime rates typically increase with the growth and urbanization of an area and the growth of mass tourism is often accompanied by increased crime.
The presence of a large number of tourists with a lot of money to spend and often carrying valuables such as cameras and jewellery increases the attraction for criminals and brings with it activities like robbery and drug dealing.
Although tourism is not the cause of sexual exploitation, it provides easy access to it e.g. prostitution and sex tourism. Therefore, tourism can contribute to rises in the numbers of sex workers in a given area. I have seen this myself in many places including The Gambia and Thailand.
Lastly, gambling is a common occurrence as a result of tourism. Growth of casinos and other gambling facilities can encourage not only the tourists to part with their cash, but also the local population.
Sustainable tourism: Environmental impacts of 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?).
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.
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.
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.
Planning for sustainable tourism
A key aspect to ensuring sustainable tourism is achieved is through careful planning and management. This often starts in the early stages of planning for tourism, but it can also be implemented at later stages too.
Tourism development refers to the growth and maintenance of the tourism industry in a given locality. And, of course, tourism planning is a very important part of this.
On a basic level, tourism development can be defined as creating strategies and plans to increase/develop/encourage tourism for a destination. The fundamental reason behind planning and implementing strategies for developing the tourism sector is primarily to make money and to subsequently increase the GDP of a country/area.
Tourism development consists of many elements including, but not limited to: developing and managing private-public partnerships, assessing the competitors to gain competitive advantage, ensuring responsible and sustainable development, viewing tourism as an interconnected system and a demand-driven sector, assessing private sector investment and international cooperation, tourism clustering and involvement by the Government.
According to Williams cited in Mason (2003);
‘The aim of modern planning is to seek optimal solutions to perceived problems and that it is designed to increase and, hopefully maximise development benefits, which will produce predictable outcomes’.
And Getz (1987) cited in Pearce (1989) defines tourism planning as;
“A process, based on research and evaluation, which seeks to optimise the potential contribution of tourism to human welfare and environmental quality”
For more on what constitutes tourism planning I recommend that you refer to the texts Tourism Policy and Planning: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow by Edgell and Swanson and Tourism Planning and Destination Marketing by Camilleri.
Basic stages in sustainable tourism development planning
Sustainable tourism development planning is no simple task and there are many variables to consider. There are also different levels of tourism planning and policy.
Fortunately, destinations can learn lessons from other areas which have been successful or otherwise. Take for example, over dependence on tourism in Egypt as I explain in this post- Why Unpaid Business is Better than No Business: The Case of the Egyptian Boatman. It is also worthwhile to look at the tourism policies of similar destinations. Some strong examples include Jamaica and Cape Town.
On a basic level, the main stages in tourism development planning include: the analysis of previous tourist development; evaluation of the position of tourism in the area including competition; formulation of relevant tourism policy by Government; the defining of a development strategy and the formation of a programme of action.
Formulating an approach to tourism policy and planning
There are six ‘golden rules’ that should be applied when formulating an approach to tourism planning and policy, as outlined by Inskeep (1991).
Clear recognition of tourism’s role in achieving broad national and community goals
Incorporating tourism policy and planning into the mainstream of planning for the economy, land use and infrastructure, conservation and environment
Planning for tourism development that trades successfully in a competitive global marketplace
Developing tourism which build on the destination’s inherent strengths whilst protecting and enhancing the attributes and experiences of current tourism assets
Incorporating the wider community attitudes, needs and wants to determine what is acceptable to the population
Drawing on primary or secondary research to provide conceptual or predictive support for planners including the experiences of other tourism destinations
Why tourism planning is important
Sustainable tourism planning really can make or break a destination. If done well, it can ensure the longevity of the tourism industry in the area, take good care of the environment, have positive economic outcomes and a positive benefit to the community.
If done badly, tourism development can destroy the very environment or culture that it relies on. It can disrupt local economies, cause inflation and negative effects to local people and businesses. Unfortunately, developing countries tend to suffer the most from negative impacts such as these, largely as a result of limited education and experience in contrast with Western nations.
Examples of sustainable tourism
It’s not difficult to be a sustainable tourist, the biggest problem is a general lack of awareness amongst many tourists. If you want to learn more about how to be a sustainable traveller I recommend this book- How to be a highly Sustainable Tourist: A Guidebook for the Conscientious Traveller.
There are so many wonderful examples of sustainable tourism throughout the world! I have visited a few and I have lots more on my bucket list. Here are a few of my favourite examples.
Footsteps Ecolodge, The Gambia
My first example of sustainable tourism is Footsteps Ecolodge, which I visited back in 2010.
David, the Founder of Footsteps Ecolodge expresses how when he took a relatively cheap trip to The Gambia, he discovered that the staff at his booked hotel were only earning on average £1 per day. David felt guilty for enjoying a holiday knowing that the locals were receiving little or no economic benefits at all from hosting him.
David went on to develop Footsteps Ecolodge, with a mission to improve The Gambia’s trade through responsible tourism and therefore encourages sustainable development. In fact, one of his goals has led footsteps to employ only from the local village and buy only local produce.
I loved visiting this ecolodge. It has many environmentally friendly initiatives, ranging from solar powered electricity to composting toilets. It is based far away from the main tourist areas, providing a unique and authentic holiday experience. After spending a few days in the main tourist resort of Kotu, I was happy to exchange the evening chatter in the restaurants for the humming of grasshoppers and the beach bar music for the gentle sounds of waves.
You can read more on David’s story and the story behind Footsteps Ecolodge here.
Eden Project, Cornwall
The Eden Project is another great example of sustainable tourism.
It was built to demonstrate the importance of plants to people and to promote the understanding of vital relationships between plants and people. It is a huge complex that welcomes a wide range of tourists from the UK and overseas. In 2017, the project attracted more than one million visitors.
The project in fact has annual sustainability reports, monitoring its sustainable impact year on year.
Reality Tours and Travel, India
Reality Tours and Travel’s mission is to provide authentic and thought-provoking local experiences through their tours and to use the profits to create change in Indian communities.
Reality Tours and Travel is a social catalyst and works towards profit sharing programs. 80% of their profits go directly to Reality Gives which runs high quality education programs in areas where their tours work.
Reality Tours and Travel now welcomes over 15,000 guests each year and employs over 50 members of staff.
Dolphin Discovery Centre, Western Australia
The Dolphin Discovery Centre begun when Mrs Evelyn Smith begun to feed a group of dolphins near her home. Following her discovery of the dolphin grouping, specialists were brought in to monitor and study the local dolphins.
A few years later, the Dolphin Discovery Centre allowed tourists and community members to interact with the dolphins in hope they would understand and enjoy the marine mammals.
In brief, the Dolphin Discovery Centre Adopt a Dolphin Program supports the conservation of dolphins and the broader marine environment.
To date, the Dolphin Discovery Centre not only conserves dolphins, the centre also conserves turtles too. Learn more on adopting a dolphin or turtle with the Dolphin Discovery Centre here.
Rancho Margot, Costa Rica
Ranch Margot is exactly what it sounds, a ranch located in Costa Rica. It all begun in 2004 when the founder of Rancho Margot, Juan Sostheim, purchased 400 acres of pasture. Despite the land being cleared of all vegetation, Juan Sostheim had a vision to grow sustainable food and raising animals.
Today, Rancho Margot focuses specifically on sustainable production and living, from the food they delivery to their energy production and the transportation used. Read more on Rancho Margot here.
Rancho Margot’s sustainable mission is in keeping with the Brundtland Report.
“To achieve and maintain sustainable operations, we work to find better ways to satisfy our needs without compromising future generations”
Whilst I didn’t get a chance got visit Rancho Margot during our travels through Costa Rica, it does look like a fantastic place to go and a great example of sustainable tourism.
Sustainable Tourism: Conclusion
To summarise, sustainable tourism is a form of tourism that takes a long term approach. It considers needs of the future, not only the present. Sustainable tourism has close ties with a number of other tourism forms such as responsible tourism, alternative tourism and ecotourism. In order to be sustainable the three pillars of sustainable tourism must be accounted for: economic impacts, social impacts, environmental impacts.
Typically tourists who partake in sustainable tourism activities will have a desire to help and support local communities and environments whilst avoiding any negative impacts their visit might bring. Many tourists now are far more conscious than they used to be and in general, society is a lot more aware of the impacts of their actions. In many ways, this has fuelled the sustainable behaviours of a number of stakeholders, who seek to please their customers and to enhance their own business prospects.
Are you a sustainable tourist? I would love to hear your views on the issue! Leave your comments below.
Further reading on sustainable tourism
- How to be a highly Sustainable Tourist: A Guidebook for the Conscientious Traveller– a great guide with tips on how to travel sustainably
- The Intrepid Traveler: The ultimate guide to responsible, ecological, and personal-growth travel and tourism– Leading travel expert Adam Rogers draws upon 40 years of experience exploring more than 130 countries in every region on Earth to share the smartest ways to travel in this tip-filled guide
- Outdoor Recreation: Environmental Impacts and Management– an academic text discussing the sustainability of outdoor pursuits
- Sustainable and Responsible Tourism: Trends, Practices and Cases– Sustainable tourism case studies from around the world
- Responsible Tourism: Using tourism for sustainable development– a textbook addressing the concept of sustainability in terms in development