The tourism industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. On a local, national, and international level, tourism is economically and environmentally significant actor that has great power to affect the future development.
Tourism has the capacity to help support communities and instigate positive environmental change when done with the right approach towards the long-term sustainability in regions and complying with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals that range from eradicating hunger, gender equality to addressing climate actions based on the specific regional needs.
We can see the rise of the positive trend in the last years. Ecotourism and sustainable tourism have gained popularity in the industry but there are still many areas where improvements need to be done. If the number of tourists in a given area is greater than the capacity of the local environment or supporting infrastructure (which is the case of many popular destinations), negative impacts quickly arise and can become overwhelming for the system.
As we embark on new adventures in foreign countries it’s important to realize what environmental impacts our presence poses to local ecosystems and resources. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three negative environmental impacts of tourism are: the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation of ecosystems. We will look at these more in detail now.
How does tourism affect the environment? The negative environmental impacts of tourism
Tourism sector has great influence over wellbeing of local residents. It is an industry that flourishes in large cities as well as remote rural areas rich in natural wonders. For many distant communities, tourism is the only opportunity of generating sufficient income to sustain their lifestyle and traditions. It can bring lot of good to regions, but also lot of bad – fast degradation, extinction, and depletion, if not done with the long-term planning and preservation in mind.
In some situations, it is difficult to realize this negative influence until its too late. We already have a few negative examples and data to look at to see the degrading tendency.
#1 The depletion of natural resources
The depletion of natural resources is a growing concern especially in places where resources are already scarce. Water, in particular, is considered a critical resource which is greatly misused in the tourism sector.
I. Water overuse
In many popular tourist destinations, water is overused by tourists in hotels, for breathtaking swimming pools and luxurious wellness areas. When on vacation, most travelers tend to use much more water for personal use than at home, resulting in larger quantities of wastewater and creating water shortages which affect local residents.
The high tourism season goes usually against the natural water cycle of an area and doesn’t consider years with insufficient rainfall – a problem that is on the rise due to climate shift. The driest months of the year are the months of peaking demand for water in resorts and areas of a special tourist interest. These places get crowded with people who expect to have unlimited accessibility to clean water supply from local sources.
This creates many problems for residents in not having enough water for basic daily needs, as groundwater is often redirected and overdrawn by large hotels, resulting in drying wells of small communities, and increasing salinity of the remaining water table from dissolved minerals in the soil. Additionally, many small farmers struggle with not having water to grow crops – especially during drier years when it hasn’t rained for months.
A special report on Water Equity in Tourism from 2012 mentions a sad statistic. Globally, almost 900 million people still lack access to clean water and 2 million people (mostly children) die every year due to the health problems arising from this hindered access. These numbers include people from countries with popular destinations, mainly in the Global South or Mediterranean.
Zanzibar, Bali, India, but even Greece and Spain are suffering of these consequences. In Zanzibar, an average household consumes a little over 93 liters of water per day, while an average consumption per room in a guesthouse is 686 liters. That is 7 times more. But the difference is even bigger when it comes to a luxurious 5-star hotel room. The consumption rises to unbelievable 3,000+ liters of water per day .
Tourism and agriculture compete for water also in Spain. Spain is important producer of vegetables and fruits for the rest of Europe. The intensive agriculture and greenhouse cultivation requires water to keep up with the demand. At the same time, the country is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations with great demand for water despite the fact that the country has been drought stricken for a couple years in a row due to climate change . Both of these important economic sectors are standing against each other in an unsustainable way.
II. Other resources
The tourism industry depends upon consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources that are available at a given location. This includes variety of minerals, metals, and biomass resources. The industry burns higher amounts of fossil fuels and therefore produces greenhouse gases; affects health of fertile soils needed to grow enough food, and hurts whole ecosystems like, for example, forests or biodiverse wetlands, and this way the impacts reach even the local wildlife. When more recreational facilities are built, natural habitats with their riches are destroyed and animals are driven away into scarce natural areas or conflict with other human projects.
Land resources, such as forests, are affected when trees are used for building materials or collected for fuel. Tourist attractions and accommodations are heavily reliant on energy for heating, provision of hot water and electricity. That is where the energy demand actually follows the same pattern as water consumption.
Imagine a town like Venice. The town has 271 thousand permanent residents  but welcomes every year increasing number of tourists. In 2003, 2.75 million tourists visited the town, while in 2019 this number has risen to 5.5 million . Each visitor consumes energy and resources of the town, further contributing to environmental problems linked with the use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources.
#2 Overconsumption & Waste production, incl. food waste
What is the most common image of a nice vacation at some beautiful beach town? Good food, drinks at the beach, little refreshments, and attractive sights with a variety of relaxing activities for everyone. When on vacation, most of us want to forget daily responsibilities. This includes meal planning or carrying with us that refillable water bottle or other long-term use items like quality slippers or reusable shopping bags.
When indulging on that new experience, many rely on single-use plastic items that are fast to dispose. In fact, tourists can produce twice that much waste in a day than long term residents. It has been estimated that the marine litter in the Mediterranean increases by up to 40 percent during the peak season .
UNEP estimates that one guest can generate from between 1 to 12 kg of solid waste per day when visiting a new place . The numbers vary based on many factors – location, the type of accommodation, personal preferences, and a character of the stay. Based on the predictions, we would see an increase of 251 percent in solid waste production due to tourism through 2050, if countries do not adopt sustainable practices of addressing product cycle and waste disposal.
Tourists also tend to be more reckless with food. Such behavior contributes to food wasting which is a large problem on its own.
However, waste directly produced by a tourist is not the only waste coming from popular destinations. Large portion of solid waste originates from the background services for tourists – laundries, restaurants, wellness, entertainment and accommodations.
Solid waste and littering can degrade ecosystems and alter the physical appearance of the landscape. Marine litter harms marine life, often leading to their death, and degrades sensitive and unique, yet vital, ecosystems.
As more tourism facilities are built, sewage pollution also increases. Sewage runoff in seas and lakes damages terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including vulnerable coral reefs which are often the main attraction of a place. Pollution of waterways in any way can stimulate excessive growth of algae, leading to eutrophication, and alter salinity and siltation of water bodies. These are changes to the environment make it difficult for native plants and animals to survive.
Pollution in the tourism industry comes in many forms: increased emissions linked to transport and higher need of energy, solid waste as mentioned in the paragraph above, sewage, oil and chemical spills, but even the less talked about noise and light pollution.
One of the reasons why newly hatched sea turtle babies get confused and head in the opposite direction of water, are the artificial lights we installed along coastlines. Baby turtles have strong instinct to follow the light to guide them to the sea where their life journey begins. In nature, the moon reflection on the water was the brightest point on the beach. Nowadays, however, lamps, bars and other lights shine brighter at night and easily confuse the hatchlings to head in the wrong direction and often lose their life because of that.
Noise pollution arises from transportation and recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles and jet skis. Noisy tourist destinations and thoroughfares can disturb and distress wildlife, especially in sensitive ecosystems that are often the reason why tourists visit the location in the first place.
Cruise ships are among the top polluters. These “floating cities” make extra noise in deep waters and migration routes of many aquatic mammals who are highly sensitive to noise levels in their serene environment. But that’s not all. Cruises release high amounts of raw sewage and waste of passengers directly into the water. Unfortunately, their practices of dealing with waste are not transparent and are corrupt. At the same time, these giant ships burn fossil fuel and release pollutants in the air, including excessive amounts of carbon dioxide .
Scientists have also found that bacteria originating from sewage contamination of coastal waters affect coral reefs in numerous locations and is clearly linked to increased popularity as tourist destination. One badly affected example is the Mesoamerican Reef. The Reef has already lost 80 percent of corals to pollution released from insufficient infrastructure of trending destinations, such as Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen, that host increasing numbers of tourists. The main problem here is too fast development of luxurious resorts without specific plans for upgrading wastewater treatment facilities and infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is a common issue of many special locations of natural beauty.
#4 Greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to global warming
Most human activities that encompass modern lifestyle contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this travel to some exotic destination half-way across the globe and the number grows even bigger, adding up large chunk to our carbon footprint. In total, tourism accounts for more than 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide. This number has been growing steadily and made up around 1,600 million tons of CO2 in 2016 .
According to a report from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the transport is responsible for 75 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in tourism. Air, road, and rail transportation are the main means of travel among tourists. The most polluting form of travel in terms of emissions are the flights – airplanes accounted for 40 percent out of total CO2 emissions in tourism sector in 2005 – especially due to low prices of flights that made this way of travel accessible to masses. The next significant polluter were cars with 32 percent .
Energy consumption to provide services tourists expect is the next large CO2 contributor after the transport. Most accommodations still rely heavily on fossil fuel energy to run air conditioners, water and room heating and other basic or extra services (spas, pools) that consume lot of power. Unfortunately, the burning of fossil fuels has impacts globally and contributes to climate change.
Energy and transport are both needed even when new resorts are built, or to bring diversity of food to offer to guests, to pick up solid waste, or to clean and maintain recreational areas. Carbon dioxide is not the only gas emitted in the air during these processes, other potent greenhouse gasses such as methane or nitrous oxide are as well. The contribution of tourism to climate change is significant and will grow unless switch to renewable energy is made.
#5 Soil erosion and unsustainable land use
Reckless development and fast expansion of infrastructure, insufficient infrastructure like for example not enough parking spots and cars parked on the edges of roads, too crowded natural sites, disrespect of rules (stepping off the path) can easily kickstart erosive processes and speed up degradation of sites.
Tourism and recreational activities often change soil properties, especially if the number of tourists is greater than the ecosystem capacity to deal with it. In the most visited places, tourists trample the vegetation around trails, slowly creating larger patches of vegetation free surface. Frequently walked trails become compacted, which leads to the decreased soil permeability and higher surface runoff. The combination of these factors then results in progressively eroding trails and areas around them as people try to avoid slippery or muddy surface of the main trail.
The same scenario happens when off-road biking, horse riding, having fun with ATVs or parking cars on the side of the road.
Construction sites of new resorts or their expansion into surrounding natural areas, coastlines or on the mountain sites is a big contributor to erosion. Many projects begin by removing vegetation, which affects the ability of soils to absorb water, often leaving soils exposed and vulnerable for many years before the project is finished.
Impervious surfaces of roads, parking lots or around accommodation units do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground. This increases the surface runoff which washes off fragmented pieces of soil even faster. In some locations, spaces between buildings create pathways for wind that magnify its erosive power.
#6 Physical degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
It is estimated that the average rate of expansion of tourism is 3 percent in developed countries and can be up to 8 percent in developing countries . The industry has many physical impacts on the environment where growth happens, and more short-term visitors come by to admire the place. Many popular tourist sites are located in areas of sensitive ecosystems. Ecosystems such as rain forests, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass beds and alpine regions are often threatened because they are attractive places to developers and tourists who seek the special feeling of a close contact with nature’s wonders.
Construction and infrastructure development can include extensive paving, sand mining, wetland draining, marine development and deforestation. Unsustainable land use practices can lead to sand dune and soil erosion and the deterioration of the landscape.
Not only is the physical environment under threat but living organisms and their natural cycles are also altered. Ecosystem disturbance can lead to destruction in the long term. Poor building regulations and land use planning can also alter the aesthetic appeal of the local environment. This puts a strain on both the natural environment and indigenous structures of the area.
Around the world are many ecotourism activities and sustainable tourism businesses that keep environmental values at the heart of their business practices. Conventional tourism businesses on the other hand don’t always consider natural resources, pollution and environmental degradation.
Before you jet off on your next travel adventure be sure to take some environmental values with you. To reduce your ecological footprint as a tourist be sure to conserve the amount of water you use, dispose of waste appropriately, tread lightly on the land, and become aware of the local ecosystems you choose to visit. Wherever you may go in the world do your best to support green businesses and minimize your impact on the environment.