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. Tourism has the capacity to help build communities and instigate positive environmental change. Sustainable and ecotourism has gained popularity in the industry but there are still many ways humans make their mark as tourists .
If the number of tourists in a given area is greater than the capacity of the local environment, then negative impacts quickly arise. As we embark on new adventures in new places it’s important to realize what environmental impacts our presence poses to the ecosystem. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three main environmental issues of tourism are: the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation.
- 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 natural resource. In general, water is overused in places such hotels, swimming pools and golf courses. Golf tourism has gained popularity but the maintenance of golf courses requires large quantities of water, which can lead to water scarcity. Tourists also tend to overuse water for personal use, resulting in larger quantities of waste water and water shortages. Water scarcity is an even bigger concern in dry and hot regions such as the Mediterranean. Tourists tend to consume more water when they visit places with a hot climate. According to the UNEP, tourists can use up to 440 litres of water per day .
The tourism industry can also put pressure on land resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, fertile soil, forests, wetlands and wildlife. More and more tourism and recreational facilities are being built, but their construction can pose a threat to wildlife and local ecosystems. Land resources, such as forests, are also impacted when used for building materials or collected for fuel. Tourist attractions and accommodations are also heavily reliant on energy resources for heating, hot water and electricity.
Pollution in the tourism industry comes in many forms: emissions, solid waste, litter, sewage, oil and chemicals, noise, and light pollution. In terms of CO2 emissions, tourism accounts for about 5% of emissions globally. Air, road, and rail transportation are the main means of travel among tourists, and the transport sector of tourism accounts for ~75% of total global emissions . Unfortunately, the burning of fossil fuels have impacts globally and contribute to climate change. Noise pollution also 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.
Improper disposal of waste is also a form of pollution, especially in places with high volumes of tourists. Solid waste and littering can degrade ecosystems and alter the physical appearance of the landscape. Not only that, but marine litter can harm marine mammals or potentially lead to their death. As more tourism facilities are built, sewage pollution also increases. Sewage runoff in seas and lakes can damage wildlife and ecosystems such as coral reefs. This can also stimulate growth of algae and alter salinity and siltation of water bodies. Sewage pollution not only poses health risks to the environment but also humans.
- Physical Degradation
The tourism industry also has many physical impacts on the environment. 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.
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 there 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.