If you asked random people from different countries whether tourism has negative or positive impacts on the environment, none of the answers would most likely prevail since their opinion will be based on their personal experience from travels. Tourism and environment have important, yet controversial relationship, that needs to be in a perfect balance to benefit each other.
Beautiful natural landscapes or unique flora and fauna are the main drivers of tourism into an area. But when too many tourists visit natural sites, environment and its inhabitants rather suffer from the negative impacts, which easily outweigh all the benefits due to exceeding the natural carrying capacity of a place.
On the other hand, when the number of visitors is balanced with respect for the natural environment, tourism has great potential in supporting or even starting out new conservation projects that protect unique areas and benefit local residents.
Sustainable tourism helps protect the environment
Many countries around the world depend on tourism as their main industry in providing jobs in rural areas and bringing in funds that would be otherwise out of their reach. Financial resources and employment are critical for local livelihoods and security. But as more and more countries focus on expanding their tourism sites, they often encounter problems with overconsumption of their finite natural resources, pollution, and degradation. This easily spirals into undesirable situations of negative impacts on the local environment and society.
Tourism as a fast-growing industry must follow the principles of sustainability in order to last long term while maintaining positive impacts for an area. In terms of environment, this means consumption of natural resources within acceptable limits, protecting biodiversity and making sure that essential ecological processes can take place, while providing a pleasant experience to visiting tourists .
A part of striving towards sustainability is also raising awareness about the unique natural features of an area and educating visitors about their sustainable management. This helps them to understand the rules set in place and respect differences.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in relation to tourism
Tourism represents 10 percent of world GDP. The industry increasingly affects the environment, culture, and socio-economic development of a country. Due to such a great reach, it is a powerful tool in facilitating change.
According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism contributes directly or indirectly to all the 17 goals of sustainable development (SDGs) that were defined together with additional 169 SDG targets to ensure safer future for life on Earth by 2030.
Since 2018, UNWTO operates even an online platform dedicated to achievement of SDGs through tourism. You can visit it here: https://tourism4sdgs.org/. On the platform is detailed description of each sustainable development goal in relation to tourism. SDGs address areas ranging from the importance of biodiversity, protection of marine ecosystems to urgent call for sustainable production and consumption.
Following the guidelines, UNWTO has, for example, partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and launched a Global Tourism Plastics Initiative to mitigate the problem of plastic pollution in the industry.
What are the positive impacts of tourism on the environment?
Sustainable tourism is the only way to go forward if the industry wants to grow. But throughout the last couple decades, tourism has been already growing and has introduced many new places to foreign visitors. In some regions, having the option of welcoming paying guests, tourism has brought many positive impacts on the environment. Let’s see their examples.
#1 Awareness raising and first-hand experience
Beautiful landscapes, animals in their natural environment, exotic ecosystems attract visitors from around the world. They are the primary reason why people travel. To get rest from their daily blues and experience ultimate relaxation from the connection with natural world. Tourism is the best tool to raise awareness of environmental values.
You learn the best when you do get to experience something directly, when you see it, touch it, and when you witness what threatens to destroy it. Personal visit of natural areas introduces you to the values they have for life. It makes you care about them, since you get to enjoy their special feeling. And memories you will have will encourage you to be environmentally-conscious in travel and personal life.
In January 2021, alarming pictures of the most touristy beaches in Bali buried in plastic waste that washed up on the shore due to the monsoon weather, appeared on social media of travelers and in the news . The images have drawn global attention and created a bad rep for single-use plastic items, making us (consumers) more aware of the true impact.
#2 Tourism for skills learning and education
This is a special side of tourism but plays also an important role in positive impacts of tourism on the environment. Visitors do not have to be drawn to places just for entertainment or relaxation, they may come with the primary mission of learning a new skill or gaining certain knowledge. Tourists come to see a special feature in an area and often pay for their stay, for food, or training, which is a nice way to support the work they came to admire. Additionally, they may also put the new knowledge to use for their own projects.
One nice example of this form of tourism could be visiting a permaculture farm with the purpose to learn about the practices applied on the farm and exchange ideas on what might work at home. Another example, that could inspire many, is spending time on edible forest farms, learning about planting diversity of low maintenance plants on your piece of land. Or visiting villages excelling in agroforestry farming practices which have allowed them to harvest variety of products from their lands, while protecting sensitive mountainous environments, where intensive farming would not be an option.
#3 Support of conservation and biodiversity protection activities
Africa is a prime example of a country where tourism has had a positive effect on wildlife protection. Wildlife tourism in Africa makes around 36 percent of the tourism industry, contributing over $29 billion to the continent’s economy and provides jobs to 3.6 million people .
The opportunity of seeing wild animals in their natural environment is what Africa is the most known for. This form of tourism reduces poverty and helps to empower women directly by giving them jobs, but even indirectly by allocating funds to build infrastructure – schools, hospitals.
Africa, Asia, South America, and the South Pacific focus more and more on the value of their wild natural areas. With the growth of tourism appear even new national and wildlife parks that connect sustainable tourism with biodiversity preservation.
For example, iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa offers amazing experience for tourists who can choose between diving, snorkeling, kayaking or horseback riding in a landscape of 25,000 years old coastal dunes and swamp forests, while protecting the area’s sensitive ecosystems and unique species. The coastline is Africa’s only remaining nesting place of Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles .
#4 Protection of endangered species
Countries begin to realize that their rare and endemic species are their symbol in the eyes of foreign visitors who are often attracted to the place because of them. Wild animals, virgin forests and a colorful palette of exotic plants are becoming an unusual sight in an economically developed world. The remaining spots that are still a home to this disappearing world are often turn to nature reserves and protected areas. This ensures better safety for endangered species that inhabit them.
Virunga National Park in East Africa has a story of conservation success to tell, even despite years of civil unrest and war in the surrounding areas, it has been declared an ecological pillar for the entire East and Central African biodiversity, having the largest concentration of birds and reptiles over other protected areas .
Thanks to the initiative of the World Wildlife Fund and United Nations, the park has endured hard years and granted protection to endangered mountain gorillas, who were almost driven to extinction by human encroachment into their already limited habitat. Thanks to these extraordinary efforts and persistence, gorillas from the Virunga recovered and their number rose from 480 to over 600 . The park is one of the most attractive tourist destinations, where you can see gorillas, chimpanzees, and many other iconic animals.
#5 Prevention of illegal trade and exploitation
Tourism brings new opportunities even to most remote places. The growing interest of tourists in visiting places where people live in connection with nature and animals gives chance to locals to sustain their families far from urban areas. In many cases, local communities quickly realize the need to protect what they have in order to attract tourists, as the stream of income from tourism is long-term and more advantageous than one-time sales of finite resources or poached animals.
A glimmer of hope sparked by the vision of attracting tourists takes place in two villages in Nepal that are known for being a transit points for illegal trade in pangolin meat and scales to Tibet and India.
The villages have joined a community-based pangolin conservation and education project. The goal of the project is to discourage local poachers from selling scales of pangolins to illegal traders, and thus interrupt the illegal trade pathway while protecting endangered pangolins. Participants of the project are also trained to help with long-term monitoring of pangolin population (species ecology, identification of threats and distribution).
#6 Finance and job opportunities
One in ten jobs worldwide are directly or indirectly in the tourism industry. Tourism creates decent work opportunities and economic growth even in rural or remote areas. Tourism employs women and is often the first job experience of young people. Money from the tourism then often goes into improving local infrastructure, and sustainable management and protection of natural wonders that attract visitors.
Better infrastructure and services have a positive impact on the environment. They revolve around consumption of resources and their management. Modern infrastructure for wastewater cleaning saves water and promotes more efficient use of it. Waste management facilities focus on recycling materials rather than just dumping waste into sea or to landfills.
Tourism also directly helps to fund conservation activities of national parks, or other nature and wildlife preservation projects. Visitors are usually asked to pay entrance fees or a small tax that is meant to support the project.
Costa Rica has one of the most successful rainforest conservation strategies, which enables the country to protect and care for its incredibly biodiversity rich rainforests, while at the same time generating income from tourism. A part of this income goes back to the rainforest conservation maintenance, research, and professional training of park guards. The rest sustains regional economy and creates balanced life opportunities for locals.
#7 Adoption of sustainable practices and new legislation
We have partially tapped into this aspect already in the previous point. It is closely linked. More funds available to a region mean better possibilities to improve infrastructure and services. Modernization of infrastructure goes hand in hand with a transition to sustainable technologies and seeking of long-term solutions that will benefit people and the local environment.
Many travelers care about their impact on the environment. They are willing to pay for environmentally friendly services and accommodation when visiting a new place. Many destinations already follow the suit and are changing their approach to tourism by considering their environmental impact in their management.
Additionally, governments also respond to this pressure and often enforce regulations to further protect local natural resources by adopting sustainable practices in the industry.
You can see this trend in increasing numbers of eco-tourism lodges around the world; or recycling bins placed in public areas to collect different materials for more efficient waste management; in water saving measures and recommendations adopted by accommodation providers; or even large-scale renewable energy projects that power whole regions.
Several studies highlighted the benefits of renewable energy for maintaining healthy environment during the seasonal influx of tourists to island destinations. For example, a study of Mediterranean islands sees renewable energy projects as a tool to provide sufficient energy to residents and tourists during the periods of increased demand, while protecting already fragile and limited resources islands have.
Tourism and the environment could go well together
The success of tourism relies on good infrastructure and decent quality of services. The industry therefore helps the community development and brings new sources of inspiration and motivation for protection of biodiversity rich natural areas, wildlife, or whole ecosystems.
Tourism can have a great transformative power to improve wellbeing of us all. When you head out on your first adventures, keep that in mind and set a good example. Show your support to environmentally meaningful projects, encourage those who are involved in them and be mindful of your impact.
Many new conservation projects raise hope of local people in being able to sustain their families, while taking care of their home, of their legacy, of a place shaped by the nurturing hands of their ancestors. They hope that their effort will be appreciated and rewarded by respectful visitors.