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Tourism & the Environment: A Delicate Balance

In this article, we explore the tension between the benefits of tourism and its environmental impact.
Green News
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Tourism, a significant contributor to the global economy, treads a fine line between exploitation and preservation. As travellers seek out the world's wonders, they inevitably leave footprints - some beneficial, others detrimental. This article unpacks the complex relationship between tourism, the environment, and climate change, exploring the balance we must achieve for a sustainable future.

👉 In this article, we explore the tension between the benefits of tourism and its environmental impact.

The complex interplay between tourism, the environment and climate change

Tourism - one of the world's largest industries, worth 7.6% of global GDP every year - has a significant impact on the environment, both positive and negative. On the one hand, it can lead to a greater appreciation for nature and conservation, as tourists flock to pristine beaches, undisturbed forests, and scenic landscapes. This appreciation can translate into increased funding for national parks, wildlife conservation, and the preservation of cultural heritage sites. For example, the revenue generated by the millions of tourists visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef also helps fund conservation efforts to protect this unique ecosystem.

However, the large numbers of travellers can also strain these natural wonders. Over-tourism - where the number of tourists outpaces an area's capacity - can damage ecosystems, disrupt or harm local wildlife, and lead to pollution. Venice, for example, has seen its canals crowded with boats and its historic streets thronged with visitors, leading to accelerated wear on its historic sites and increased pollution in its waters. Similarly, popular trekking trails in Nepal have experienced littering, resulting in environmental degradation. The carbon footprint of tourism is another critical concern. Air travel, a significant component of global tourism, contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions. The aviation sector contributes around 2% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. 

In relation to climate change, tourism both contributes to and is affected by global warming. While the industry adds to global emissions, destinations, particularly those in coastal regions or mountainous areas, face the direct brunt of rising sea levels or changing weather patterns. Melting glaciers in places like the Alps or the Andes impact the local tourism industry dependent on skiing and mountaineering. Coastal areas, like the Maldives or parts of Thailand, face the threat of submersion or increased storm surges, potentially displacing local communities and threatening the very attractions that draw visitors. It's a cyclical challenge: tourism drives climate change, which in turn disrupts tourism. Balancing the economic benefits of tourism with the urgent need for environmental sustainability is an ongoing global challenge.


How does tourism negatively impact the environment?

Harm to natural environments

One of the most significant negative impacts of tourism is the degradation of natural environments. Tourist hotspots, particularly those in ecologically sensitive areas, frequently undergo habitat destruction due to infrastructure development. For instance, the construction of hotels, resorts, and roads can result in deforestation, alteration of land, and disruption to local ecosystems. In Bali, once-idyllic beaches are now flanked by sprawling resorts, affecting marine life and leading to significant erosion of the shoreline.

Waste management issues

Waste management poses another challenge. In many popular destinations, the influx of tourists surpasses the local waste management capacity, leading to pollution. For example, Mount Everest, often referred to as the "world's highest garbage dump" is littered with oxygen cylinders, plastic waste, and even camping equipment discarded by climbers. Such uncontrolled waste not only spoils the landscape but can also contaminate local water sources, impacting both human and wildlife populations.

Water scarcity

Water scarcity is an often-overlooked repercussion of tourism. Many tourist-heavy regions face immense pressure on their freshwater resources, either due to overconsumption by hotels and resorts or by diverting them for recreational activities. Golf courses, particularly in arid regions, consume vast amounts of water, putting local communities at risk. Islands like Santorini in Greece have seen their freshwater reserves deplete significantly, forcing them to import water or rely on desalination.

Noise and light pollution

Noise and light pollution are additional concerns in areas with heavy tourist traffic. The constant hum of boats, vehicles, and human activity can disturb wildlife, affecting their natural behaviours and breeding patterns. Sea turtles, for example, which rely on the moonlight to find their way from the beach to the ocean, can be disoriented by the bright lights from beachfront properties, making their survival even more precarious.

Invasion of non-native species

The introduction of non-native species, whether unintentionally through transported goods or deliberately for tourist attractions, can upset the ecological balance of an area. In the Galápagos Islands, introduced species like goats and rats have wreaked havoc on the local flora and fauna, prompting extensive (and expensive) eradication programs.

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How does tourism contribute to climate change?

Another major concern is how tourism substantially contributes to climate change. Let’s take a closer look:

Air travel emissions

Aviation is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions, responsible for about 2% annually. Tourists flying to and from their destinations play a considerable role in this. A single long-haul flight can emit as much carbon dioxide as many people produce in a whole year.

Increased energy consumption 

Hotels, resorts, and other tourist accommodations often consume vast amounts of energy for heating, cooling, and lighting. This is especially true for luxury and high-end facilities that offer amenities like heated pools, spas, and air-conditioned rooms.

Transport within destinations

Once tourists arrive, they use local transportation, often in the form of cars, buses, and boats, which emit greenhouse gases. Rental car services and tour buses can significantly increase the carbon footprint of a vacation.

Cruise ship emissions

Cruise tourism has surged in popularity over recent decades. These floating hotels consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, emitting not only CO2 but also other harmful pollutants into both the air and ocean.

Over-reliance on non-renewable resources

Many tourist hotspots are yet to transition to renewable energy sources. Their dependency on coal, oil, and gas for power generation further exacerbates greenhouse gas emissions.

Food production and consumption

Tourist destinations often need to import food to cater to the diverse and increased demands of visitors. This transportation, coupled with the preference for non-local foods, has a sizeable carbon footprint.

Land use and carbon sequestration 

As mentioned earlier, the construction of tourist facilities can lead to deforestation. Forests play a crucial role in carbon sequestration, helping to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Their loss not only means increased CO2 emissions from construction but also a reduced capacity for the environment to offset those emissions.

👉 To discover how climate change is affecting your favourite holiday destinations, check out our article.

In essence, while tourism can bring economic benefits to many regions, its role in climate change cannot be ignored. Sustainable and responsible tourism is crucial to mitigate these adverse effects on our environment.
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Are there any benefits to tourism?

Tourism, for all its pitfalls, has also proven to be a crucial sector for many countries and environments. In numerous regions across the globe, tourism stands as the primary source of income, playing an instrumental role in sustaining economies and driving development. For countries with limited industrial or agricultural potential, the allure of their natural or cultural heritage can become their most lucrative asset.

To help put this into context, let’s take the example of Kenya. The allure of the 'Big Five' - lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros - and the vast, mesmerising landscapes have drawn tourists in droves. Recognising the economic potential, the Kenyan government has taken proactive steps to safeguard these natural assets. National parks and reserves, which now cover a significant portion of the country, not only protect the iconic wildlife but also generate substantial revenue. The revenue accrued from entrance fees, safari tours, and accommodation often goes back into conservation efforts, ensuring a sustainable cycle. Moreover, the value attached to these animals as tourist attractions inadvertently offers them a shield against poaching, as their value alive exceeds their value in body parts. Without the economic incentive generated by tourism, such extensive conservation measures may not have been feasible or prioritised.

Beyond direct conservation, tourism can also be a catalyst for broader environmental awareness and education. Visitors, after witnessing the magnificence of natural wonders or the intricacies of local cultures, often return home with heightened environmental and cultural consciousness. This can lead to global advocacy, funding, and support for preservation endeavours. Furthermore, responsible tourism creates jobs for local communities, offering an alternative to activities that might harm the environment, such as logging or mining. By providing training and jobs related to tourism - be it as tour guides, in accommodation, or in local crafts - communities can derive sustainable income without depleting their environment.

However, it's imperative to strike a balance. While tourism can be a tool for positive change, it needs to be managed with care, foresight, and a genuine commitment to sustainability. Only then can the potential benefits be harnessed without compromising the delicate ecosystems that make these destinations so special in the first place.

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Tourism and climate change

Yet, even as more travellers embrace sustainable vacations and choose environmentally-friendlier modes of transport like trains or electric vehicles, we cannot overlook the unavoidable emissions associated with reaching distant or isolated destinations. Air travel remains a substantial hurdle in the path to fully green tourism. Despite the advances in aviation technology and improvements in fuel efficiency, flights continue to be a significant source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, which intensify global warming. 

Herein lies a complex dilemma. Many destinations, particularly remote or island locales, rely almost exclusively on air travel to usher in tourists. For these places, tourism is not merely an addition to their economy; it's a lifeline. Places like the Maldives, Fiji, or the Caribbean islands depend heavily on tourist inflows for their economic stability. The revenue from tourism not only bolsters their economies but also funds essential services and infrastructure projects. Yet, paradoxically, these destinations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to submerge island nations, and changing weather patterns disrupt the delicate balance of their ecosystems.

This catch-22 situation paints a vivid picture of the challenges ahead. On one hand, these destinations and their local populations desperately need tourism. On the other hand, the carbon footprint associated with getting to these places exacerbates the global warming that places them at risk. As the world grapples with this issue, it underscores the importance of innovation in sustainable travel and the necessity for a global perspective on balancing economic needs with environmental responsibility.

👉 To learn why the aviation industry is so challenging to decarbonise take a look at our article on the topic. 

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The future of tourism

The journey of understanding the complex relationship between tourism and the environment presents us with a profound paradox: the undeniable economic benefits tourism brings to many regions (including developing countries whose local populations often rely on income from tourism to survive) juxtaposed against the environmental toll it exacts. 

As we stand at the crossroads of increasing global travel and the urgent need to address climate change, it becomes imperative for stakeholders - from governments to travel agencies, and from local communities to individual tourists - to collaborate and work towards innovative solutions. The rise of eco-tourism and the growing consciousness among travellers offer a glimmer of hope, signalling that a sustainable balance might be achievable. 

However, achieving this balance will require not only greater awareness but also substantial investments in green infrastructure and green technology, policy reforms, and ongoing education.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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