How is Tourism Affecting the Environment?

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

sustainable tourismThere are 109 countries with coral reefs.  In 90 of them the reefs are being damaged by cruise ship anchors and sewage, by tourists breaking of chunks of coral and by commercial harvesting for sale to tourists.

The United Nations Environmental Programme has identified three main impacts from tourism when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use.  The following is a summary from their website.

  1. Depletion of Natural Resources – pressure on natural resources occurs when consumption is increased in areas where resources are already scarce.
    • Water resources – water, especially fresh water is one of the most critical natural resources. The tourism industry generally overuses water for hotels, pools, golf courses and the personal use of water by tourists. In drier regions water scarcity is of particular concern.  For example in the Mediterranean, tourists use about 440 liters a day.  This is almost double what inhabitants of the average Spanish city use. The average golf course in a tropical country like Thailand uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.
    • Sustainable food supplyLocal resources – energy, food and other raw materials that may already be in short supply feel great pressure from tourism. Many destinations have 10 times more inhabitants in high season than in low season resulting in an extremely high demand to meet the high expectation tourists often have
    • Land degradation – Increased construction of tourism and recreational facilities increases the pressure on minerals, fossil fuels, fertile soil, forests, wetland and wildlife as well as scenic landscapes. Provision of tourist facilities can cause direct and indirect impacts on renewable and non-renewable resources. An example of this is one trekking tourist in Nepal can use four to five kilograms of wood a day – collected from areas already suffering the effects of deforestation.
  2. Pollution – Tourism causes the same forms of pollution as any other industry: air emissions, noise, solid waste and littering, releases of sewage, oil and chemicals, even visual pollution
    • air pollution from airlinesAir pollution and noise – The number of international air passengers worldwide rose from 88 million in 1972 to 344 million in 1994. Tourism now accounts for more than 60% of air travel. A single transatlantic flight emits almost half the Carbon dioxide emissions produced by all other sources used by an average person annually. Transportation emissions from tourist transportation can contribute to severe local air pollution.  In hot climates, tour busses may leave their engines running for hours so that tourists can return to a comfortable air-conditioned bus after their excursion.
    • Noise pollution is ever growing in modern life. While it can cause stress and hearing loss in humans, it can be very disruptive to wildlife.  Animals may suffer hearing loss much as humans do. Noise pollution can mask animal sounds which can disrupt mating or ability to hear danger signals from members of their own and other species. Other physiological effects can be seen such as increased heart rate and respiration and a general stress reaction.  Finally, noise pollution can cause behavioral effects.  An example is an entire population of animals abandoning territory resulting in lost reproduction.
    • Clean waterSolid waste and littering – Improper waste disposal is a serious environmental issue. The cruise ship industry has a major impact on the ocean environment. Currently cruise ships can discharge untreated sewage (generated from toilets and medical facilities) more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land. Not only can sewage contaminate our shellfish beds, it also contributes to excessive nutrients in the water, promoting algal blooms, decreasing dissolved oxygen and potentially contributing to the decline of coral reefs. Many of the world’s leading cruise lines have joined Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).  CLIA’s mission is to support policies and practices that foster a safe, secure, healthy and sustainable cruise ship environment.  Members are committed to the sustained success of the cruise industry.  The jury is still out on the overall impact of the industry.  Mountain areas also suffer from the wastes of trekking tourists.  Some trails in the Peruvian Andes and Nepal are nicknamed the “Coca-Cola trail” and the “Toilet paper trail” because of the amount of trash tourists on expedition leave behind.
    • Construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution. Wastewater has polluted seas and lakes surrounding tourist attractions and causes serious damage to coral reefs.  In addition, sewage pollution can threaten the health of humans and wildlife.
    • cinque-terre-340348_1280Aesthetic Pollution – Lack of land-use planning and building regulations have facilitated sprawling developments along coastlines, valleys and scenic routes. Tourism often fails to integrate its structures with natural features and indigenous architecture. The result can look out of place and even clash with indigenous structural design.
  1. Physical Impacts – Physical impacts are caused by tourism are from both the development of facilities with related land clearing and construction but also from tourist activities and associated long-term effects on local economies and ecology.
    • Construction and infrastructure development can involve sand mining, beach and sand dune erosion, soil erosion and extensive paving, as well as loss of wildlife habitats and deterioration of scenery.
    • Deforestation and intensified or unsustainable use of land for facilities like ski resorts or draining and filling coastal wetlands to build tourism facilities and infrastructure are examples of activities that may cause long-term destruction of ecosystems.
    • Marina development may cause changes in currents and coastlines. Excavation of building materials like sand and coral may impact coral reefs, mangrove forests and wetlands.  Overbuilding can result in destruction of habitats and disruption of land-sea connections (such as turtle nesting spots).
    • Trampling – loss of vegetation and soil can lead to loss of biodiversity. Damage is much worse when visitors leave established trails.
    • Anchoring and other activities may cause direct degradation of marine ecosystems.

We Baby Boomers have become aware of the damage uncontrolled conventional tourism can cause and have developed multiple mechanisms to combat tourism impacts while satisfying our desire to experience all the joys our planet has to offer.  Sustainable tourism is an industry that attempts to make a low impact on the environment and local culture while generating income, employment and conservation of the local ecosystems.  It is responsible tourism that is both ecologically and culturally sensitive. On a survey taken in 2007, nine out of ten respondents opt for an environmentally and culturally sensitive travel or choose tourism products that show concern about tourism’s impact on local culture, while protecting the natural environment.

Principles of the industry are designed to guarantee its long-term sustainability. They are:

  1. 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.
  2. Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
  3. 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.

Preserving coral reefsThe Global Development Research Center (GDRC) has developed The Sustainable Tourism Gateway.  This Gateway was set up to develop awareness and educate on issues related to sustainable tourism and to assist in policy and program development as well as facilitating monitoring. There are currently 56 networks and organizations listed on the Gateway that focus on sustainable tourism on a global level.  This count does not include local or regional organizations.

National Geographic has created the Center for Sustainable Destinations that are dedicated to protecting the world’s distinctive places through wisely managed tourism and enlightened destination stewardship. The mission is to develop tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents.

Beneficial socioeconomic impactsPlaneterra Foundation was founded in 2003 by Bruce Poon Tip who is the founder of G Adventures. Planterra Foundation receives donation for its work from G Adventures, corporate sponsors, travelers and staff of its supporting organizations. It then identifies project locations to determine the optimum place along travel itineraries to receive the ideal amount of visitors. Then, within these locations, communities in need are identified. Funds are then used to develop projects to support development of viable small businesses. Development goals most common for the communities Planeterra works with are education, training, employment, health care, conservation and reducing negative environmental impacts.

World Travel &Tourism Council (WTTC) believes in freedom to travel and campaigns for governments to implement policies that ensure the business environment is conducive to growth of travel and tourism. It accepts a huge responsibility for safeguarding the environment and ensuring that the growth of the travel and tourism sector is managed responsibly, finding the balance between people, planet and profits.  WTTC spearheads environmental initiatives and its members drive greener practices into core business models.  Each year WTTC presents awards to tourism businesses and suppliers who exemplify how travel and tourism can create significant economic, environmental and cultural benefits on local people and places.

As you can see, there is hope for developing sustainable tourism and using the industry to improve the socioeconomics of Nations.  It is up to us, the consumers to make sure the industry knows what we want.  Our planet is so incredible with such magnificent wonders; we can save it for the enjoyment  of generations to come if we travel sustainably.



  1. Lou

    As a diver, it breaks my heart each time I see non-responsible snorkelers or divers touching or even worse standing on coral. Don’t they know how sensitive this eco-system is? Another thing is pollution by plastic. Go to virtually any uninhabited beach and there are masses of plastic bottles washed up there. Recently I heard that most fish have a plastic level in them from pollution. Not all this is caused by tourism but please remember folks we only have one world, use it wisely

    • Susan

      Lou, Thank you for your comments and your awareness. You are right. Plastic is the bane of modern society and is responsible for helping to kill our oceans. We need to become aware that earth really is the only ecosystem.

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