The impact that the tourism industry has on the environment is unnerving. Travelling ethically is important for so many different reasons, but in this instance, it's something we need to actively counterbalance as best we can or we won't have a planet to travel on.
Before we get into it, here's a few scary statistics to get the ball rolling:
There are three main impact areas when it comes to the environment.
A negative impact generally occurs when consumption from tourism is greater than an environment's ability to cope or adapt. See the accordion below to delve a little deeper into each individual impact (please note this literally SKIMS the top of tourism's environmental impacts- but it's a good start).
Water is our most critical natural resource. The tourism overuses water for a multitude of things, including for hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and of course individual use.
This can lead to water shortages and the degradation of water supplies. This issue is prominent everywhere there is tourism, yet it hits the hardest in poorer destinations.
In areas such as the Mediterranean, water usage is a major issue. Tourists who visit these regions tend to use a lot more water than they need due to the hot climate - some statistics show individuals tend to use up to 440L per day here.
Tourism also creates massive pressure on local resources, which, big surprise: is intended for the locals.
Energy, food and other raw materials are at major risk of being overused thanks to tourism.
As the tourism industry has peaks seasons, a higher than normal demand can be placed upon particular resources to meet tourist expectations.
Resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, fertile soils, forests and wetland are at a risk from tourism, too. The neverending construction that the industry demands puts increased pressure on an already delicate ecosystem and its resources.
One of the biggest issues within land degradation is the negative impact on forests. Deforestation is a major part of tourism, both for development and wood collection.
Here’s a terrible fact for you: did you know that one trekking tourist in Nepal can use up to four or five kilograms of wood a day?
As with any industry, tourism creates its fair share of pollution including air emissions, noise, solid waste and littering.
Air pollution and noise
Transportation is continuously on the rise in response to the demands from the industry.
Tourism now accounts for over 60% of air travel, and consequently a huge chunk of emissions.
Transport emissions are obviously linked to global warming, but it is also closely linked to acid rain, photochemical pollution and severe local air pollution.
In exceedingly hot or cold countries, it’s common for tour buses to leave their engine running for hours while the group explores- all so they can return to a comfortably air-conditioned bus.
Noise pollution may not seem like a major issue, but think again.
The noise from airplanes, cars, buses and even things such as jet skis, are causing a plethora of issues.
Issues range from annoyance, stress, and even hearing loss, to wildlife distress. Unnatural noise can cause animals a great deal of issues and alter their natural activity patterns.
Solid waste and littering
Pollution is a major issue for society regardless of the tourism industry, but it gets so much worse.
The improper disposal of waste is detrimental to the natural environment.
No doubt you have seen it everywhere you go - wherever humans have been, there is a trail of waste breadcrumbs.
Solid waste is detrimental to animals, in particular, marine life. It’s unfortunate that if you dispose of your waster improperly, it will most likely end up in the ocean.
The issue of waste is also prevalent in mountainous areas. Trekking tourists are infamous for generating a great amount of waste.
In remote areas like this, there is little to no way for a functioning waste disposal system to work.
Some trails in Nepal have been nicknamed ‘The Toilet Paper trail’.
The construction of tourist infrastructure can lead to increased sewage pollution.
Wastewater often polluted bodies of water and therefore damages the flora and fauna. Runoff often causes serious damage to coral reefs as well, as it stimulates the growth of algae.
Changes in salinity levels also have a major impact on coastal ecosystems.
The tourism industry also often pollutes the aesthetics of a destination.
It’s common for tourism infrastructure to not take into consideration the surrounding natural features and indigenous architecture.
Almost every type of ecosystem is threatened by tourism: alpine regions, forests, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs, just to name a few.
The most delicate ecosystems are ironically also often the most attractive to tourists and developers.
Physical damage is not just caused by development- it’s also due to each actual individual tourist and their activities.
There are three major types of physical impacts due to development:
Construction / Infrastructure Development
Development dances around issues such as erosion, sand mining, paving and loss of wildlife habitats.
Deforestation and unsustainable land use
It’s common for accommodation and resorts to require extensive land clearing, This leads to erosion and disturbance of the local ecosytem.
This development can actually lead to changes in currents and coastlines. Ecosystems are disturbed and eroded, and coral reefs are depleted.
Did you know that in the Maldives, it’s common for coral to be dynamited or mined to make room for resorts?
There are three major types of direct impacts from individual tourists:
Trampling, walking or moving around
When there is constant use of a trail or particular land, the vegetation is unable to flourish. This can lead to the loss of biodiversity and accelerated erosion. The damage becomes even more impactful when visitors stray off marked trails.
It’s no secret that many tourist activities occur in fragile environments, especially marine activities. Anchoring, fishing, snorkelling and scuba diving are just some of the activities that can have a direct negative impact.
Alteration of ecosystems
For example: activities such as wildlife viewing can alter the natural behaviour patterns of animals.
The act of travel itself is likely the most impactful: transportation. The infographic at the beginning of this page outlined a few startling statistics, but here's the good news: while transport is one of the most impactful sectors of the industry, we have immediate and almost complete control of it.
It might be difficult, but we can strive to counteract our impacts and even choose to boycott or limit certain unnecessary forms of transport.
The thing is, tourism is not going to stop or slow down. One eco-warrior might feel the need to boycott or limit their travel for the sake of reducing their harm. Job well done!
But regardless of your efforts, there will still be 500 people travelling unethically and unaware.
The key is to make a commitment to reducing our personal footprints and lead by example.