As much as I love to travel, there is no doubt I feel concerned about the negative impact that travel can make on a place due to overtourism and additional stress on the environment. As the world economy improves and more people are being lifted out of poverty, tourism is on the upswing as well. World Count estimates that approximately 1 billion people arrive in a new destination each year which translates into a new arrival every 30 seconds somewhere around the globe.
“Should we feel guilty for traveling”? and “How is tourism the harming the environment and what we can do about it?” are excellent moral questions us as travelers have to often consider when planning a trip, especially to a threatened destination such as The Great Barrier Reef, Iceland, and Machu Picchu to name a few.
In this thought provoking piece, Dafina Zymeri of SUMAS (a Sustainability Business School in Switzerland), shares some areas where travel has negatively impacted the environment and the very culture of a city and how we as travelers can travel more consciously. I have added in my insight where I deemed necessary to expand upon a topic. I am hoping this is the first of many conversations on the importance of sustainable travel for we must protect and think responsibly about our impact as travelers upon the very world in which we desire to see.
The Burden of Overtourism
If you search on Google “How tourism is…”, the first suggestion to finish the sentence it will give is “How tourism is killing Barcelona.” Pretty sad, isn’t it? Well, we travelers – or tourists, whatever you call yourself – are destroying the environment of those beautiful countries we’re visiting. Of course, we don’t mean to do so but we are flying, visiting and trampling all over the planet. Our increase in visiting some of these destinations is undeniably having an impact and perhaps not such a positive one.
Let’s take the case of Barcelona. Check out the Guardian’s recent article “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay“. We have all seen and experienced beloved destinations like Barcelona that have sadly began to lost their charm and have become overrun with all things tourist. Trinkets, t-shirt shops and crowds and crowds of people is making a once culturally rich city feel more like a Disney-styled theme park. Will Barcelona eventually loose the charm and uniqueness that initially made it so popular with tourists in the first place?
If this isn’t sad enough, the huge increase in popularity of Barcelona is having its own negative impacts on its own people who live there. Barcelona native residents are enraged with the cost of living that they say was inflicted by tourism. Per The Guardian, it used to cost 250€ (or around $280) for a short-term rental permit but now that they are not being issued anymore. Needless to say, the average monthly rent in Barcelona (which is the most expensive in Spain) is around 700€. Residents are seemingly being forced out by high rents in Barcelona neighborhoods with a high presence of Airbnb. Since Airbnb’s intention is “revitalizing neighborhoods”, how is that possible when neighborhoods in their presence are actually losing population to a large degree?
Here’s another example to touch your conscience: The beautiful beach of Maya Bay of Phi Phi Lei Island in Thailand had banned, for a certain time, boats of tourists from landing on the shore. The tourists that want to take the trouble to visit need to do it by foot from the neighboring beach Loh Samah Bay. I was heartbroken when I read what the Chief of Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park said the reason behind the temporary closure was that the marine life and corals need time to recover. How utterly devastating. The beach we go to see, swim in, and take pictures of to need a break from us!
And what about Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site? Thousands of tourists are trampling across ancient ruins every day at a level that is truly unsustainable for keeping them around for further generations. Although UNESCO has strongly recommends that they cap the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, 5,000 tourists visit and walk across these threatened ruins daily. Don’t we want to safeguard and protect Machu Picchu for future generations to enjoy?
Tourism in numbers
According to The World Counts, among the negative environmental impacts of tourism, over-consumption of local natural resources (often in places where resources are already scarce) along with pollution and waste problems are the worst ones. From their findings, there are 1 billion tourist arrivals in the world every year, which means 30 every single second.
Environmental Consequences of Tourism
A plane takes off somewhere in the world every second. About ten took off on the time it took me to write this single sentence. Now add 400 kilos of fuel per passenger for a transatlantic flight and about 4000 kilos of CO2 equivalents that get emitted. All of that, plainly said, results in lots of pollution! And there’s no good news for the future either. As it turns out, by 2020, airplanes will become the single biggest contributor to global warming.
Overuse of water
Tourism is doing damage in another beautiful attraction, Bali. The problem this time is the water crisis. Tourism Review News reports that the stakeholders in the tourism industry are unaware of how important it is to conserve water. Overuse of groundwater on the environment results in the reduction of water quality, reduced water table, land subsidence, and saltwater intrusion.
But why do tourists need this much water? Well, they don’t actually need it. Their water requirements are quite sophisticated; spas, pools, and Jacuzzis are what they expect to have in their hotels. They don’t anticipate water crisis when they go on vacation, nor do most care. Among poor people is where the water crisis is felt more since they usually depend on hand dug wells. And when those wells get depleted they cannot afford to get connected to city tap water supply. As a result, sadly, up to 1.7 million people lack access to clean water in Bali.
Bali is now burning with the waste that is being generated from this overcrowded region and the debris is littering the beauty spots and attractions that are meant to draw in the tourists in the first place.
Furthermore, the average consumption of water by a hotel guest can be almost three times the average of a local resident in Europe states the Tourism Review News. Although hotels are trying their best to promote not changing towels and sheets often, more educational awareness on conserving water in the shower is critical.
Tourism contributes to more than 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with transportation being the cause for 90 percent. The more traveling, the more transportation vehicles used such as planes, cars, buses and trains) the more gas emitted. There is also additional noise pollution, solid waste and littering, sewage, and chemicals.
Pollution and Waste
Along with using more water and electricity, we tourists also create more waste than when we live our ordinary everyday lives at home. This waste comes from hotels and restaurants that try to make things easier for us by making everything ‘travel-size’. Single-use plastic packaged goods make for more things we throw away. For example, travel-sized shampoo bottles or personal packaging for honey and butter might make our travels more practical, but this practicality comes with a cost.
Research done in the Slovenian tourist attraction of Bled found out that considerably more waste was generated in summer months. But after reflecting on the issue, the municipality of Bled is now on the road to Zero Waste, on the road to finding waste minimization and recycling solutions for hotels and restaurants. Basically, on the road to Zero Waste tourism.
A more extreme case of bad waste management is the Maldives. We know that a plastic bottle can take more than 450 years to decompose. Now think of millions of them located in one ‘private’ artificial island created as a municipal landfill. That is the case of Thilafushi or better said Trash Island, a name that suits it. Filmmaker Alison Teal has visited the Maldives, and displayed in pictures the darker side of this island which when we first hear it, the epithet ‘paradise island’ is what comes to our minds, and not ‘trash island’.
Well, as things stand, there are more than 400 tonnes of litter dumped on the Maldives’ island every day. And it is being attributed mostly to the tourist industry, as Dailymail reports, with each visitor making about 3.5kg of waste per day.
But why should we be the cause for this paradise island to fade?
Luckily, the Maldives have recently joined the road to sustainable tourism with newly created ecotourism movements. However, as for the plastic that is already in the oceans among other sustainable innovation examples, SUMAS mentions recycling ocean plastic into random products like sneakers or shampoo bottles.
More tourists than inhabitants
The case of the small country of Iceland is particularly interesting. Its population might be only 330,000 but the number of visitors it had in the past year alone was six times the number of people that live there– a total of 2.224.074 people. In 2017, the number of American tourists alone was greater than the number of locals. I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for them to deal with this many foreigners.
No one can deny Iceland’s natural beauty and the fact that it is the country with the cleanest energy consumer in the world. However, its capital Reykjavik has sadly even been included as one of the places that are being ruined by tourism. It has had a bad impact on local infrastructure and has raised local prices sky-high. In an article written by Icelanders themselves where they shared the things they hate most about tourism in Iceland, most things were about things tourists do. Among them, the most notable were vandalism, camping and even defecating in inappropriate places.
So Now What?
Why this post may sound a bit gloomy there is hope. There are many amazing organizations and businesses around the world trying to stop the negative impact travel is making upon the world. Even the United Nations is working with governments, businesses and non-profits around the world to help and are doing so by promoting sustainable tourism and ecotourism. So what exactly is Sustainable Travel and Ecotourism? Good question.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as:
“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
Ecotourism goes hand in hand with Sustainable Tourism. Sustainable Tourism defined by the World Travel Organization is:
Tourism that leads to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems.
Ecotourism – Traveling consciously and sustainably
Ecotourism is the solution for a more sustainable alternative to traveling. No wonder it has become one of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry, growing annually by 10-15 % worldwide, as The World Counts have found.
Ecotourism can become the go-to option for the sustainable development of a country. Especially in developing countries, such initiatives can provide an economical alternative to the industries of logging and agriculture by supporting indigenous land claims and committing to conservation efforts. Other examples of ecotourism development can be: preserving cultural heritage, sourcing locally produced foods and souvenirs, supporting community conservation projects, recycling and treating wastes, and hiring local employees, especially women and minorities, and paying them fair wages.
Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.
“The power of travel can transform people and create change. When executed mindfully, and with the minimum impact, travel can inspire cultural awareness, tolerance, and commitment to environmental responsibility.”
Sustainable Tourism is so important that many of its initiatives tie in directly to helping advance global development and support the Global Sustainable Development Goals states the UN.
Eco-destinations are right for you if you’re looking for experiences that provide a sense of closeness to the natural attractions and local communities that first brought them to that destination.
Eco-friendly destinations make us feel a little less guilty for getting on a plane when we know that the money we’re spending to enjoy these beautiful natural wonders is put back into preserving and conserving their natural environment. In other words, we get to experience the nature, and they get to develop their economy.
Among the top eco-destinations in the world, we have the exotic countries of Costa Rica, Palau, Galapagos Islands, Jordan, and Kenya. As for Europe, the best most eco-friendly countries are, not surprisingly, the Nordic countries of Norway and Iceland.
Case Study: Costa Rica
When it comes to the best ecotourism destinations, Costa Rica is often ranked the first. Perhaps the reason for that is because Costa Rica was among the first ones to find a way to connect nature and wildlife conservation with responsible travel. It can easily be said that it is the best-case-scenario of how tourism should go in a country.
Costa Rica preserves its natural beauty and surroundings so well that 25% of the country’s land is protected from future development. It has, instead, been turned into protective parks and reserves so as to safeguard the beautiful and lush environs from deforestation and logging. This enables for 5% of the world’s biodiversityto be found in this exotic paradise that many naturalists call ‘the living Eden.’
Moreover, Costa Rica has a total of 26 national parks, 32 protected zones, 58 wildlife refuges, 15 wetland areas, 8 biological reserves, and 11 forest reserves. is Apart from the amazing nature they’re blessed with, Ticos – how Costa Ricans call themselves – are also said to be warm-hearted people. They strive for a ‘natural life so much that their unofficial slogan is “Pura vida”which means “pure life.”
But Remember Eco-Tourism and Sustainable, Responsible Tourism Go Hand in Hand
However, there has been over-development in Costa Rica just like other places in the world. Think of the Guanacaste region of beaches and fancy resorts. Much of the lucrative tourism dollars often does not benefit the local community when you stay at one of these mega internationally-owned resorts. So to be a sustainable traveler, it is good to do your homework and chose how you spend your valuable tourist dollars. Staying at locally run and owned resorts and hotels does a tremendous amount of good to the community. It is up to you.
There are many sustainable travel companies that are doing a fabulous job by ensuring responsible travel. The Adventure Travel Organization has an extensive list of outfitters to chose from depending on destination and activity on their website.
To sum up, tourism and the environment can be supportive of each other. It’s up to us to be those tourists/travelers that travel consciously and help to improve locals’ quality of life as a ‘thank you’ for enjoying their nature.
As an ecotourist, you decide to travel in such a way that shows nature the respect it’s due and does not contribute to its degradation.
“Environmental Impacts of Tourism” – The Sustainable Tourism Gateway
This post was written by Dafina Zymeri on behalf of SUMAS, (a Sustainability Business School, located in Switzerland) and edited by me. The aim of SUMAS is to educate managers that will take responsible decisions, which will have a delicate impact on the world. Respect for the environment, sustainability and green marketing are the pillars over which our work is built.
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