Tourism is one of the biggest and fastest-growing sectors of the world's economy. However, the relationship between tourism and the natural environment can be complex. While we can link tourism to the growth of infrastructure development like roads, airports, tourism facilities, and other economic benefits, tourism development can also hurt the environment.
In this article, we will examine the environmental impact of tourism and what role tourism can play in environmental conservation.
The World Tourism Organization (WTO) defines tourism as people "traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure and not less than 24 hours, business and other purposes."
The vast tourism industry includes other industries such as tourist destinations, hospitality, travel companies, etc. Globally, the tourism industry has impacted the growth and development of hundreds of countries.
In 2021, tourism contributed approximately 5.8 billion US dollars to the GDP worldwide.
Seeing how lucrative the industry is, many countries actively promote policies that drive tourism and travel.
Moreover, tourism has evolved into various dimensions, including mass tourism, niche tourism, winter tourism, and even some emerging industries like space tourism.
While the growth of tourism can positively impact society, uncontrolled and conventional tourism can be a substantial threat to the natural environment worldwide.
While the tourism sector can generate sufficient income and improve the lifestyle of people within that local community, it can also bring about environmental degradation if not done with proper planning. Here are some negative impacts of tourism on the environment:
Tourism development can cause a strain on natural resources like water and energy, especially in local communities where these resources are already scarce.
In many tourist destinations, travelers tend to use more water than they use at home. This could result in water shortages affecting local residents. Similarly, popular tourist destinations and recreational facilities require more water during the high tourism season.
As the water gets redirected to these facilities, the wells and supplies of host communities get drained. For example, an average golf course in a tropical country uses as much water5 as 60,000 rural villagers.
In some communities, local farmers may need more water to grow their crops, especially during the dry seasons.
Apart from water, tourism development can equally put pressure on other natural resources like food, energy, and other raw materials that may already be in short supply.
Countries use these resources to meet the expectations of tourists. These include providing electricity, proper heating, hot water, etc. Increased energy consumption comes with the increased need for things like electricity and heating.
Equally, the extraction of these resources also has a negative physical impact on the environment. This includes soil deterioration, deforestation, trampling, etc.
The construction of tourism facilities can cause the depletion of resources like fossil fuels which can ultimately cause global warming. Tourism can affect soil health and harm local ecosystems.
The more tourist facilities are built, the more natural habitats are destroyed, displacing wildlife from their homes.
Like with many other industries, environmental pollution is also a significant consequence of tourism. This can come in various forms. From solid waste to noise pollution and improper waste disposal and so on.
Building hotels and other recreational facilities can lead to sewage pollution. According to reports by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is estimated that passengers on a cruise ship will generate 21,000 gallons of sewage. Wastewater from sewage can penetrate and pollute our seas and oceans.
In addition, sewage runoff can damage coral reefs which contain nutrients for algae growth. These changes can affect coastal environments and also impact human and animal health.
Recreational vehicles like jet skis can contribute to noise pollution, disturbing people in the host community and distressing wildlife. For example, cruise ships are major noise polluters. They make extra noises in deep waters, disturbing sensitive aquatic animals.
Moreover, these cruise ships burn fossil fuels and release sewage causing air and water pollution. With the increase in tourist transportation by air, rail, or road comes an increase in carbon dioxide emissions leading to environmental issues like climate change.
The issue of littering and solid waste is another problem associated with tourism. Many tourist attractions and activities contribute to the high waste concentrations and improper disposal. Tourists generate tons of waste which can affect the physical environment.
Various reports suggest that in various tourist locations, solid waste generation is around 1 kg and above per guest daily. Several environmental factors, location, personal preferences, and legislation within that particular country determine this.
Sadly, according to predictions by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we may see a 251 percent increase in solid waste production due to tourism if these countries do not adopt more sustainable practices to address the waste issue.
One of the negative environmental impacts of tourism is unsustainable land use. With the quick infrastructure expansion and increased tourist activities, soil erosion is sped up. If the number of foreign tourists exceeds the ecosystem carrying them, it can lead to changes in soil properties. As projects are built and vegetation is removed, the soil’s permeability decreases and is left vulnerable for many years.
Loss of biological diversity is another one of the negative impacts of tourism. You can find some of the most popular tourist sites near sensitive ecosystems. These ecosystems include rainforests, mangroves, wetlands, seagrass beds, and coral reefs, which attract tourists.
Poor land use planning and regulations can distort the environment's natural beauty. Infrastructure development close to these locations can lead to soil erosion and deforestation. In addition, the loss of biological diversity can alter the natural cycles of living organisms, put a strain on endangered species, and also lead to natural habitat loss.
The effects of biodiversity loss include:
Ultimately, the loss of biodiversity, in turn, decreases tourism potential.
Tourists can bring in non-native species like insects, plants, and even diseases, causing disruption or destruction of the ecosystem. These species can disrupt the food web and clog the intake pipes of water treatment facilities and power plants.
One of tourism's significant adverse environmental impacts is the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. In today's world, several activities contribute to releasing greenhouse gas emissions into our environment.
According to The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourists travel using three main modes of transportation - air, road, and rail, with air contributing the most carbon dioxide emissions1. Overall, transportation accounts for 75% of CO2 emissions.
For example, winter tourists may use snowmobiles in national parks. Snowmobiles can affect air quality over time, as their two-stroke engines produce high carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions.
Studies reveal that snowmobiles account for 94% of the annual hydrocarbon emissions, 78% of carbon monoxide emissions, 37% of particulate matter, and 3% of nitrogen oxide emissions at Yellowstone National Park3.
Also, the energy consumption needed to provide quality service contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. When released into the atmosphere, these harmful gases affect the environment, contributing to global warming and climate change. To reduce the negative impacts of greenhouse gases, exploring various forms of renewable energy is necessary.
The ozone layer protects life on Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It absorbs the wavelengths of the sun’s radiation, which can harm both animals and humans.
Tourism activities contribute to ozone-depleting substances which destroy the ozone layer. For instance, refrigerators, air conditioners, and others contain substances that deplete the ozone layer. The consistent use of these facilities increases the emission of ozone-depleting substances. Emissions from jet aircraft also contribute to the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer.
Hiking along mountain ranges can cumulatively harm our ecosystem. Littering and trampling on vegetation can cause a shift in the composition of plant species. The accumulation of this puts pressure on these areas, with only the most resilient plants able to survive.
Increased visitation and trampling at the Arches National Park have led to soil deterioration which could take up to 250 years to recover4.
Also, hiking on the soil can disrupt wildlife habitat. The constant pressure can damage burrows for mammals, reptiles, and birds. Littering not only causes land pollution but also alters the nutrient composition of the soil and prevents sunlight from reaching the plants.
Diving may not present any real threat. However, other activities, like stepping on corals, could cause damage. Tourists may also break off corals as souvenirs which, when done continuously, could be problematic.
Recreational boating can have several impacts on the environment. Tourism stakeholders can generate funds indirectly for environmental conservation and recreation. For example, the government can channel funds towards improving fish sport habitat or funding fisheries research.
On the other hand, recreational boating also negatively affects the environment. One of the most significant of them is the issue of sewage pollution. Sewage contains pathogens that can contaminate shellfish and affect human health.
Oil spills and the discharge of solid waste can also affect water quality.
According to the National Research Council, this could lead to physical injuries to humans, alterations in the ecosystem compositions, ecological damage as a result of plastics interfering with gas exchange, ingestion of plastics by mammals, entanglements of turtles, fishes, birds, and cetaceans, etc.
Also, dragging anchors over marine habitats can cause damage to both the habitat and the animals.
While tourism contributes to environmental issues, these environmental issues like climate change and natural disasters can impact tourism in a country. Natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, or the outbreak of diseases can significantly affect tourism industries.
For example, the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain in 2001 impacted their inbound tourism market. A survey found that 75% of hotels in England, 85% in Wales, and 81% in Scotland continued to be affected by the disease outbreak, and more than 60% forecasted a decline in their business between June and September 2001.
Climate changes can also increase the frequency of storms and other weather events, keeping tourists away from these tourist destinations.
Tourism is one of the most vital sectors and can contribute significantly to the environment and economy. Here are ways tourism can contribute to environmental conservation:
Management of tourism facilities can improve the natural environment within a tourist destination. However, careful planning based on the natural resources within an area is essential. With proper planning, environmental pollution and deterioration can be avoided.
Using energy-efficient materials and sustainable development and production techniques can reduce the negative impacts of tourism on the environment.
Environmental awareness is heightened as tourists travel around the world interacting with nature. Tourism can increase awareness of the importance of nature and also alert people to the potential environmental problems associated with it.
In the long run, tourism can play a major role in providing environmental information for tourists. Tourist stakeholders can raise awareness about the consequences of unsustainable tourism and educate people on sustainable tourism alternatives that positively impact the environment.
Tourism is a lucrative sector and can financially contribute directly to environmental conservation.
A portion of the revenue generated from parking fees, entrance fees, and other sources can be channeled toward environmental conservation projects, like planting trees or rewilding nearby land. In addition, the government can channel fees like income taxes, User fees, license fees on tourism activities, etc., towards managing natural resources and conservation activities and programs.
The government can implement regulatory measures to help limit the negative impact of tourism. For example, controlling tourist numbers and activities in protected regions. This will help preserve the vitality of these areas.
For example, in the Galapagos Islands, the number of ships allowed to cruise is limited to protect animal habitats and sensitive environments.
Tourism is a growing industry that can directly or indirectly contribute to many countries' economic, socio-cultural, and environmental well-being. In small island developing states and coastal least developed countries, ocean-related tourism is a vital sector that contributes significantly to their economy.
However, even with the potential of the tourism industry, the negative impacts can still threaten our environment. According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism
"takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
In other words, tourism amplifies the positive impacts and reduces the adverse effects of tourism.
Sustainable and responsible tourism ensures that the destination is good for both the local population and visitors.
One example of a sustainable tourism destination is Six Senses, Fiji Malolo Island. Six Senses grows its own organic produce and honey in its beehive area. This resort works solely on solar energy, recycles rainwater, and uses handiwork like artworks created by villagers.
The WTO and the United Nations Environment Program outline twelve primary goals for sustainable forms of tourism2. These goals suggest ways through which sustainable forms of tourism can provide a solution to the negative impacts faced in the industry. These twelve goals are:
Read more: What is Sustainable Tourism? Exploring Sustainability in Travel.
Both ecotourism and sustainable tourism are sometimes used interchangeably. However, while both are important, there is a slight difference between both terms.
As we’ve looked at above, sustainable tourism aims to create opportunities with the least impact and increase positive benefits to attract tourists and improve communities.
On the other hand, ecotourism focuses on educating tourists about the environment and nature. It also educates travelers on the importance of participating in cultural activities and environmental conservation. Eco-tourism is typically always a sustainable experience.
However, not all examples of sustainable and responsible tourism are ecotourism. So while you may stay in a hotel powered by renewable energy like solar, you are not necessarily learning about your environment or nature.
Read more: 7 Amazing Ecovillages
As one of the fastest-growing industries, tourism can potentially improve a country’s social and economic well-being.
However, uncontrolled tourism can lead to environmental degradation, which could do more harm than good. Depletion of natural capital and resources, pollution, and emission of greenhouse gases, amongst other such practices, can negatively impact the environment.
To cut down on the negative effects of tourism, stakeholders need to explore more sustainable alternatives that can create a win-win situation both for the host and the tourists.
World Tourism Organization and International Transport Forum (2019), Transport-related CO2 Emissions of the Tourism Sector – Modelling Results, UNWTO, Madrid.
Making Tourism more Sustainable: A Guide for Policy Makers (2005) United Nations Environment Programme, & World Trade Organization (WTO)
Davies, T., & Cahill, S. (2000). Environmental implications of the tourism industry (pdf) (No. 1318-2016-103101).
Davies, T., & Cahill, S. (2000). Environmental implications of the tourism industry (pdf) (No. 1318-2016-103101).
Chandel, S. P. K. (2022). Impacts of Tourism on Environment. Central Asian Journal of Innovations on Tourism Management and Finance, 3(10), 90-98.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.