Tourism and sustainability: The nightmarish impact of travelling to dream summer destinations
International tourism has a multitude of impacts at a local level that are often ignored when booking a vacation. Let’s see what some of these are.
While most air travel has halted due to COVID-19, and the vast majority of the world is stuck at home, it’s not hard to look forward to faraway travel to majestic summer destinations. Some dream of white sandy beaches and resorts, others of experiencing cultural diversity and meeting foreign locals, and the more adventurous might imagine themselves reaching remote locations that few will experience. What might not immediately transpire, regardless of how frugal some of these travels may find themselves to be, is that these forays abroad have an impact on the planet, and this impact is often bigger than one might expect.
Uncontrolled tourism and local impacts
In most cases, tourism comes with the promise of easy money for the local economy. As a result of this, it comes as no surprise that entire communities have come to support themselves almost entirely on this one source of income, and that local development will often follow what is perceived as being the best option to attract tourists. Yet, this also often comes with the unintended consequence of destroying what made the destination unique in the first place, along with endangering the local environment. Examples of this abound worldwide.
Bali’s “Eat, Pray, Love” effect
Named after the eponymous movie, the “Eat, Pray, Love” effect has reshaped much of Ubud, Indonesia, to be very different from what it was once. The rice fields are slowly giving way to hotels, and the small roads are now filled with taxis and scooters trying to attract business from tourists. Good luck riding a bicycle along a quiet road as seen in the movie, unless you want to replicate the part with the car crash. The rice field experience which was the initial appeal of the area surrounding Ubud is now giving way to a confused mess of concrete and noise that has little to do with what the movie tried to show.
Mexico’s tourism hotspot
Quintana Roo, the Mexican state home to Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, was a nearly empty part of the country filled with backwater fishing villages until the 1970s and 80s, when tourism started booming. Today, tourism represents 91 percent of the local economy, and hotels and resorts continue popping up anywhere a beach is available. As expected, this has had a number of social and environmental impacts. The local population now finds itself marginalized and barred from access to many areas, including most beaches near the tourist areas. At the same time, much of the fragile ecosystem that existed along the shorelines of the Riviera Maya has been replaced with resorts, and runoffs from the land now threaten one of the largest coral reefs in the world.
A global trend
Even cities that have been receiving tourists for a very long time can experience the negative impacts of it, despite many of them being better equipped to cope with mass tourism. Cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, and many others all had citizens that felt they experienced the negative impacts of tourism more than the positives. Ranging from an increase in rental prices, to drunk people being obnoxious, and tourists leading to an increase in traffic, these problems might seem minor on their own, but they really add up to make a place less attractive to live in.
Due to their popularity and tendency to become tourism magnets, beaches warrant a special note in this complex maze of local impacts. It turns out that hotels are much more popular when located next to white sandy beaches, and local developers will go to great lengths to ensure that their newly built hotel has access to a beach that is deemed “worthy” of receiving tourists. Setting aside the destruction of the natural habitat of many species, and the impact of people walking over fragile ecosystems, most beaches around the world are cleaned on a regular basis to enhance their looks for beach-goers. Yet the organic debris that are often found along the shorelines have natural benefits to many species, and are an important part of the beach ecosystem, with their removal having been shown to be detrimental to local biodiversity.
Now, it’s worth acknowledging that many travellers and tourist destinations around the world have taken measures to reduce the negative environmental, social, economic, and cultural impacts that uncontrolled tourism can have. Many localities have taken up measures to restrict how much development can occur, and how it can take place. Some hotels and resorts are now taking a more sustainable approach, and offering sustainable vacations that try and compensate for the brunt of tourism either by lowering its direct impact, or by compensating it in another way. While these are worthwhile endeavours, they often fail to compensate for the biggest impact that international tourism has.
No matter how sustainable a tourist destination may market itself as, if the ideal way to reach it is by plane, then most of the negative impact is generated before the destination is even reached. Planes often represent a vital link to the outside world for many tourist destinations. Unfortunately, on the global scale, these trips represent over 40% of the CO2 emissions of tourism, and up to 75% of its climate change impact.
What can be done?
To put it succinctly: travel less, make shorter trips, and try to get there with alternative modes of transportation. The reality is that many of us live in places that are worth visiting, and there are many things to be seen and done without travelling halfway around the globe. In many cases, it’s even possible to go there by using options such as trains and buses. This doesn’t mean international tourism should die out, but it’s important to remember that cheap flights and cocktails on the beach have a big impact on our world.