The Impacts & Benefits of Tourism: Greening an Industry (Part 3)

In November 2020 when we first officially launched The Sustainable Switch, our owner, Saige Friedman wrote a series on the impacts and benefits of tourism for Canadian adventure company Peak Adventure. These articles will now be available via our website and Peak Adventure’s Journal. Part 3 focuses on the environmental aspects associated with tourism and sustainable tourism.

Environmental Aspects of Tourism 

The most commonly acknowledged positive environmental impact of tourism is education/raising awareness, with many destinations promoting ecotourism and sustainable tourism. Positive environmental impacts can also be introduced through the need for the environment, as tourism cannot often succeed without certain environmental factors (e.g., beaches, mountains). However, historically, the tourism industry has been a large contributor to climate change, with substantial impacts on local land use, culture, and natural resources. Tourism activities lead to soil erosion, increased pollution, natural habitat and wildlife loss, increased pressures on natural resources through consumption, and can have long-lasting socio-cultural impacts on locals. 

Tourism accounts for more than 5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with transportation accounting for 90% of this number. Even though many countries are currently working towards decreasing their CO2 emissions through global agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development GoalsThe World Count reports that by 2030, a 25% increase in CO2 emissions from 2016 levels (specifically from tourism) is expected to occur. In real numbers, this would be an increase from 1,598 million to 1,998 million tonnes. 

As of November 15th, the following damages have occurred in 2020 due to tourism practices: 

  1. 1.85 billion tonnes of waste dumped
  2. 3.66 million square km of land area has been degraded
  3. 3.73 trillion tonnes of freshwater used
  4. 3.77 trillion tonnes of CO2 emitted

Tourism development can put immense pressure on an area’s natural resources, especially when it increases consumption in regions where resources may already be scarce. Some common examples include overuse of water resources, degradation of land, and the depletion of other local resources. The tourism industry has been known to overuse water resources for things such as hotels, swimming pools, golf courses, and personal use by tourists. Depending on the area and its resource availability, this overuse of water can result in shortages and degradation of water supplies, and a greater volume of wastewater is generated. 

Golf course maintenance on its own can deplete freshwater resources. Golf tourism has become increasingly popular, and the number of golf courses continues to grow rapidly. These courses require a significant amount of water each day for proper maintenance, and many golf resorts are more often situated in or nearby protected environmentally sensitive areas. The development of golf courses and resorts in these areas can have major consequences on important land resources like fertile soil, forests, wetlands and wildlife. Animals are often displaced when their habitats are destroyed, or disturbed by human activity. 

Figure 1 – Before & After Golf Course Construction

Tourism can also place a great deal of pressure on other local resources like energy, food and other raw materials. Greater extraction and transport of these resources tend to exacerbate the physical impacts associated with their exploitation. Due to the seasonality of the industry, many destinations have a much higher number of inhabitants in the high season than they do in the low season. High demand is placed on these resources to meet the high expectations of tourists, which can put significant pressure on local resources and infrastructure. 

Sustainable Tourism

Regardless of the positive economic results associated with tourism, the negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts of the industry have begun to influence industry leaders and policymakers to invest in and develop more sustainable alternatives. A movement that has arisen in recent decades, as a result, is sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism relies on the premise of taking care of the environment, society, and economy. The principles associated with the concept aim to minimize the negative impacts of tourism while highlighting the number of positive impacts it can have. It is a continuous process that requires constant monitoring of impacts and ensuring the implementation of preventative/corrective measures whenever necessary. 

Horror stories of poor waste management planning, from a lack of garbage and recycling bins at local outdoor events to the empty oxygen canisters that litter the trail to Mount Everest, have become the norm over time. As well, we hear too often of communities overrun by unruly and disrespectful tourists coming from all over the world for an event – like Mardi Gras in New Orleans – leaving the locals to deal with the aftermath. Mardi Gras is an important economic and cultural event for New Orleans, with a $1B+ impact per year. This accounts for 2% of New Orleans’ GDP, and the economic impact has only increased. From 2011 to 2020, the economic impact of Mardi Gras grew by 66%. As well, in 2018, over 164 thousand people flew to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, with the usual visitor turnout totalling about 1.4 million; which is over 4x the population of New Orleans.

Figure 2 – Mardi Gras Celebration in New Orleans

While Mardi Gras is undoubtedly a moneymaker for New Orleans, the event also significantly impacts the local community in other ways. For instance, in 2019:

  1. 323 arrests were reportedly made
  2. 84 illegal guns were confiscated
  3. 826 people were assisted by the New Orleans Health Department 
  4. 54,000 man hours were put in by the New Orleans Police Department 
  5. 22,127 parking citations were issued 
  6. 937 vehicles were towed
  7. 3,000+ calls were made to emergency services
  8. 1,900 people were transported to local hospitals 
  9. 600 workers were required to remove all of the trash from the parade route
  10. 974 tonnes of trash were collected
  11. 39 fires were responded to by the New Orleans Fire Department

In recent years, efforts have been made to collect and recycle the Mardi Gras beads thrown during the parade and worn by parade-goers. In 2019, over 25 million pounds of beads were reportedly thrown, 92 thousand pounds of which were removed from storm drains afterwards, and a total of 266 thousand pounds of beads were recycled. While the number of beads recycled in 2019 was 2x that of 2018, the efforts being made to recover these beads are lacking – there are still tens of millions of pounds of beads being left out of these numbers. 

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is just one example of how tourism can impact a community when it isn’t planned and operated sustainably. There are countless benefits associated with sustainable tourism, but one of the main focuses of the movement is the benefit that tourism can provide to the local communities in which it occurs. By minimizing the impacts that the tourism sector has or will have on the environment and local culture, we can ensure that they will be available for future generations, whilst also utilizing the sector to generate income, employment, and local conservation efforts. Sustainable tourism also provides important economic incentives for habitat protection, with revenues from visitor spending often being channelled back into nature conservation or capacity-building programmes for local communities to manage protected areas. 

On March 4, 2020, the OECD released the 2020 edition of their Tourism Trends and Policies report which highlights the importance of the sustainable development of the tourism sector. The report states that this sustainable development “depends on the ability of destinations to promote adaptations to economic, social, political, and environmental trends, highlighting the emergence of integrated policies – with the participation of the private sector and local communities – in order to promote more inclusive growth.” While the growth of sustainable tourism may be slow, there are definite signs of progress; according to The World Counts, as of November 17, 2020, there have been 89 million eco-tourist arrivals somewhere on earth this year. While this number pales in comparison to the total number of tourist arrivals, it is still a significant number and indicates an acceptance of these changes to the industry by consumers. Overall, there are a large number of organizations, agencies, and levels of government focusing on sustainable tourism – creating reports, frameworks, models, targets, guidelines, companies, and case studies on the subject.

This concludes the third part of the Greening an Industry series. Make sure to come back tomorrow to read part 4, in which sustainable tourism guidelines & certifications will be explored.

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