The Effect of Tourism on Environmental Risks

August 22, 2023

At this stage of our fight against climate change I would expect that most people are well aware of at least the high level environmental risks, their effect on global warming and the devastating results we are seeing in worldwide weather. Lately there seem to be hundreds of extreme weather events all over the world including heatwaves in Beijing, floods in Nepal and wildfires in Canada, Maui and Tenerife. No one can deny that these events have been increasing each year as a direct result of climate change and in a bizarre twist of fate many of these are happening at major tourist destinations.

The impact of increasing tourism on environmental risks can be both positive and negative, depending on various factors such as destination management practices, the scale of tourism, and the level of awareness and responsibility among tourists and local communities. Here are some ways in which tourism positively affects the environment.

Positive effects:

  1. Conservation efforts – in certain cases tourism can lead to increased funding for conservation efforts. Entrance fees, environmental taxes and other tourism derived revenues can be directed towards protecting natural habitats and wildlife.
  2. Education and tourist awareness – tourism can raise awareness about the importance of protecting the environment through tourists who have experienced the natural beauty becoming advocates for conservation efforts.
  3. Economic incentives – communities who rely heavily on tourism could have incentives to protect their natural resources and this protection will in turn attract more tourists.

However, amidst the attraction of breathtaking landscapes and diverse cultures lies a less romanticized reality: the negative impact of tourism on the environment. The booming tourism industry has, over time, proven to be a double-edged sword, exacting a heavy toll on the very destinations it attracts. From overdevelopment to pollution, the remainder of this article delves into the adverse effects that rampant tourism inflicts on our fragile ecosystems.

Negative effects:

  1. Overtourism – destinations that are swamped by more tourists than they can handle sustainably, leads to overcrowding and significant strain on infrastructure. Local amenities such as transportation, sanitation and public spaces are stretched to their limits, often compromising the quality of life for both residents and visitors. This excessive pressure can result in a deteriorating environment, from congested streets to damaged natural sites.
  2. Pollution and waste generation – tourism leaves behind a trail of waste and pollution that can be devastating to local ecosystems. The influx of tourists results in increased consumption of resources and generates vast amounts of waste, from plastic bottles and food packaging to hazardous chemicals used in hospitality. Improper waste management systems in many tourist destinations exacerbate the problem, as waste finds its way into water bodies, endangering local wildlife and marine ecosystems.
  3. Carbon footprint – the tourism industry’s carbon footprint cannot be ignored. Air travel, a cornerstone of modern tourism, contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. The frequent and often long-distance flights taken by tourists add to the atmospheric CO2 levels, accelerating climate change. Additionally, the energy demands of hotels, resorts and transportation services contribute to local air pollution and further exacerbate environmental degradation.
  4. Habitat destruction – one of the most apparent negative consequences of mass tourism is the rapid and unchecked development of natural landscapes to accommodate growing visitor numbers. Pristine beaches, serene forests and previously untouched landscapes are transformed into sprawling resorts and hotels often without sufficient consideration for the long-term ecological consequences. Such development leads to habitat destruction and disruption of the delicate balance that sustains these ecosystems.
  5. Resource depletion – tourism strains local resources, leading to the overexploitation of water, energy and land. Water scarcity becomes a pressing issue in many tourist hotspots, as hotels, golf courses and other amenities compete for limited water supplies. Unsustainable extraction of resources can lead to soil erosion and loss of biodiversity in local ecosystems, impacting both the environment and the livelihoods of local communities.
  6. Cultural erosion – an influx of tourists often drives a commercialization of local cultures, leading to the erosion of traditional ways of life. In pursuit of profit, communities may alter their cultural practices to cater to the preferences of tourists resulting in the loss of cultural authenticity. This not only diminishes the uniqueness of a destination but also undermines the very cultural heritage that drew visitors in the first place.

Possible mitigation strategies:

  • Educating and raising awareness among tourists about the importance of respecting local cultures, ecosystems and environments.
  • Encouraging responsible tourism practices that minimize negative impacts on the environment, while promoting cultural and ecological awareness.
  • Implementing and enforcing regulations that control tourism activities and protect sensitive areas.
  • Engaging local communities in decision making processes and ensuring that they benefit economically from tourism, encouraging a sense of ownership over sustainability.
  • Managing capacity by establishing limits on the number of visitors allowed in sensitive areas to prevent overcrowding and resource depletion.
  • Developing eco-friendly infrastructure and adopting green building practices to minimize the environmental footprint of tourism facilities along with the implementation of efficient waste disposal and recycling systems to manage the increased waste generated by tourism.

Governments, industries and travellers must work together to establish and enforce regulations that promote responsible tourism, minimize ecological impact and prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term economic gains. While sustainable tourism practices are gaining traction, the negative effects of tourism on the environment remain significant and call for increased collective action.

The allure of exploration and adventure that drives the tourism industry must be balanced with a commitment to preserving the very environments that make such experiences possible.

Warrick Asher
General Manager – Business Development, BarnOwl GRC.