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GESAMP on environmental aspects of tourism

'The world's biggest industry ever -- but poorly managed for the environment'


Tourism is a big, sometimes dominant, contributor to the GDPs of many nations, such as small island developing countries.


Tourism is the world’s biggest industry -- indeed the biggest the planet has ever seen -- and it is growing rapidly. The number of international tourists worldwide grew from 170 million in 1971 to 635 million in 1998, while the amount they spent soared from US$ 21 billion to US$ 439 billion. By 2020, the World Tourism Organisation predicts, 1.5 billion of them will be spending $2 trillion a year -- or over $5 billion every day. Meanwhile, at least three times as many people take holidays within their own countries, [Page 23] predominantly in developed nations. Tourism is a big, sometimes dominant, contributor to the GDPs of many nations, such as small island developing countries. It already accounts for a quarter of the total economy of the Caribbean, and provides a fifth of all its jobs.

If tourism is well planned, and is appropriate to local circumstances, it can do much for the sustainable development of coastal areas. Tourists are attracted to pristine seas, so there is a strong incentive to manage the environment properly. Tourism provides a renewable source of income for coastal communities, and can be used directly to subsidize environmental management; a fee specially levied on visitors to the Great Barrier Reef National Park, for example, produced over 28 percent of the revenue of the authority managing it in 1999, while its public aquarium and bookshop (used mainly by tourists) provided another 4.6 percent.

However, tourism is usually not managed well from an environmental perspective. There are strong economic incentives to site hotels and other tourist facilities as near to attractive spots as possible, regardless of the aesthetic and environmental damage that may result. Building hotels, marinas and their supporting infrastructure -- roads, air-ports, car parks, harbours, jetties, breakwaters, sea walls, restaurants, golf courses etc. -- often greatly changes natural coastlines and their habitats. In extreme cases, whole ecosystems -- such as wetlands, estuaries, mangroves and coral reefs -- are destroyed or reduced to insignificance and, as a result, the very survival of key economic or ecological species is thrown into doubt.

The sewage and rubbish that tourists produce add to the difficulties resident populations already have in managing their own debris, especially as the visitors each usually generate more solid waste than local people. The extra sewage they produce often ends up in the sea, with little treatment. This adds to eutrophication, and can increase the incidence of pathogens in waters used for swim-ming, boating and aquaculture. Large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are used on coastal golf courses, and may get into the sea. Some far-sighted developers have solved both problems by using treated sewage to irrigate and fertilize their greens and fairways.

Tourists want to eat local seafood and buy local curios, and so indigenous species are often overexploited to try to satisfy them. In many places habitats are commonly destroyed by people walking on reefs, diving or snorkelling or by the anchors and propellers of boats.

Maritime tourism is increasing, posing special problems. Pleasure boat marinas are often built in attractive places, with no regard for the damage they do to wetlands, lagoons, coral reefs and other local habitats. Often they do not have adequate facilities for receiving, treating and disposing of wastes. Meanwhile many of the cruise ships’ favourite destinations cannot cope with the vast amount of wastes they generate. It is, indeed, often questionable whether the countries most visited by the ships get enough of an income from them to outweigh such costs. On the positive side, the emergence of ecotourism and cultural tourism has begun to introduce a new dynamic into the industry. People who choose such holidays encourage sustainable development by putting a high value on well-preserved environments and cultures, and undertaking to do as little damage as possible themselves. There are encouraging signs that environmental concerns are spreading from this niche market to big tour operators. Several now go out of their way to stress their green credentials, and check out the hotels and resorts they use for their impact on the natural world -- and there are some well-supported award schemes. But if tourism is to become truly sustainable these initiatives will have to spread much wider: the presumption must be that no part of the environment has an unlimited capacity to accommodate visitors or their activities.

Source: GESAMP70:22-24