What is Tourism’s Biggest Threat to the Environment?

  • WHL Group
  • 18 April 2012

In honour of Earth Day – scheduled this year for Sunday April 22 – and our focus this month on ecotourism, we’re thinking about our planet. We’re thinking about the human activities that have the most harmful impact on it, especially the one we love most – travel.

We’re compelled to ask: What is tourism in its worst form, environmentally? Even in its best form, can the cost to the earth of tourism ever really be offset?

These are the questions that drive the staff at the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world. With decades of combined experience in the sustainable travel and tourism industry, our insight into the issues is impressive.

And here are our answers to the question “What is tourism’s greatest threat to the environment?”

Puerta Vallarta, Mexico

Tourism poses a threat to the environment when local communities scramble to meet the inflated expectations of uninformed vacationers. Photo courtesy of flickr/vallartavelas

“I think the biggest threat tourism poses to the environment – beyond carbon emissions and natural resource wasting – is when people travel to a new country, a new city or a new community without an understanding of that area’s social and economic life. it’s when people travel to parts of the world where the currency is weaker simply because it’s ‘cheaper,’ bringing with them expectations of luxuries, resorts and vacation, and without thinking critically about how their expectations impact the local community and its necessity to meet those expectations in order to generate business.”
~ Jenna Makowski, Content Editor, whl.travel

In places like Vietnam, environmental consideration takes a back seat to economic growth. The tourism sector is a perfect example of that. Photo courtesy of flickr/staminajim

In places like Vietnam, environmental consideration takes a back seat to economic growth. The tourism sector is a perfect example of that. Photo courtesy of flickr/staminajim

“One of the most noticeable threats to the environment is the construction of new mega resorts along undisturbed coastal areas. It’s a hard thing to stop, especially in some developing countries like Vietnam, where consideration for the environment takes a distant second place to growth as a priority. A good example is the once-untouched China Beach near Hoi An in central Vietnam, which is a developers paradise and now a construction site of luxury resorts. Unfortunately, tourism will continue to drive this sort of development at even more secluded locations around the world.”
~ Luke Ford, CEO, Gunyah

Lake Titicaca, Argentina

While on a tour of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, I was struck by not only the exploitation of the local people, but also by the disrespect shown to the lake. This vital water resource is already in great jeopardy. This was the saddest tour I have ever been on. Photo courtesy of Maureen Valentine

“The pressure that tourism puts on already unstable local resources in many developing nations is the largest threat for the future of those destinations, combined with the pressure on lacking infrastructure systems like sewage and transport. Many destinations are in short supply of energy, water and food (which tourists generally take the best of). It is a real challenge as a tourist to truly tread lightly in vulnerable destinations.”
~ Maureen Valentine, Director, Hotel Link Solutions


“Tourism can be a powerful destructive force, particularly in the hands of those looking for short term gain. When ecologically sensitive areas are not well managed, the results can be dire. Although tourists are becoming more aware of their negative impact, few will actively try to reduce it unless prompted to do so. The rules of travel should be set by the destinations themselves. They need to lead the way by declaring what is and isn’t acceptable and then sticking to it. Tourists will respect natural attractions more if it’s clear that the local communities hold them in high regard.”
~ Jen Aston, Director, whl.travel Africa regional office

Tourists traveling by pack animal

Carbon-neutral local transport like horseback riding is one way to address emissions from travel. For inevitable flights, surprisingly affordable carbon-offset programs are in place. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Young

“I think there are numerous tourism-initiated environmental threats, but perhaps the most pervasive is air travel and its associated emissions. Air travel has facilitated the growing accessibility of previously remote destinations, much to the delight of travellers and the chagrin of environmentalists and locals. The problem is that air travel isn’t going away. No matter how many travellers engage in slow travel and make the effort to travel by anything but planes, air travel remains the most time-efficient and generally most feasible mode of transportation. Also, non-air travel isn’t always environmentally friendly either.

Eagle in Boracay, Philippines

Walking the fine line between use and exploitation in Boracay, Philippines, an eagle is kept strapped to a branch so tourists can take their holiday photo. They can have it on their shoulders for as long as they want, and of course, should give a small donation to keep the business alive. Photo courtesy of Andre Franchini

So what to do when there’s no easy answer? Do the best you can. We can’t always travel emission-free, like by horse or kayak, but we can at least travel carbon-neutral. Personally, I strive to travel as close to carbon-neutral as possible. I do this by purchasing Gold Standard carbon-offset credits, which go to support low-carbon projects all over the world. I’ve written more about it in my blog. The good news is that purchasing carbon offsets isn’t as costly as most people think. My five-ish hour flight to Panama and back was offset for about Canadian $40. It’s a small price to pay for having access to the magnificent places we can fly to.”
~ Lindsay Young , Digital Marketing Specialist, Urban Adventures

“The biggest threat is not only that tourism can damage the local environment and its species, but also that it inadvertently exploits natural resources as a tourist attraction. It comes down to mindset and striking a delicate balance. Since some practices are culturally accepted and have been part of local community traditions for centuries, the work to change the way people see their natural resources and empower them to capitalise on their home’s natural endowments through tourism (without exploiting them) is not an easy task.”
~ André Franchini, CEO, Hotel Link Solutions

This question reminded me of a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in central Australia. Our Aboriginal guide appealed to us not to climb the rock, reminding us that doing so is as disgraceful and disrespectful to Aboriginal culture as climbing the altar at Saint Peter’s in Rome would be in Catholicism. Travellers’ defiance of the host culture’s preferences is now affecting the rock and the environment around it.

This is just one example of many in which visitors come with neither foreknowledge nor sensitivity enough to appreciate (and respect) the unique qualities of a place, both natural and manmade. It’s a process that includes, in the search for adventure, travellers’ pursuit of off-the-beaten-path destinations that are perhaps not entirely suitable as tourism attractions.

A universal travel ethic that includes education about cultural literacy is essential to sustainability. It means travellers police themselves, but also put a brake on irresponsible tourism destination development by host cultures trying to cash in on travellers’ ignrorance.
~ Ethan Gelber, Chief Communications Officer, WHL Group

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Thousands of limestone karsts and islands draw tons of visitors to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. But mangroves and seagrass beds have been cleared out to make room for tourist boats. What will be left for tourists of the future to see? Photo courtesy of Ashley Hiemenz

“Rapid growth in tourism has been staggering in many developing nations, where it is often the case that natural attractions serve as the main draw for travellers. When tourism in these ecologically sensitive areas is unregulated, the environment can be severely damaged, and development can ultimately destroy tourists’ main incentive to visit.”
~ Ashley Hiemenz, Product Manager, Gunyah

A frog in Costa Rica

Profit-driven overdevelopment for tourism can harm delicate ecosystems like beaches, wetlands, and rain forests.

“It’s hard not to notice the physical impacts of mass-market tourism and the destructive influence it can have on local environments. Poor development decisions such as extensive building on beaches or bulldozing over wetlands create irreversible damage here on planet earth and the big players who make these irresponsible decisions need to be held accountable. I’d say corporate greed is the most immediate threat to the environment, which is why it’s so important to get involved. It’s up to travellers like us to supply the checks and balances: write to your government or join a local non-profit to advocate for better and more sustainable land uses.”
~ Laurel Angrist , Editor, The Travel Word


“I think there are a lot of tourism’s threats that impact our planet negatively, but the good news is that each of us can help to reduce them and do our bits for the environment. Litter, for example. In Latvia there is a project driven by voluntary participation to keep our environment tidy, bring people together and see results. It’s called “The Big Clean-up.” Last April there were around 150,000 participants in 1,354 cleanup locations across the whole country. Hopefully this year (30th April) the turnout will be even better as this project has become very popular in Latvia. Foreigners, visitors and travellers welcome!
~ Anda Cirule, former Director, whl.travel Europe and the Middle East regional office

Cruise ships in the Bahamas

"We need to change our demand so that the developers change what they supply. We need to demand sustainability as a standard." Photo courtesy of flickr/Jeff Croft

“In addition to the threats posed by the carbon emissions generated by international air travel, perhaps the most significant concern is the impact that opportunistic development has on destinations. We all love visiting beautiful places and we want those places to be as accessible to as many people as possible and for them to be cheap for us to visit. We’ve created the demand, so it’s hypocritical for us then to decry the developers who slap up blocks of apartments on stretches of pristine coastline. We wanted to see it and we didn’t want to pay much to go there.

What we need to realise is that sustainability has a cost attached to it, but also that sustainability is an inherently good thing – easily worth its price. It’s cheap to eat junk food all the time, but you don’t do it because it ruins your body! We need to change our demand so that the developers change what they supply. We need to demand sustainability as a standard.
~ Paul Tavner , Developer, The Travel Word


“In my experience the biggest problem is short-term thinking and greed. Although it’s not a problem confined to tourism, the best evidence of this in the tourism space is mass tourism, where the natural environment plays second fiddle to ‘development’ and ‘growth.’ The irony is that the very beauty of the place, which was the essence of why people came in the first place, is rapidly degraded, leaving a wasteland (culturally and environmentally) that is no longer of value to either the locals or the tourists.

As a model for tourism I like what is happening in Bhutan. Here the government has taken a measured view and wants to ensure tourism is run sustainably. Numbers of tourists are limited, tourism development is tightly controlled and an enormous effort is placed on win-win-win outcomes – for tourists, for local communities and for the environment. At the core of this is a belief that growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a poor measure for development’ and instead the country has focused on Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH). Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan is leading the way in defining a new economic paradigm.”
~ Len Cordiner, CEO, WHL Group


“In my opinion, the greatest threat provided by tourism to the environment is the lack of planning. When a tourism activity takes place without planning is when it becomes more dangerous to the environment and the local communities. There are several examples of this – resorts and tourist complexes of gigantic proportions that are completely changing the way of life in local communities. The lack of planning causes the misuse of resources, whether natural or human.”
~ Wallace Faria, Director, whl.travel Americas regional office


“For a country like the Philippines, where poverty is rampant and environmental policies aren’t implemented, tourism’s biggest threat to the environment is tourism itself. One immediate effect is trash. Oftentimes the local government gets so excited about the new influx of tourists (i.e. money) that the environment is ignored. The crowds arrive before systems are in place. In Boracay, for example, the island is developing faster than it can manage, which has lead to waste-management problems and depletion of the shoreline. Tourism also means an increase in demand for resources – more fish will have to be caught, more goods need to be delivered.

It’s always difficult to find that balance between opportunity and environment. What to do? Look at examples of success. In the simple town of Donsol, Sorsogon, whale-shark poaching was successfully converted into whale-shark watching, and what used to be a poor fishing village is now a thriving ecotourism destination visited by thousands every summer. And although they now take very good care of the gentle giants, their numbers have still depleted over the last 20 years. It is a constant battle for environmental conservation and proper environmental education.”
~ Mika Santos, Director, whl.travel Asia and the Pacific regional office

Emperor Shark Fin Soup

Emperor Shark Fin Soup: Local delicacy or endangered species? Photo courtesy of flikr/avlxyz

“I believe sheer weight of numbers of visitors is the biggest problem. With the explosion of budget airlines and a desire for people to visit ever more destinations, many places seem to struggle with issues such as rubbish, sewage, etc. People wishing to try local ‘delicacies,’ many of which are endangered, is also a concern.”
~ Adrian Cordiner, CEO, Green Path Transfers

Magaluf Beach, Mallorca, Spain

As I saw during my year of tourism studies in Mallorca, Spain, cut-rate mass-tourism to beaches like Magaluf takes its toll on the landscape. Photo courtesy of flickr/lloydi

“I think the biggest environmental problem with global tourism is distribution. Cut-rate mass-travel such as Caribbean cruises and all-inclusive resorts tend to concentrate a lion’s share of international tourism in just a few destinations. For these mass-visited hot spots, the problems of land use and the stress on local infrastructure can turn the blessing of tourism into a curse. Places get loved to death.

For travellers, the challenge is creativity. Rather than looking for Walmart-style low prices and hot deals to sandy beaches, think a little more outside the box about where to go. With more and more of the world opening up to international tourism, it’s more possible than ever to find great new places where you can contribute to healthy local growth without overwhelming the natural environment.”
~ Cynthia Ord, Newsletter Editor, The Travel Word

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WHL Group

WHL Group is the largest local-travel company in the world, a global network of companies that help travellers find unique ways to experience a destination through local tourism professionals. WHL Group companies empower local partners who have practice in experiential and mindful travel and a local's knack for identifying, explaining and sustaining the distinctive qualities of a place. Visit the WHL Group website.
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8 Responses to “What is Tourism’s Biggest Threat to the Environment?”

  1. Peter Somerville says:

    Kia Ora. I am very impressed with your broad range of travel topics and your overriding theme of minimising the human footprint when travelling. A couple of guidelines I think folk should be aware of are:

    The Travel Bug: People need to be aware so much of the possibility that they may be the carrier of bugs and diseases around the world, especially when travelling to remote regions, so should at least stay medicated, immunised and away from the young, infirm and old.

    An Ill Wind: Eating new foods and different cooking methods can cause all sorts of gastric upsets, not least of all ’gas’. (As if we do not have enough problems with ruminant animals). Carrying the right medication to combat this is very important – people worry far more about what clothes to take, make-up etc than what to do in case of medical emergency.

    The Assumption: Many people travel to foreign and off the beaten track destinations (sometimes in groups) with a parochial inappropriate attitude. Although the international language of travel is english, anglo-speaking travellers tend to assume that the language wil be understood just about everywhere and do not do enough homework before they leave to ensure a/ they are up to speed with local customs, and habits, and b/ they can themselves communicate (a couple of words at least) in that local lingo.

    The Cover-up. Ensuring that the footprint you leave on the planet is covered up as fast as possible by undertaking some environmental repair work (plant appropriate trees/shrubs, help in conservation, clean a beach etc.)

    Kea Kaha from New Zealand

  2. Nila says:

    I am as surprised as anyone lese that air travel is not on this list, as Cynthia points out it really is the so-called elephant in the room here.

    People do not like that idea, because flying is endemic and saying you can’t do so or should do so much less is an affront to a presupposed “right” to fly. But if we are going to talk about threats to the environment, air travel is a beast.

    Carbon offsets pay for the right to go on emitting carbon but they don’t target the source. I’m interested to see where biofuels come into this, we need to look at clean energy and not just offsetting imho.

  3. Ron Mader says:

    Tourism in its worst form are the tourism conferences that exclude locals and that do not provide free livestreaming coverage and accept comments and questions via Twitter from the virtual audience. If the pros cannot get travel right, then what hope do we have?

  4. cynthia says:

    I agree with Lee that air travel is the elephant in the living room, both in this post and in the sustainable tourism field in general. Lindsay does highlight what might be the best way for consumers to address it at present. Offsets aren’t perfect but it’s a start.

    John, your idea of a comprehensive measuring and labeling system of carbon emissions for travel is interesting, but would become almost impossibly tricky, since the ‘travel product’ is such a complex composite. If you buy luggage for your trip, for example, how would that factor in? Still, It’s important to imagine a system like the one you propose. Even if environmental “price tags” were only integrated into flight purchases, that would be a really big and important first step.

  5. Thoughtless mass tourism – and all it’s consequences as detailed above.

    Responsible tourism – it’s true meaning, not the catch-phrase – is the only way to minimize or even eliminate the threat.

  6. John says:

    What is needed are clear, understandable measurement systems. Then the total damage of our travel can be assessed. I’d be interested to know how much carbon dioxide was produced by all of my transport choices, not just air travel, which I do my best to avoid, but diesel trains, car ferries etc including the embedded carbon. I’d love to know how much carbon dioxide my accommodation and meals are responsible for. Not only for climate change reasons but also because most carbon dioxide is produced by non renewable fuel sources. Wouldn’t it be great to know how our water consumption compares to the average at our destination?
    It is good to be positive, but if more travel companies were brave enough to publish full facts and figures instead of “feelgood vibes” about their products then we might see a step change. I can see where Lee Sheridan is coming from in his comment as money is still the key driver for travel providers and consumers. However, I don’t see a problem with focussing on what is right, but give us the full story. A resort may be highly respectful of the local environment, culture and ensures that the tourism spend ends up in the local community, but tell me what my carbon footprint will be getting there and the full ecological footprint of my stay including my share of embedded carbon.

  7. Lee Sheridan says:

    Air Travel, Air Travel, Air Travel – there is nothing else that compares in scale to the levels of damage to our earth within the tourism industry.

    From some distant memory of a lecture somewhere, airlines can be up to 15% more efficient with existing technology – its just not cost effective for them to do so. Wing tip orders go down when fuel prices go down!

    We need to make the airlines be more environmentally friendly – we expect hotels to clear up their mess, why don’t we expect airlines to? Something in which budget airlines have led the way on is improving fuel efficiency.

    Everything else is small scale in comparison. I wish the world would stop focusing on those who aren’t doing everything right, and focus on those who aren’t doing nearly enough.

  8. cynthia says:

    Mika, I just love your video pick. What great imagery about the problem of plastic.

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