Tourism: An unsustainable luxury?

          FIFTY YEARS AGO, the title of this article would have made little sense to anyone. Overseas tourism was only just beginning to expand and ‘ordinary’ people started to imagine themselves to be much less ordinary by dreaming of holidaying overseas. Tourism was seen as a luxury and the term ‘sustainability’ was not to be uttered for another 20 or more years. It was not until the late 1980s that anyone suggested the phrase ‘sustainable tourism’.

          Today tourism is seen by some as a right, with over 900 million international trips taken in 2008, and predictions of more than one billion trips for the year 2010. In 2007 more than 1.6 billion Chinese tourists took trips within their own country. So many people travelling creates an enormous industry, much of which is unseen, but with huge potential for good and harm.

          The WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council) estimates that over 230 million jobs in the world are supported by the tourism industry, which equates to 8.3 per cent of total global employment, or one in every twelve jobs. Tourism is also a great industry for helping countries to maintain employment levels during recessions. 42 of the world’s poorest 50 countries have tourism as their chief income earner. Put simply, without tourism, the very poorest people in the world would be much poorer.

          The money earned through tourism can also have a democratising effect on people. Owning an airline or hotel has considerable barriers to entry, yet secondary activities at the destination, such as owning restaurants, car hire, tour-guiding and running attractions, are all the kinds of things that the local population can buy into, creating autonomy among people, promoting self-determination and encouraging support for the rule of law.

          Beyond the benefit which tourism can bring to developing countries, tourism can aid the redevelopment and the rejuvenation of places that are struggling to adapt to a post-manufacturing economy. The Eden Project in the UK is a great example of how tourism can be used to reverse a trend of urban migration of the youngest and brightest, for whom opportunities had withered once the economic force of the tin mines of the region were closed and local employment had risen. Since opening in 2001, the Eden Centre has received over seven million visitors.

          Places, cultures and wildlife of touristic interest have an alternative economic value that rests with their preservation. Botswana aims to secure 25 per cent of its country with varying degrees of national park status, but this is only possible because the land has value to tourists in a preserved state. If tourists did not come, the land would likely be given over to alternative sources of raising income such as the extractive industries of mining and forestry or farming. Churches, historic houses, bridges and artefacts are protected because tourists pay to see them. Whilst we may wish to see a different rationale for protecting our histories, tourism provides an economic reason that pragmatists respond to.

          Yet against all these positives sit the negatives associated with tourism. After many years of being ignored, aviation’s role in producing the greenhouse gases that contribute towards climate change is rapidly being identified.

          The aviation industry’s defensive position within the sustainability debate has not served it well, and like companies vilified for their approach to ‘sweatshop labour’ or environmental performance, it is possible that airlines may become the next corporate villains. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation asserts that emissions from transportation, accommodation and activities associated with international and domestic tourism represent between 4 per cent and 6 per cent of global CO2 emissions in 2005 (with a best estimate of 5 per cent). Within Europe the figure is closer to 7 per cent and is predicted to grow to 15 per cent by 2020. If tourism continues to grow as it is currently, no other economic sector will have room to grow if the world is to remain within ‘safe’ rates of climate change.

          To date, we have only really begun to investigate the carbon impact of aviation, but it is possible that other emissions such as nitrogen oxides, sulphurous oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide produced by burning aviation fuel may prove to be more significant.

          Yet, different kinds of trips cause significantly different levels of emissions. For example, while the average trip taken generates 0.25 tonnes of CO2, a long-haul flight to Australia or a high-end luxury cruise can generate up to 9 tonnes of CO2 per trip (35 times the emissions caused by an average trip). Trips taken by coach and rail account for 34 per cent of all trips, but contribute only 13 per cent of all tourism CO2 emissions. By contrast, long-haul travel represents only 2.7 per cent of the number of all the trips taken in a year, but contributes 17 per cent to global tourist emissions.

          Beyond the impact on climate change, tourism has led to the ‘uglification’ of once beautiful destinations, draws heavily on water and energy supplies in areas of the world where these are often scarce resources, causes congestion and forces a change from traditional land use. Socially, tourism is often blamed for changes to society, a ‘commodification’ of cultures, promoting drugs, sex and alcohol, distorting values, encouraging crime and spreading disease. Economically, tourism can push up land values and make it impossible for local people to afford local houses. Tourism is known to draw all available capital into the industry and so reduce the diversity of an economy, limiting the ability of the local population to take advantage of the needs of the industry and so ‘multiply’ the worth of money spent in resort.

          Where does this leave us? At the University of Surrey we recently completed research for the UK government’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to investigate how willing the English public is to change its behaviour towards more sustainable forms of tourism and leisure.

          We found that, whilst people are often keen to take action at home to promote the environment, they are largely ignorant of how much impact their holidays have. People told us that they felt they were ‘doing their bit’ by recycling all year, switching off lights when not in use and switching electronic devices off at the plug rather than leaving them on standby. In return, people wanted to be able to travel on holiday without thinking about their environmental impacts. When people were told that a flight to Thailand was the equivalent of leaving a light bulb on for seven years, many expressed their disbelief that the negative impacts of flying did not balance the pro-environmental behaviour they undertook throughout the year.

          Despite this, people were not willing to give up their holidays and would only consider changing the destination of their holidays for their second, third or fourth holidays of the year. The main holiday of the year was seen as inviolable and, perhaps worryingly, a right.

          Some people told us they would consider taking the train rather than flying, but given the destinations people wish to travel to, flying was the only real alternative. Others were willing to try to use local restaurants and hotels, or to avoid new golf courses, but overall there was a reluctance to do different things – such as stay in the UK – that did not impact to such a high extent on the environment. Instead, people would, if pressed, continue to do the things they wanted to do, but do them differently with a thought for a more environmentally friendly way.

          If all tourists sought the most environmentally friendly way of doing what they wanted to do, it is possible that many of the negative impacts of tourism could be avoided. However, the attraction of travel, the growing wealth of the world and technological limitations make it doubtful that this route can deliver the necessary changes to avert climate change.

          Instead, we may need to do different things such as holiday in our home countries and only travel abroad as a rare treat. Tourism may become the kind of luxury we can only afford very occasionally. This may be brought about by peak oil production pushing up the price of flying, the economic downturn, personal carbon allowances that limit the amount of emissions we can cause per year, or taxes that serve to limit travel.

          There are myriad mechanisms for reducing tourism demand if it is felt to be unsustainable, and all of them will be unpopular. Given this, it behoves all of us to think about whether all of our travel is necessary and, if it is, to find the most sustainable way of travelling. If we don’t make the changes to our behaviour voluntarily, it is possible that tourism will become regarded as an unsustainable activity and once again become a rare and luxury item.



          Daniel Koeppel

          Daniel is an environmental sustainability specialist with a hospitality background. He is passionate in supporting visionary hotel companies wishing to increase their environmental sustainability know how and solutions. Contact us now for a non-committing assessment!

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