Too much tourism has been a blessing to billions of people around the world. Now we can travel to exotic destinations more easily than ever, to relax, sightsee and experience it.
However, mass tourism is not a boon for the environment. Global tourism leaves a giant carbon footprint and also contributes to large-scale environmental degradation around the world through the conversion of relatively isolated and previously unspoiled natural areas into busy travel destinations.
Then there are the increasing rates of pollution generated by mass tourism. Eight out of 10 tourists travel to coastal areas, with beaches being the most popular destinations. That hardly benefits marine ecosystems. Beaches are littered with garbage, fragile marine areas are flooded by violent tourists, coastal waters are polluted with effluents and untreated sewage.
"During the peak tourism season, marine litter in the Mediterranean region has been found to increase by as much as 40 percent," observed UN Environment. "With great irony, tourism, which often depends on the natural beauty of the Earth, is making enormous contributions to its decline in a very visible way," they add from the agency.
The Mediterranean, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracts some 220 million tourists who flock to the region each year. Their number is expected to increase to 350 million in two decades. About half of the visitors head to the beaches where they often unknowingly cause damage to the environment through their sheer numbers.
"The huge developments in tourism infrastructure have drastically altered the natural dynamics of Mediterranean coastal ecosystems," explains the World Wildlife Fund. “For example, more than half of the 46,000 km coastline is now urbanized, mainly along the European coastline. This infrastructure is one of the main causes of habitat loss in the region, and some places are now beyond repair ”.
Not even previously remote locations are being spared the ravages of tourism. In the Galapagos Islands, for example, the number of tourists almost doubled, to 275,000 in 2018, in just a decade. In the last three decades, local tourism has grown at a rate of almost 7% each year. Now these unique and biodiversity islands, which had a formative influence on Charles Darwin in formulating his theory of evolution through natural selection, are about to be irrevocably transformed.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. More and more tour operators and governments are recognizing the importance of responsible tourism to protect unique biodiversity hotspots from further damage. In an effort to save local marine life, Thailand closed down a popular and picturesque beach, which rose to fame as the setting for the Hollywood movie The Beach, on the Andaman Sea. Before the closure, some 5,000 tourists arrived at the small beach, daily, transported by about 200 motor boats. Since the beach was closed, marine life has been slowly recovering in the area.
Similar large-scale steps are being taken to address some of the worst effects of global mass tourism. One such effort, the Global Plastics Tourism Initiative, aims to reduce the impacts of plastic waste generated by tourism. The huge amounts of plastic debris that end up in the oceans pose an existential threat to numerous species and entire marine ecosystems.
Unless drastic measures are taken, the situation, which is bad enough, will get even worse. A much-cited statistic says that by 2050 there may well be more plastic than fish in the oceans. "Plastic pollution is one of the main environmental challenges of our time, and tourism has an important role to play in contributing to the solution," says UN Environment. "Much of the plastic used in tourism is made to be thrown away and often cannot be recycled, leading to large amounts of pollution."
Solutions to the large amounts of plastic generated by mass tourism include phasing out all problematic plastic items and packaging, moving from single-use to reusable plastic items, and embracing effective recycling. "The problem of plastic pollution in tourism is too big for a single organization to solve it on its own," notes the Global Initiative on Tourism Plastics. "To match the scale of the problem, changes must take place throughout the tourism value chain."
Once plastic waste enters the seas and oceans, it can spread across the planet. Even the beaches on remote, uninhabited islands have been covered in plastic debris carried by currents and tides. That's why reducing plastic waste should be a priority around the world.
Minimizing other harmful impacts of mass tourism will be just as important if we are to save besieged ecosystems from the depredations that humans inflict on them. Each of us can do our part. We can stop littering. We can stop trampling the corals. We can stop pulling creatures out of the sea as souvenirs. And we can avoid destinations entirely if they are already plagued with other people.
Author: Daniel T. Cross