By Archana Chand –

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) stated that 2017’s growth in international tourism arrivals was the highest in seven years, reaching a massive 1.3 billion. Unfortunately, this also implies that tourism’s global significance as a user of natural resources will continue to grow in the future as activities of the tourism industry are closely linked to nature, climate, and the general environmental health.

Tourism’s impact on the environment has been well-established by several studies that provide proof of the far-reaching consequences of tourism activity, particularly the impact on the environment through the generation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The detrimental impact on the environment usually starts from the very beginning of a tourism infrastructure development program, as land alteration is an important cause for the release of climate-damaging greenhouse gases like CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide (Gossling, 2002).

The True Cost of Travel

When boarding a plane, a tourist may fail to realize that their few hours of flight actually generates more greenhouse gases than a year of driving. Thus, a tourist’s carbon footprints start to form the minute they board the plane. Tourism is now increasingly dependent on air transportation, and according to scientific research aviation has an increasing significance in carbon emission, producing more carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger kilometer than any other form of transport. It is estimated that aviation accounts for between 3.4 to 6.8 percent of all GHG emissions (Gossling & Peeters, 2007)Research also states that not only do airplanes release CO2 in the atmosphere, they also give off vapor trails and tropospheric ozone which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Despite the proof that flying has negative global environmental implications, will prospective tourists be willing to travel less? A study by Becken (2007) found that tourists displayed a reluctance to take voluntary initiatives and proactive roles to address the global impact of air travel. But it is not only air travel. People usually tend to display a higher reluctance to surrender activities associated with pleasure than other types.

 How much is the half-eaten buffet costing the environment?

There is always a higher demand for buffets at tourist destinations which means more food needs to be produced, processed, transported, and stored – each stage producing more environmentally harmful CO2 emissions. Hotels and resorts tend to generate a lot more food waste as tourists usually take more than they can chew at hotel buffets. But where does all that plate waste end up?

Plate waste is food that is served but not eaten by a customer and buffet-style meal services have been identified as a major contributor to food waste. The unconsumed buffet harms the environment because both food production and disposal of uneaten food produces substantial GHG emissions and are associated with greater use of land and water resources.

While the exact amount of food waste generated by the tourism industry is not known, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2013) estimated that approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world was lost or wasted each year. Therefore, food wastage is the third biggest emitter after the USA and China, as without accounting for GHG emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated at 3.3 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Furthermore, the unconsumed food that typically ends up in the landfill not only produces CO2 but creates methane, a gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2 (EPA, 2018). A recent study (Juvan et al., 2017) identified a number of factors associated with higher food waste outcomes at hotel breakfast buffets. Having more children in the guest mix was a key contributor along with the tendency to experiment with new unknown dishes at first breakfast after arrival, whilst tourists’ country of origin also seemed to determine their food waste habits. Studies also found that larger plate sizes tend to lead to more food waste (Wansink and van Ittersum 2013) and suggested that smaller plate sizes and reducing served portion sizes can help to lessen the plate waste.

How much is the water cost of tourism?

Tourism depends on a considerable amount of water and with the UNWTO’s projection of a continued growth in international tourist numbers, tourism’s water consumption is expected to follow the increasing trend.

It was found that when people stay in hotels they seem to generally use more water than they do at home. For example, on an average night of a hotel stay, a couple will probably end up dirtying two beach towels, two bath towels, two face towels, one-bathroom floor towel, four pillowcases, one bedsheet and a duvet cover – all then costing the environment many liters of water to clean.

Research states that direct water use in tourism is anything from 80 to 2000 liters per tourist per day, with a tendency for larger, resort-style hotels to use significantly more water than smaller, less luxurious establishments. A considerable amount of water goes to service hygiene needs in the hundreds of toilets and bathtubs of resorts while activities such as spas, swimming pools, water features, gardens, landscapes, and golf-courses are thoroughly irrigated – even in the event of a water crisis – to maintain the image of the destination.

Aside from direct water use, indirect water uses by the tourism industry accounts for a larger overall amount of water used. Food and fuel production in particular have been shown to have comparably large water footprints, while transport to the destination alone can more than double direct water use. Many forms of tourism are also indirectly dependent on water, for example, winter tourism and agritourism or wildlife tourism. Thus changes in the availability or quality of water resources can consequently have a detrimental impact on tourism (UNESCO, 2009).

Another important component of tourism’s water ethics is deciding if the industry’s operations should affect the water rights and water security of the local population. Since freshwater distribution is uneven across the globe, the water demands of tourism tends to get shifted more towards water-scarce areas. Most small islands already have limited water resources and tourism activity puts more pressure on these inadequate water resources thereby creating competition and shortage for the local population’s water needs. In addition to water quantity, activities in the tourism industry affects water quality. Wastewater infrastructures of island states are usually not well developed and lack the capacity to adequately and safely treat wastewater generated by the thousands of tourists who visit them. This untreated wastewater usually ends up in aquifers and natural water systems, contaminating it and rendering it unsafe for human use.

 Balancing environmental ethics and tourism demand

An important ethical question is how to make tourists and stakeholders adopt a more moral stance that includes respect for nature against the backdrop of growing tourism demand. Why should tourism development come at the cost of lagoons, mangroves, and rainforests?

The ‘use’ of nature remains an ethical question especially when the ‘services’ offered by nature have no price tag attached to them, making them vulnerable to exploitation and exhaustion. How can we globally let go of anthropocentric perspectives which seem to be providing the rationale for the prioritization of economic growth over environmental conservation?

The libertarian solution apparently seems to be associating the industry with ‘green’ buzzwords such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ and the more recent addition of ‘responsible’ or more specifically displays of ‘corporate social responsibility’ by tourism operators. The environmental conviction for most of these market niches has been ethically questionable, for example, ‘ecotourism’ has been criticized as a sham (Wheeller, 2005) and nature based tourism was found to be actually harming wildlife as it ‘domesticates’ animals (Geffroy, 2015). Also, not all tourists share the same environmental ethics with many reluctant to adjust their anthropocentric behavior. Holden (2009) cautions that we are living in a system today that encourages individualism, consumption, and freedom of choice, symbolized by the right to travel for recreational purposes. Hence, a move towards a more ascetic lifestyle will pose a major challenge for many. Realistically not many tourists are willing to practice water conservation despite knowing there is a water shortage on the island or to reuse a bed sheet or use a compost toilet, be fine with having no swimming pools, fewer breakfast options, no complimentary toiletry, or face the serious inconvenience of bringing their own towels.

Catch-22 – Can tourism truly be sustainable?

The tourism-environment relationship can be understood as being reciprocal, that is, tourism influencing environmental well-being which in turn impacts upon the characteristics and quality of tourism. Despite the inherent interest in ‘protecting’ the tourism industry, through conservation ethics, tourism continues to be an important contributor to climate change through its consumption of fossil fuel and resulting greenhouse gas emissions (Gossling, 2002).

The changing climate is also being blamed for reducing the attractiveness of nature dependent tourism destinations and affecting tourist flow. Hoegh-Guldberg et al., (2017) found that coral bleaching events will become very frequent in islands of the South Pacific, and it is likely that in the next 20-50 years, corals as dominant organisms on reefs will disappear. No tourist wants to see dead coral reefs, yet their actions contribute towards the destruction of coastal ecosystems, and – behaving as true predators – they move on to find other ‘more’ pristine holiday destinations to assault after having exploited one before.

The world is yet to see an effective partnership between government, the tourism industry, and the environment. While there is a need to protect the livelihoods of the many dependents of the tourism industry, there is also a dire need to mitigate the negative impacts tourism has on the environment. Perceptions of tourism activities existing in a void and being unimpactful to the natural environment need to be countered by awareness-raising and education.

Since the tourism industry is likely to be affected the most from the direct effects of climate change, it will serve the stakeholders’ interests to be effectively participating in GGE reduction strategies in its operations and being supportive towards national climate change mitigation policies. Aviation and tourism operators can be made accountable for their carbon emissions through the imposition of taxes and possible setting of carbon quotas so that there can be more adoption of renewable energy sources. Stricter monitoring and controls on water consumption by hotels with appropriate water pricing needs to be undertaken to encourage water conservation. However, tourism stakeholders generally display strong opposition when governments try to introduce environmental taxes and levies as they are perceived to affect competitiveness with little regard for the benefit it brings to the natural environment.

To better protect fragile ecosystems, tourism destinations can employ ‘price control’ and ‘quota control’ measures to help ration the use of their environmental resources, similar to Bhutan’s ‘high value, low impact’ tourism strategy which strives to protect its cultural heritage and the natural environment. Despite being a contentious debate, what is truly needed is helping change the mindset of individuals, so they can develop a social conscience and stronger environmental ethics, as it is impossible to impose restrictions on people’s behavior through limiting their freedom to fly or determining how many resources they can use during their trip.


This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.

Archana Chand is a postgraduate student in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. 

Photo Credit: Sam Smith 

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