Tourism's negative effects

8. Negative effects of tourism on the environment

It is difficult to get a complete picture of the impacts of tourism on the environment. So far no-one is working to build a fully comprehensive view, therefore insights are fragmented.

8.1 It isn’t only greenhouse gas pollution

Our environmental impact is often measured by our emission of greenhouse gasses. However, it is important to understand that our carbon footprint on the environment isn’t only about our emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The use of carbon emissions as a single indicator can lead to policies that, while beneficial in terms of reducing global warming, may lead to unexpected and unintended negative consequences in terms of other environmental impacts. For example, Benders analyzed five global environmental impact categories:

• global warming potential,
• acidification of oceans,
• eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other water body),
• summer smog,
• land use.

Combined analysis of these five impact categories found that food has the largest environmental impact, whereas analysis of greenhouse gas emissions alone indicated that housing has the largest environmental impact. Nevertheless, climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions is currently accepted as the most urgent environmental threat. In the long term, this approach isn’t sustainable. Therefore the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now also implementing the Shared Socio-economic Pathways as mentioned earlier.

8.2 No place is off the tourism circuit

Sleeping sea lions on beach in GalapagosTourism grows with few limits. Ironically, tourists even want to tour Antarctica to see its pristine environment before it disappears (“last-chance tourism”). This is despite their impact contributing to global warming and threatening the icecaps to melt. Looking at some of the tourism trouble spots, complacency is not called for. Venice residents have accused tourists of “destroying their city”. Barcelona’s government has passed legislation to limit new tourist accommodation. And the Galapagos sees mass tourism’s arrival threatening the iconic wildlife that attracts visitors. The threat of no spending visitors in Barcelona or no tourism on the Galapagos Islands however might be even bigger. I will get back to this.

8.3 Mass tourism

Next to contamination of the environment by greenhouse gas emission, mass tourism is the second most dangerous side-effect of tourism. But what is mass tourism? Although Thomas Cook went bankrupt in 2019, their concept of all included package-tours continues to be a major, or maybe even the major force in modern mass tourism. Modern mass tourism often refers to budget-friendly package tours, cheap flights, all-inclusive resorts, and cruises. In general it allows vast numbers of travelers to descend on a given destination in a relatively short time. Although it has been proven that mass tourism creates new jobs, improves the infrastructure and can improve national and local economies, we can ask ourselves if there was a need for these ‘improvements’? Mass tourism has turned quiet little fishing towns like Playa del Carmen in Mexico and Montanita in Ecuador into busy, noisy towns. Surely the economy of these towns has improved, but what about the quality of life for the original inhabitants? On top of the extra noise and contamination, the arrival of many mainly young tourists in Montanita also created a drug problem.

Mass tourism in Venice ItalyThe UN World Tourism Organization secretary-general Taleb Rifai has referred to the protests against the “tourist invasion” in Barcelona and Amsterdam — the rise of “tourism-phobia” — as a recent phenomenon. But that isn’t correct. The problem goes back a long way. Venetians, for example, have been protesting against what they call the “tourist assault” on their city for many years. It sounds like a contradiction. Tourism is the biggest income for Venetia, but this iconic city and its channels were never designed to accommodate thousands, at some days even more than 60.000 tourists a day! This overwhelming stream of tourists doesn’t only slowly destroys the infrastructure of the city, but also highly contaminates its channels. Recently the absence of tourism caused by the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an improvement of the water quality and the return of more fish and other wildlife in the channels. But contamination isn’t the only problem in Venetia. “We feel like the native Americans of the 19th century, banished from our environment, which is what has happened to 100,000 Venetians over the last 60 years,” explains the civic platform Gruppo 25 Aprile. “Mass tourism brings with it”, Venetian activists add, “a lack of good job opportunities. Many jobs are now exclusively tied to the mass tourism industry, with wages that do not allow us to live in the houses of our parents and grandparents.” As a result of (mass) tourism and especially Airbnb’s, local prices for food and rent increase. When rents become prohibitive, as they did in Madrid’s neighborhood of Malasaña, local people have to move to another neighborhood. Those who move in, like tourists or wealthy outsiders, have more economic resources than those who are forced to move out to the periphery. And the people from the periphery? Where do they go?

8.4 Mass tourism and resorts

Tourist beach resortOther economical drawbacks of mass tourism occur around the major resorts. Often there’s a lack of education and skill among the local population and therefore the better jobs are given to people who are not from that area. The less popular jobs are given to the local and uneducated people, who often get paid below a minimum salary. They accept the jobs, because it is better to earn at least something, instead of nothing. If people complain, the company will find someone else. In reality, the major tour operators are often not very interested in investing money to properly educate the people who work for them. The profit margins in mass tourism are based on quantity, rather than quality. The margins per person are relatively low and most of it even stays with the (foreign) tour operator. For this reason, the majority of their local employees are taught what they need to know for doing their job, and nothing more. Several jobs are also seasonal, which doesn’t make them sustainable for families who have year-round costs. Especially mass tourism causes a big fluctuation in available jobs during the seasons. The bigger the fluctuation in available jobs, the more difficult it is for the local people to find alternative jobs in the low season.

Low profit margins make that the tour operators negotiate the lowest possible prices and wages for the people they work with. If the normal price of a hotel room is let’s say 60 US$, a major tour operator might offer to book 80% of the hotel, but with a room price of 35 US$, or even less per room. If the hotel has generally a lower occupation rate and the tour operator indeed fills up all these rooms, it might help the hotel. But it often happens that the tour operator doesn’t fill all those rooms and still only pays a fraction of the price for the rooms they do fill. Hotels then end up struggling to make ends, especially in the low season. Maintenance and service go down and hotels struggle to pay their employees.

Big resorts build in the middle of a pristine natural environment are clear examples of another direct negative impact of mass tourism. Years ago when I traveled as a tour leader through Belize I came across one of those disastrous examples. It was when I witnessed the construction of a resort on a small islet close to the island of Caye Caulker. This tiny island wasn’t big enough for the golf course of its new resort, so they decided to increase the size of the island. During this process tons and tons of sand, stones and concrete were dumped around the island and destroyed part of its coral reef. Take in mind that the coral reefs of Belize belong to the second-largest reef barrier in the world! Cruise liners are floating resorts and can be a thread for nature and local economies. Another problem from the cruise industry in Belize is the dumping of waste. In return for a fee cruise ships navigating the waters of Belize are allowed to dump part of their rubbish at 12km or further from their coast. This is a common problem with cruise tourism: they contaminate the waters and shores of pristine natural areas by dumping their waste. Their owners often live in tax paradises and avoid taking any responsibility for the damage their business causes.Waste on the beach

The best known negative effect of Cruise Liners around the world is that they release too many passengers at once in too small picturesque harbors like in Venetia. Compare to the damage this causes to the local infrastructure, they often contribute very little to the local economy. Cruise Liners prefer their clients to spend most of their money on board. When visiting a city or attraction on the mainland, the passengers often have little time to spend money. And if there is time to spend money, it’s often at places that were first selected by the cruise company, so its employees receive commissions. Sometimes passengers are warned that the food on the mainland isn’t hygienically prepared, so they better eat on board. Although their cultural land-tours are sold at high prices, the local operators receive relatively little of this money, as most stays with the cruise company. You can argue that without these cruises the local people wouldn’t receive any money at all? The question is however if the relatively small profit is worth the damage that this type of mass tourism causes to its destination?

8.5 Some specific problems of mass tourism

Earlier I wrote already about some negative effects of too many people visiting the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. There are those who argue that the presence of people is enough to disturb the environmental balance. Having been to the Galapagos I disagree with that observation. The animals on the Galapagos Islands aren’t afraid of people. Most animals are so used to see people that they seem to accept them as part of their environment. Like antelopes in Africa that aren’t afraid of elephants. So as long as there aren’t too many people and the people treat the flora and fauna with respect, their presence alone isn’t a problem. Too many people is the biggest problem along with everything they bring onto the islands. This includes plastic water bottles, but also sunscreen and possibly even new bacteria under their shoes.

giant tortoise on Galapagos IslandsSince 1978 the Galapagos Islands are deemed a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2007 UNESCO decided to include the islands on their list of endangered nature reserves. But already in July 2010 they were taken off this list again. From a reliable source who used to work for UNESCO, but whom I can’t mention in this book, I know why. This wasn’t after an independent voting, but after just a one day visit from the director of UNESCO. The local scientists working for UNESCO and in charge of protecting nature reserves in Latin America were actually against this decision. The main argument why the islands could be removed from the endangered list was that the Ecuadorian government had restricted the amount of visitors to the islands. However this isn’t completely true. The Ecuadorian government had only restricted the amount of cruises that can visit the islands. The amount of tourists that visit the Galapagos Islands by cruise has therefore maintained at a steady 72.000 a year. Land-based tourism on the other hand has not been restricted and increased from 90.000 in 2010 to more than 200.000 in 2019! This caused the total amount of tourist to almost double and their carbon footprint to increase even more.

Land-based tourism often involve tourists who only buy a flight ticket towards the Galapagos Islands and then try to look for the cheapest hotels, food and day-tours. The problem with this low budget tourism is that it requires more tourists to achieve the same economic benefits as from people who book cruises. Another problem is that this type of tourism makes it more difficult to structurize the visits to the most endangered places on the islands. But the biggest problem from land-tourism is that it has generated more local business on the islands. More work has encouraged more people to settle on the islands. Over the past years many more hotels, hostels, restaurants and shops have opened their doors on the main islands of the Galapagos. All these economical activities have generated tons of extra waste and the need for more freshwater than available on the islands. Unfortunately these negative side effects of tourism aren’t well taken care of yet. Still, if the number of tourists and people living on the Galapagos Islands can be limited, the positive effects of tourism might outweigh the negative effects. See chapter 12.1.

Rubbish from tourism at Machu PicchuIn Aguas Calientes in Peru, a little village just below the archaeological site of Machu Picchu, there is a big waste problem. Daily thousands of tourists visit Machu Picchu and most of them spend the night over in Aguas Calientes. This little town is located in a valley on the shores of a narrow river and with no access roads. You can only reach this town by train or walking. This means all supplies will have to arrive by train and all rubbish would have to leave by train. However, due to bad governmental management train companies are now privately owned, and so they charge for transporting both supplies and rubbish. It takes little imagination to explain that not all rubbish makes it to proper disposal places. Years ago I’ve personally seen one small rubbish dump next to the river, which would flood with high water… On a side note: Inca Rail, one of the two trains to reach Machu Picchu is since 2016 for 100% in hands of Carlyle, an international investment fund. Peru Rail, the other train company to reach Machu Picchu is still 50% in Peruvian hands. So if you want to help the Peruvian economy it is better to travel with Peru Rail.

Real colors of Rainbow Mountains in PeruThe so-called Rainbow Mountains in Peru consist of a small mountain range at high altitude. These mountains are very rich in different minerals, which are shown in colorful stripes over their surface. The mountains were first brought under tourist attention by tourists who hiked the 6-day Ausangate Trek. A few digitally altered pictures in combination with the catchy name ‘Rainbow Mountains’, quickly gathered lots of attention on social media. Local tour agencies in Cusco responded to this popularity by offering alternative full day tours to the Rainbow Mountains, thus hugely improving the accessibility of this new tourist attraction. The combination of improved accessibility and an increasing supply of pretty (altered) colorful pictures on social media, accelerated the popularity of the Rainbow Mountains. Over the course of only a few years, the average amount of visitors went up from around 4 a day till somewhat over 300! One of the direct negative effects includes a parking area. For this parking lot, they choose an area that used to be popular with migrating wild ducks. Other negative effects include: trails eroding quickly under the number of visitors and not all the rubbish that’s brought in makes it back to Cusco. Although tourism has brought extra income to the poor communities who live close to the Rainbow Mountains, most of them are not (yet) well prepared to deal with tourism. There was recently even a huge argument and fighting between two communities that offer access to the Rainbow Mountains. The argument was about how they should divide the entrance fees. And as if all of this isn’t enough. After being unknown and far away from civilization, now all the current publicity even attracted the attention of a Canadian mining company. The questions are now if the profit from tourism can be enough to prevent mining and if tourism, in the end, has brought in more prosperity or misfortune?

8.10 Tourism strain on infrastructure

Golf courses and water problemsTourism doesn’t only have strong effects on the local economy, environment, culture and society but also on the infrastructure. If tourism and especially mass tourism isn’t properly managed it can destroy its destination. When a lot of people go somewhere, it has an effect on the infrastructure. All those new visitors need places to stay and eat, which can put pressure on local establishments. New businesses will arrive to either work together or compete with the local businesses. Too many new businesses, roads, and even advertising signs can damage the iconic image of the area or tourist attraction and environment. Not only can the new constructions for tourists cause a strain on the environment but all those new tourists also need additional supplies of food and especially water. Water shortages due to a high demand from the tourist industry is a very common problem. Areas with limited water sources like Cusco in Peru, Uyuni in Bolivia, or Playa del Carmen in Mexico struggle on a daily base with trying to keep up with the high demand for water. This isn’t only from tourists who take long showers, but also because of laundry services and the irrigation of gardens. The abuse of water at golf courses of luxury lodges is especially bad for the environment. New roads or improved roads from A to B mean that it becomes easier to access that area. More and more local people will start settling along these new roads. They will start farming, or other local businesses like shops and restaurants, causing an additional impact on nature. Some big tour operators and hotel chains even dare to ban the local people from iconic spots like some of the white beaches in Cuba.