For nearly all of human history we wandered the Earth on two legs, envious of birds in flight, soaring free and high across the world. The Greeks warned humans who dreamed of flight and countless billions upon billions of people who have lived through-out the ages had never ventured to another country, let alone another part of the world. The highest point most humans would have ever explored would have been the nearest hill or mountain and our species would have certainly never have witnessed the curve of the Earth from 34,000 thousand feet as the sun set, or rose, in the Earth’s long orbit around the sun.  The word tourism would not even come into our language until 1811, a mere 200 years ago.

Origins & Impacts of Tourism

Then, on a cold December afternoon in 1903, everything changed: the Wright Brothers successfully launched the world’s first powered aeroplane into freezing headwinds of about 27mph.

A new technological era had dawned.  

A little over 100 years later and nearly 2 million humans fly every single day with air passengers to double to 7.8 billion by 2036. And with developing economies set to enrich their middle classes the popularity of flying, and tourism, is set to explode reaching its already long fingers across the breadth of the world.

In fact every year since 2009 the airline industry has welcomed massive increases in passenger numbers. And every-time a person travels by plane their journey pumps huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the environment.  

So this raises the uncomfortable question can tourism, driven by an ever expanding airline industry, even be sustainable? 

The picture gets even more complicated when we consider the unique impact that flying has on the environment. Because it’s not just the CO2 emissions that are helping to warm the planet. Scientists have estimated that the global aviation industry is responsible for around 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions that we produce. However, that only paints a fraction of the picture.  When you take into account other pollution particulates such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus we can begin to get a fuller picture of the effect that the aviation industry might have on the planet.

Equally when this is extrapolated into the 2 million flights that are embarked upon every single day then the compounded effect of so many journeys can begin to add up and present an important issue that society, policy-makers and the aviation industry will need to address in order to combat climate change. 

A major part of this shift is in our own understanding and responsibility in the role, as customers, in demanding an ever more expansive aviation network at an ever cheaper price. When airlines are offering flights for as little as £3.99 we have to face up to the fact that the environment will be picking up the bill.

The tourist industry threatens some of the world’s most precious natural spaces. The Guardian highlights the damage tourism is causing to the Galapagos Islands in which Julian Fritter argues:

Sustainable tourism is vital to Galápagos; the people of Galápagos need it as their main economic activity, the wildlife needs it as a means to spread the word of the wonders of the islands and the need to actively conserve them. Large-scale tourism threatens to destroy much of what made Galápagos so special to Charles Darwin back in 1835, and still makes it special for us today.

Julian Fritter, Guardian

Equally tourism, and the CO2 emissions it creates, threatens to destroy one of the natural wonders of the world: the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a huge industry, resulting in over  2 million visits per year, but one that is in doubt, if the reef is unable to survive it’s clear that neither will the tourist industry. 

And the aviation industry will change under pressure from policy-makers. We also have to recognise that tourism can bring huge benefits to communities for which it provides employment. Tourism, especially amongst those who are more environmentally conscious, can provide an incentive to protect natural resources. Tourism is responsible for around 10% of global GDP which represents an industry that sustains billions upon billions of people each year. 

The clear paradox remains; people travel to see beautiful parts of the world. And for most, beauty generally means natural beauty. Some of the most beautiful places in North America are also some of its most wildest. But in doing so they can unconsciously contribute to the destruction of those natural places. 

Last Chance Tourism

Sometimes the decision to travel to places of delicate natural beauty, knowing that the resources expended to get there and to be there is destructive on the natural environment, is conscious. A depressing trend, known as Last  Chance Tourism, has emerged. This is tourism centered around the last chance to see something in the world before it disappears forever. The Great Barrier Reef, Glaciers around the globe and the Rhinoceros in Africa are all examples of what might be considered last chance tourism. People, like all of us, who are naturally curious might wish to see these things before they are gone forever.

Unfortunately the damaging effects of their tourism can exacerbate the problem. For example, tourism brings boat, people and pollution to the Great Barrier Reef, increasing the devastating problem of plastic in our oceans and further damaging its ability to deal with any shocks to its environment. The CO2 emitted by these tourists to fly to Australia further helps to drive up CO2 levels in the oceans which drives the acidification process and results in massive bleaching that is seen in increasing large occurrences across the Reef. 

Jesicca Roberts highlights in the Independent:

In many cases, tourism is balanced with conservation. Tourism in the Galaposos is very tightly controlled, with strict regulations on where visitors can walk and how many can visit each island daily, and it rotates which islands are available to avoid erosion. According to a report by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, tourism increased by 4 per cent between 2014 and 2015.

Jessica Roberts, Independent

The Galapagos represents a very small aspect of the world of tourism and whilst focussing on controlling numbers of humans in any one area obviously helps to reduce their impact, it doesn’t necessarily address the impact that the remaining people have on visiting that area.  To date, the impact of humans on the Galapagos has not been good for the island indigineous species  

It’s The Economy Stupid

Tourism will never be completely sustainable, no industry is, and there really is no such thing as sustainable development across modern society in general. Georgeo Mobiot points out this argument, emphasising how How “Sustainability” Became “Sustained Growth”. He states that the political declarations that accompany commitments to create sustainable growth are:

stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans, but without the necessary menace. There is nothing to work with here, no programme, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises.

George Monbiot

Economic growth requires endless growth, whereas our natural environments require protection, limitation and the space, time and peace to grow naturally. 

But taking into account the massive, financial benefits at stake we can be sure of one thing. The aviation and tourism industries are here to stay. The key issue at stake is can we make these industries sustainable so that the impact on the environment is reduced and future governments and societies around the world will have to decide if limiting the impacts of tourism, and tourism itself and all of its associated economic benefits, are a price worth paying in the protection of natural environments. 

Solutions?

The solutions require us to adopt a much stronger approach to the protection of natural environments than we currently do and consist of actions require by individuals, policy-makers, corporations and societies across the following areas:

  1. Policies to protect natural spaces

    Policymakers must consider the protection of the natural environment in legislating protection from the adverse affect of tourism. Societies much seek to reap ever growing economic benefit from their natural spaces and recognise the innate benefit that nature provides, whilst individuals and corporations must change both consumer demands and the way they do business in order to limit their impacts on the natural environments in which they operate. 

  2. Tourists as Consumers

    Everyone must seek to create and build awareness in themselves and their travel companions about the places they are travelling to. They must ask difficult questions about the impact of their actions; their flights, their disposable litter, their water usage, their carbon footprint. The education of individuals as tourists should begin in school so that all individuals can understand their impacts on the environment and make informed choices about how they will see the world as adults. This also means the corporations who try to exploit the natural environment in an unfettered and damaging way would find it difficult to sell their products or services to an educated generation of knowledgeable and environmentally aware consumers.
     
  3. Societies as whole…

    ……must engage with the issue of reducing and limiting the impact of tourism on their natural environments if they want to protect the land, sea, air and water that also sustains us. Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on Coral Reefs, for example, for their nutrition and their survival. Over and above the dollars that are provided by the tourism industry coral reefs help to feed societies around the world, to protect them from ferocious storms and to help filter and clean the water run-off from land, providing communities with a truly sustainable source of food. 

  4. And last but not least, the Tourist Industry.

    Tourism, as a sector, must start taking a long hard look in the mirror, recognising that the ultimate resource that provides it with its very existence must be protected and nurtured in a way that encourages it to thrive rather than a way which facilitates the destruction of the environment and all of its species. 

In any other industry from coffee to chocolate the prime resource, in this case cocoa beans, is nurtured, grown, protected and carefully harvested to ensure the product’s integrity. Although its essential to avoid commodifying our natural spaces, in order to keep destructive commercial forces at bay, its really important that the tourist industry recognising the value of the natural environments they transport millions of people every year in order to support their protection.  

The Tourism Industry is not sustainable in its current state, nor is any other industry that demands unlimited growth in the face of limited natural resources. The fact that we refer to the environment as a place of natural resource indicates how entwined our mindset is with the requirements of capitalist and commercial exploitation. 

The tourist industry could be the canary in the coal-mine – when natural phenomenons such as the once vast Great Barrier Reef, or species like the Africa Rhino, have disappeared from the face of the planet (if not before); we may realise how important these species were. Before this happens we could also reassess our place in the natural order of the world and seek to gain a more peaceful understanding of it: one that enables to appreciate the long-term beauty and magic of our wildernesses, rather than their short-term value and economic gain which, just like these wild places, once gone is lost forever.