Does the development and expansion of tourism inevitably lead to damage to the environment? This post is written by guest blogger “Katie H”, and contains a few examples with regards to sustainable tourism in Latin America.
The impact of humans visiting an area where previously they had not been will inevitably affect the environment at the travel destination. All tourist areas have been changed by the arrival of the visitors and examples show how devastating the consequences to the environment can be. On the other hand, in some cases it does appear that an environmentally friendly ‘sustainable’ tourism may have been achieved as an alternative. However, a decline of even these areas into environmental degradation may be inevitable.
The global damage caused by tourism, the world’s largest industry, can be severe. Sewage and water problems, litter, air pollution and unnecessary construction have all damaged the environment in many areas. Environmental damage is often most severe in resorts that were among the first to become tourist destinations and that now experience mass tourism. Cancun, Mexico, demonstrates how rapid, uncontrolled growth of an area to accommodate mass numbers can cause damage to the environment. Cancun was chosen as a growth pole for tourism because of the high quality of the natural environment but this has deteriorated significantly since the 1980s. Sixty thousand hectares of rainforest have been destroyed in the interest of building hotels and in these areas the effects of hurricanes have worsened due to the deforestation. The multiplier effect has also played a part in environmental degradation: migrants to the area seeking employment have built shanty towns bringing further problems of waste and water impurity. The key problem for Cancun and other older resorts is that tourism growth was unregulated and consideration of the consequences to the environment was not given.
It may possible for an area that has experienced rapid growth and mass tourism to solve some of the environmental problems caused. This may be done by new planning restrictions or initiatives designed to protect or enhance the natural environment as a resort enters the ‘rejuvenation’ stage [of the Butler model]. Although mass tourism may inevitably lead to environmental degradation, the rejuvenation stage of the Butler model might present a solution. On a recent field trip to Mallorca, we visited Magalluf where fifty-one hotels dominate the area and none of the original environment remains. However, the rejuvenation programme had improved the resort as tree planting and landscaping along the promenade had taken place, improving the environment. However, during summer it seems likely that the carrying capacity of the area would be exceeded and this would cause further environmental damage. In October the water pollution was measured as 300g/l so it is likely that during the tourist season the pollution would be exceptionally high. Environmental damage such as water pollution was considered so severe that in May 2002 the government introduced a controversial eco-tax for each tourist visiting the Balearic Islands. This is an example of how attempts are being made for environmental damage caused by tourism to be balanced by money being put towards solving the problems.
The difficulty of solving the environmental problems in Cancun and Magalluf suggests that environmental damage is an inevitable part of unplanned mass tourism. However, smaller numbers of tourists who are “environmentally aware” may be an alternative. Ecotourism, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people” (defined by Blangy and Wood), has been advocated as a solution. There is an incentive for conservation because if the environment is not preserved, then the resource base for ecotourism is destroyed. Some ecotourism projects are successfully accommodating visitors whilst ensuring that the environment, wildlife and resources are protected. This suggests that damage to the environment as a result of tourism is not inevitable.
Belize is one country promoting itself as an ecotourism destination, thus preventing environmental damage whilst benefiting from tourism. One of the countries top ecotourism projects, established in 1987, is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. [Editor note: The Toledo Ecotourism Programme is also an excellent example of ecotourism in Belize]. Each year 250,000 tourists visit the protected area which has become a honeypot site partly as a result of it being declared a nature reserve. The relative success of the protection of the fish and coral indicates that environmental damage is not inevitable. However, there are problems such as a lack of funding that has resulted in just two wardens being able to patrol the area, as well as pollution and sewage from the near-by resort of San Pedro. This shows that funding as well as improvements in other tourism destinations are necessary for this ecotourism venture to be successful and stop environmental damage.
Some ecotourism projects have actually managed to benefit the environment. Locals may see be inclined to help conserve the environment when they experience the economic benefits of the tourists it attracts; entrance fees for attractions may be used for conservation purposes, such as ranger patrols to stop illegal hunting or fishing; and sanctuaries for wildlife can increase endangered species’ numbers. ‘Bermudan Landing’, a protection centre for black howler monkeys in Belize, has successfully attracted over three thousand tourists each year as well as increasing the monkey population by thirty per cent. This project has been very successful and shows how tourism can bring benefits to the environment. However, it is a new resort, only in the early stages of the Butler model. As it has not yet reached the stage of “mass tourism” like Magalluf or Cancun, it is difficult to say whether this and other such thriving ecotourism ventures would succeed in continuing to protect the environment, perhaps at the expense of economic gain. However, if the normal pattern of the model were not followed, it may be possible to keep tourist numbers low and controlled, thus making tourism and protection of the environment both possible.
Although it is clear that with mass tourism often comes damage to the surroundings, it can be argued that ecotourism or tourism involving fewer people is less environmentally disruptive. Comparing tourist destinations such as Magalluf and Bermudan Landing, it is clear that fewer people in the latter it is easier to predict and measure the amount of waste produced and damage caused. This makes control, prediction and prevention possible. However, even ecotourism can cause environmental problems. Most projects work towards keeping visitor numbers below the carrying capacity of the area, but it is very difficult to measure what the carrying capacity is. It may be argued that even one tourist will have a detrimental effect on the area, especially if the environment being visited is sensitive to disturbances, such as a coral reef or an animal park during mating season. In addition to this, a tourist using air, land or sea to reach the destination will have a negative impact on the environment while travelling, even if an ecotourism holiday is being undertaken.
In the past, development and expansion of tourism seems to have inevitably caused environmental damage because planners made decisions based on economics rather than the environment. More recently there has been an appreciation of the problems brought by mass tourism to the environment. Some resorts are now undertaking the difficult task of trying to solve some of the environmental problems caused by mass tourism. The increasing popularity of ecotourism indicates that in the future, damage to the environment may not be inevitable. However, so far ecotourism in a niche market and may not succeed in diverting its course off the usual path to mass tourism. At present it seems that environmental damage is unavoidable so I agree to a large extent with the above statement. The problems of environmental damage can only be solved by finding an alternative to mass tourism..