Understanding Environmental Tourism – Part 2

Part 1 in this series covers environmental impacts. Part 2 deals with the environmental impacts of tourism from a global perspective.

Environmental Impacts of Tourism – Global Level

Loss of Biological Diversity

Biological diversity is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms.

The effects of loss of biodiversity:

  • It threatens our food supplies, opportunities for recreation and tourism, and sources of wood, medicines and energy.
  • It interferes with essential ecological functions such as species balance, soil formation, and greenhouse gas absorption.
  • It reduces the productivity of ecosystems, thereby shrinking nature’s basket of goods and services, from which we constantly draw.
  • It destabilizes ecosystems and weakens their ability to deal with natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes, and with human-caused stresses, such as pollution and climate change.

Tourism, especially nature tourism, is closely linked to biodiversity and the attractions created by a rich and varied environment. It can also cause loss of biodiversity when land and resources are strained by excessive use, and when impacts on vegetation, wildlife, mountain, marine and coastal environments and water resources exceed the carrying capacity. This loss of biodiversity, in fact, means loss of tourism potential.

Introduction of exotic species

Tourists and suppliers – often unwittingly – can bring in species (insects, wild and cultivated plants and diseases) that are not native to the local environment and that can cause enormous disruption and even destruction of ecosystems.

Depletion of the Ozone Layer

The ozone layer, which is situated in the upper atmosphere (or stratosphere) at an altitude of 12-50 kilometres, protects life on earth by absorbing the harmful wavelengths of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which in high doses is dangerous to humans and animals. For instance, one of the reasons scientists have put forward for the global decrease of amphibian populations is increased exposure to UV radiation.

Ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) such as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon) and halons have contributed to the destruction of this layer. The tourism industry may be part of the problem; direct impacts start with the construction of new developments and continue during daily management and operations.

Refrigerators, air conditioners and propellants in aerosol spray cans, amongst others, contain ODSs and are widely used in the hotel and tourism industry. Emissions from jet aircraft are also a significant source of ODSs. According to Tourism Concern, scientists predict that by 2015 half of the annual destruction of the ozone layer will be caused by air travel.

UNEP’s OzonAction Programme works with governments and industries, including the tourism industry, to phase out ODSs and find safer alternatives. UNEP has developed extensive information and guidance on how many types of businesses can eliminate ODSs and contribute to the preservation of the ozone layer.

Climate Change

Climate scientists now generally agree that the Earth’s surface temperatures have risen steadily in recent years because of an increase in the so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which traps heat from the sun. One of the most significant of these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is generated when fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas are burned (e.g. in industry, electricity generation, and automobiles) and when there are changes in land use, such as deforestation. In the long run, the accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can cause global climate change – a process that may already be occurring.

Global tourism is closely linked to climate change. Tourism involves the movement of people from their homes to other destinations and accounts for about 50% of traffic movements; rapidly expanding air traffic contributes about 2.5% of the production of CO2. Tourism is thus a significant contributor to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Source: Mountain Forum).

Air travel itself is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. Passenger jets are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. The number of international travellers is expected to increase from 594 million in 1996 to 1.6 billion by 2020, adding greatly to the problem unless steps are taken to reduce emissions (Source: WWF).

For more information on the relationship between energy and the environment, see UNEP’s Energy Programme, which provides information and publications on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources to reduce the environmental impacts of energy use and of transportation.

How Global Environmental Impacts affect Tourism

Natural disasters

Catastrophes like floods, earthquakes, wildfires, volcanoes, avalanches, drought and diseases can have a serious effect on inbound and domestic tourism and thus on local tourism industries. The outbreak of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in England earlier this year (2001), for instance, has severely affected Great Britain’s inbound tourism market.

A BHA/Barclays Hospitality Business Trends Survey found that 75% of hotels in England, 81% in Scotland and 85% in Wales continued to be affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, and over 60% forecast a decline in business in the June-September 2001 period.

Climate Change

satellite image of ship smoke stack cloud
Satellite image of ship tracks – clouds created by the exhaust fumes of ship smokestacks.

Tourism not only contributes to climate change but is affected by it as well. Climate change is likely to increase the severity and frequency of storms and severe weather events, which can have disastrous effects on tourism in the affected regions. Some of the other impacts that the world risks as a result of global warming are drought, diseases and heat waves.

Malaria, the world’s largest killer, has resurfaced in Spain, and it is estimated that changes in climate will result in parts of the country becoming a suitable habitat for malaria-carrying species of mosquito by the 2020s (Source: WWF [PDF]).

These negative impacts can keep tourists away from the holiday destinations. Global warming may cause:

  • Less snowfall at ski resorts, meaning a shorter skiing seasons in the Alpine region. In already hot areas like Asia and the Mediterranean, tourists will stay away because of immense heat, and out of fear of diseases and water shortages.
  • Harm to vulnerable ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs because of rising temperatures and less rainfall. A major risk to coral reefs is bleaching, which occurs when coral is stressed by temperature increases, high or low levels of salinity, lower water quality, and an increase in suspended sediments. These conditions cause the zooxanthallae (the single-celled algae which form the colours within the coral) to leave the coral. Without the algae, the coral appears white, or “bleached” – and rapidly dies. The Great Barrier Reef, which supports a US$ 640 million tourism industry, has been experiencing coral bleaching events for the last 20 years (Source: EXN).
  • Rising sea levels, the result of melting glaciers and polar ice. Higher sea levels will threaten coastal and marine areas with widespread floods in low-lying countries and island states, increasing the loss of coastal land. Beaches and islands that are major tourist attractions may be the first areas to be affected.
  • Increased events of extreme weather, such as tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons. These are already becoming more prevalent in tourist areas in the Caribbean and South East Asia. Hurricane Mitch in 1998, for instance, heavily affected tourism in the Caribbean. Wind damage, storm waves, heavy rains and flooding caused major losses in the local tourism sector.

According to the Spanish Forestry Service ICONA, between 1985 and 1994 almost 250,000 hectares of forest burned. In recent years the number of forest fires has increased following periods of extreme dryness. Now, large areas of forest and parkland may be closed off to visitors (
Source: WWF [PDF])

Published with acknowledgement to the United Nations Environment Programme www.unep.org

About the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Tourism and Environment Programme. Aware of and concerned about the negative environmental and social impacts of tourism, as well as the opportunities it offers, Ministers of the Environment have decided to give due consideration to this major issue with the aim of creating the adequate policy context to make the tourism industry sustainable. To that end, UNEP has been appointed by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) as the Interagency Coordinator or lead agency responsible for the implementation of Agenda 21 issues on tourism. Together with the World Tourism Organization, UNEP is the main focal point on sustainable tourism for CSD and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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