Tourism’s capacity to create jobs and stimulate economic development has been especially important for rural areas, where most of the poor live and where there are often few other development options.
Nevertheless, as is the case of any economic sector, tourism brings certain challenges and responsibilities that must be addressed if it is to grow sustainably.
Not surprisingly, natural diversity that compels millions of tourists to travel each year is concentrated in rural areas where most of the world’s poor live.
Poor nations, while lacking materials and infrastructure for certain industries can nonetheless be extremely wealthy in cultural and natural richness. As such, tourism has become one of the promising and viable means of growth and development among rural communities.
Tourism Promise that Compromises
Tourism growth reduces poverty by allowing rural populations to capitalize on their abundant cultural and natural assets without having to leave their communities in search for better life, former UN World Tourism Organization (WTO) Taleb Rifai claimed.
Rifai who just stepped down in 2017 explained through its direct and indirect impacts, tourism attracts significant foreign exchange, investment and know-how and stimulates the economy with significant multiplier effects.
Tourism is a labor-intensive sector and offers fast-entry point into the workforce, especially for young people. It provides crucial opportunities for income, social protection and social inclusion.
In 2016, almost 1 billion tourists travelled around the world spending more than one trillion US dollars in the process, the UN World Tourism Organization bared. Tourism is the largest source of voluntary transfer of money from the rich to the poor.
International tourist arrival to the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) grew from 6 million in 2000 to 17 million in 2010, the UN tourism body said.
But at what price for the environment and rural people?
Environmental Costs of Tourism
There is no argument that tourism over-exploits natural resources and aggravates social inequality, the Japan-based Global Development Research Centre said.
GDRC asserts negative impacts from tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use within the acceptable limits of change. Uncontrolled conventional tourism poses potential threats to many natural areas around the world.
It can put enormous pressure on an area and lead to impacts such as soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. It often puts a strain on water resources, and it can force local populations to compete for the use of critical resources, GDRC added.
Take the case of water, when scarce, tourism development can put pressure on the precious natural resource when it competes in consumption with the local population, GDRC cited.
Such is the experience of world-famous Bali, Indonesia, where the tourism-induced water crisis is on a serious level. As much as 65 percent of the island’s groundwater is poured into the tourism industry, drying up 260 out of more than 400 Balinese rivers. Groundwater over-extraction has lowered the island’s water table by some 60 percent, risking irreversible saltwater intrusion. Tourism contributes toward 80 percent of Bali’s economy but about 85 percent of it is in the hands of non-Balinese investors.
In Tioman Island, Malaysia, named in 1970 by Time magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands in the world that saw the island’s tourism industry grow by leaps and bounds, is a victim of grave water shortage where 90 percent of the local 4,000 plus population barely having any domestic water supply. Compounding the problem is the fact that September and October, the driest months on the island, is also the peak tourist season, setting the scene for water conflict between tourists and the locals.
The tourism industry generally overuses water resources for hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and personal use of water by tourists. This can result in water shortages and degradation of water supplies, as well as generating a greater volume of waste water, GDRC stressed.
A case in point are golf courses, considered water guzzlers. One 18 hole golf course alone consumes 100,000 to 1,000,000 gallons (378.5 m3 to 3,785 m3) of water per week in summer to maintain healthy vegetation the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) said.
In Baguio City, Philippines, the nation’s summer capital which is visited by more than a million people yearly, its two golf courses waste some 2 million gallons of water while as many as 20 barangays (villages) go dry every summer, the local Baguio Water District bared.
Golf course maintenance can deplete fresh water resources. In recent years golf tourism has increased in popularity and the number of golf courses has grown rapidly. Golf courses require an enormous amount of water every day and, as with other causes of excessive extraction of water, this can result in water scarcity, ALE bared.
If the water comes from wells, overpumping can cause saline intrusion into groundwater. Golf resorts are more and more often situated in or near protected areas or areas where resources are limited, exacerbating their impacts.
Tourism can create great pressure on local resources like land resources include minerals, fossil fuels, fertile soil, forests, wetland and wildlife. Increased construction of tourism and recreational facilities has increased the pressure on these resources and on scenic landscapes the Coalition for Sustainable Livelihoods under Conservation International (CSL-CI) warned
Direct impact on natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, in the provision of tourist facilities can be caused by the use of land for accommodation and other infrastructure provision, and the use of building materials.
Forests often suffer negative impacts of tourism in the form of deforestation caused by fuel wood collection and land clearing. Tourism can cause the same forms of pollution as any other industry: air emissions, noise, solid waste and littering, releases of sewage, oil and chemicals, even architectural/visual pollution CSL-CI said.
Transport congestion by road is continuously increasing in response to the rising number of tourists. It causes inconvenience and pollution linked to acid rain, global warming and photochemicals.Air pollution from tourist transportation has impacts on the global level, especially from carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions related to transportation energy use. And it can contribute to severe local air pollution. Some of these impacts are quite specific to tourist activities, it added.
For example, especially in very hot or cold climates, tour buses and vans often leave their motors running for hours while caught in a traffic jam as to what happens every year in Sagada, a tourist town in highland Philippines.
In areas with high concentrations of tourist activities and appealing natural attractions, waste disposal is a serious problem and improper disposal can be a major despoiler of the natural environment – beaches, rivers, scenic areas, and roadsides.
In Boracay, Philippines, no less than an angered President Duterte called it a cesspool, closed and had it cleaned for 6 months due to tons of waste dumped in the beach each year.
In mountain areas, trekking tourists generate a great deal of waste. Tourists on expedition leave behind their garbage, and even camping equipment as observed in Mount Pulag, Philippines, Mount Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Mount Puncac Jaya, Indonesia.
Such practices degrade the environment with all the detritus typical of the developed world, in remote areas that have few garbage collection or disposal facilities. Some trails in the Peruvian Andes and in Nepal frequently visited by tourists have been nicknamed “Coca-Cola trail” and “Toilet paper trail”.
Most often than not, construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution and destruction of landscapes. Wastewater has polluted seas and lakes surrounding tourist attractions, damaging the flora and fauna.
Sewage runoff causes serious damage to coral reefs because it stimulates the growth of algae, which cover the filter-feeding corals, hindering their ability to survive. Changes in salinity and siltation can have wide-ranging impacts on coastal environments. And sewage pollution can threaten the health of humans and animals.
It is a generally accepted maxim that overtourism is a bane. The UNWTO affirms while income diversification, foreign earnings and income for local population are the most tangible contributions of tourism, there are social risks that affect rural populations. It identified these as:
–aggravation of social tensions in the communities
–increases in the cost of living
–destruction of cultural heritage
–dependence on international tour companies
–changes in social values/behavioral changes
–displacement of local populations
–exploitation of labor
–increase in crime
For tourism to be sustainable, it must therefore be guided by ethics especially the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism by the UNWTO. This is an essential roadmap for the development and implementation of responsible tourism that promotes responsible attitudes, awareness and behaviour among travellers to prevent damage to the natural world and social and cultural fabric of societies.
*About the Author: Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.