In industrial countries, mass tourism and recreation are now fast overtaking the extractive industries as the largest threat to indigenous communities, and ‘pristine’ environments. These are destinations that tourists now want to visit. Attractive landscape sites, such as sandy beaches, lakes, riversides, and mountaintops and slopes, are often transitional zones, characterized by species-rich ecosystems. Typical physical impacts include the degradation of such ecosystems. The ecosystems most threatened with degradation are ecologically fragile areas such as alpine regions, rain forests, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass beds. The threats to, and pressures on, these ecosystems are often severe because such places are very attractive to both tourists and developers. Since 1945, visits to the 10 most popular mountainous national parks in the United States have increased twelvefold. In the European Alps, tourism now exceeds 100 million visitor-days. Every year in the Indian Himalaya, more than 250,000 Hindu pilgrims, 25,000 trekkers, and 75 mountaineering expeditions climb to the sacred source of the Ganges River, the Gangotri Glacier. They deplete local forests for firewood, trample riparian vegetation, and strew litter. Even worse, this tourism frequently induces poorly planned, land-intensive development.
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 forces local populations to compete for the use of other critical resources. Tourism development can put pressure on natural resources when it increases consumption in areas where resources are already scarce. Water, and especially fresh water, is one of the most critical natural resources. Tourism can also create great pressure on other local resources like energy, food, and other raw materials that may already be in short supply. Greater extraction and transport of these resources exacerbates the physical impacts associated with their exploitation. Because of the seasonal character of the industry, many destinations have ten times more inhabitants in the high season as in the low season. A high demand is placed upon these resources to meet the high expectations tourists often have (proper heating, hot water, etc.). Important land resources include minerals, fossil fuels, fertile soil, forests, wetland and wildlife. Increased construction of facilites for tourism and recreational has increased the pressure on these resources and on scenic landscapes. Direct impact on natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, 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.
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. Transport by air, road, and rail is continuously increasing in response to the rising number of tourists and their greater mobility. To give an indication, the number of international air passengers worldwide rose from 88 million in 1972 to 344 million in 1994. One consequence of this continuing increase in air transport is that tourism now accounts for more than 60% of air travel and is therefore responsible for an important share of air emissions. One study estimated that a single transatlantic return flight emits almost half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person yearly. Transport emissions and emissions from energy production and use are linked to acid rain, global warming and photochemical pollution. Air pollution from tourist transportation has impacts on the global level, especially from carbon dioxide 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. For example, especially in very hot or cold countries, tour buses often leave their motors running for hours while the tourists go out for an excursion because they want to return to a comfortably air-conditioned bus.
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 – rivers, scenic areas, and roadsides. For example, cruise ships in the Caribbean are estimated to produce more than 70,000 tons of waste each year. Today some cruise lines are actively working to reduce waste-related impacts. Solid waste and littering can degrade the physical appearance of the water and shoreline and cause the death of marine animals.
Construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution. 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.
Often tourism fails to integrate its structures with the natural features and indigenous architectural of the destination. Large, dominating resorts of disparate design can look out of place in any natural environment and may clash with the indigenous structural design. A lack of land-use planning and building regulations in many destinations has facilitated sprawling developments along coastlines, valleys and scenic routes. The sprawl includes tourism facilities themselves and supporting infrastructure such as roads, employee housing, parking, service areas, and waste disposal.
Tourists using the same off road trail over and over again trample the vegetation and soil, eventually causing damage that can lead to loss of biodiversity. Such damage can be even more extensive when visitors frequently stray off established trails. Wildlife viewing can bring about stress for the animals and alter their natural behavior when tourists come too close. Safaris and wildlife watching activities have a degrading effect on habitat as they often are accompanied by the noise and commotion created by tourists as they chase wild animals in their trucks and aircraft. This puts high pressure on animal habits and behaviors and tends to bring about behavioral changes. In some cases, as in Kenya, it has led to animals becoming so disturbed that at times they neglect their young or fail to mate.
After decades of sustained growth in volume and visibility, tourism is now one of the leading global industries (11% of global GDP) and one of the major migratory movements in modern society (about 700 million international travelers in 2001), producing significant impacts on resource consumption, pollution, and social systems. It can be compared in its deleterious impacts and environmental risks to any other major industry. On the other hand, tourism is a unique tool for awareness building and learning for guests and hosts alike. Sound natural and cultural environments are its basic assets, while peace is one of its basic requirements.
Fortunately there is an encouraging ‘greening’ of mainstream tourism. Greater sustainability in the industry as a whole will have the largest impact on overall wildlife protection, and on communities and individuals. But ‘nature-based tourism’ will play a crucial role in the communities and natural environments under the greatest pressure from the development of tourism.
Nature Tourism, often referred to as Ecotourism, was introduced to the tourist industry in the early 1980s. Nature tourism attracts tourists with an interest in temporarily living in, and coming to better understand a specific, novel, relatively natural ecosystem. Its primary focus is on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation. Nature tourism was initially connected with outdoor travel to remote, unique, and/or scenic areas. Although in its early stages there was a strong educational aspect, this was not a crucial or required element to the industry or the consumer. However, as the demand has increased, the inclusion of ecology as an integral educational element has become increasingly important. This is why nature tourism is an important topic in applied ecology.
Since its conception, nature tourism has grown to include an entire methodology of planning, conservation management, and economics. It is becoming a robust and encompassing process that not only includes site information, but also considers the sustainability of the ecosystem, conservation management, education, equitable social benefits, and community responsibility. Nature Tourism now includes several major principles:
- Education about the area
- Sustainable use of resources, and avoidance of degradation
- Enhancement of local community and assistance in development
- Respect for cultural/social/political aspects of local people
- Profit from the tourism industry providing a boost to the local economy
Nature-based tourism attracts people interested in visiting natural areas for the purpose of enjoying the scenery, including plant and animal wildlife. Examples of on-site activities include hunting, fishing, photography, bird watching, and visiting parks and studying information about the ecosystem. An example is visiting, photographing, and learning about organgatuangs in Borneo. The returns to an individual from the experience have been described as potentially life-changing or at least memorable, and the development of new skills and knowledge. Since the mid-1990’s nature tourism has emerged as a human activity distinct from adventure travel. Packages tend to be marketed as a more politically correct, environmentally and culturally aware” form of tourism, e.g., responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and improve the well-being of local people. In this sense nature tourism is being increasingly recognized as a tool for sustainable development. Achieving this aim is a challenge, because high standards have to be met. But when it is achieved, communities and natural environments are the immediate beneficiaries.
However, despite their “green image”, few nature tourism packages contribute a positive benefit to the global environment. A major contradiction comes from considering the environmental impact of the energy consumed in transportation to the exotic location. One study estimated that a single transatlantic return flight emits almost half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person yearly. Arrival also introduces its own set of problems. As in any tourist activity, adverse impacts are ever present, such as cultural erosion and atmospheric pollution, and the drain on local natural resources to provide Western living standards as enclaves in Third World countries. Problems of sustainability are also evident in the developed countries. For example in winter 2000, 76,271 people entered Yellowstone National Park on snowmobiles, outnumbering the 40,727 visitors who came in cars, 10,779 in snowcoaches and 512 on skis. A survey of snowmobile impacts on natural sounds at Yellowstone found that snowmobile noise could be heard 70% of the time at 11 of 13 sample sites, and 90% of the time at 8 sites. At the Old Faithful geyser, snowmobiles could be heard 100% of the time during the daytime period studied. Snowmobile noise drowned out even the sound of the geyser erupting. In Yosemite National Park, the number of roads and facilities have been increased to keep pace with the growing visitor numbers and to supply amenities, infrastructure and parking lots for tourists. These actions have caused habitat loss in the park and are accompanied by various forms of pollution including air pollution from automobile emissions; the Sierra Club has reported “smog so thick that Yosemite Valley could not be seen from airplanes”. This occasional smog is harmful to all species and vegetation inside the Park. Such issues are being addressed by planning and managing destinations, setting up institutional partnerships and the continued development of environmentally friendly technology.
The concept of ecotourism has come into common use in the last decade. It describes a goal towards which tourism entrepreneurs, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities have been aiming at for much longer. A definition put forward by The Ecotourism Society in 1991 describes it as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.’ Professionals working within the field of ecotourism generally agree that ‘ecotourism’ stands out within the area of nature tourism by:
- Travel to a natural area.
- Travel that supports the conservation of biodiversity.
- Travel that brings benefits to local host communities.
- Travel that leads to greater understanding of the natural or cultural environment visited.
Including these four components in a travel package significantly restricts the number of tourism products that can genuinely be labelled ecotourism. To some people, ecotourism is regarded as one niche market within the larger, and rapidly expanding market of nature tourism. Here it has been estimated that nature-based tourism now comprises 20 per cent of the world travel market, and ecotourism 7 per cent. A package labelled ecotourism has some inbuilt constraints; the main one being that participants are responsible and benefit conservation efforts and local communities, and the visitor has participated in some learning experience. One example might be camping at a national park, paying an entry fee, following park rules of conduct, buying supplies at a gateway community outside the park, and participating in a natural history lesson. However, these kinds of constraints are what all kinds of nature tourism are aiming for. In this respect, it is perhaps better to retain the term nature tourism as an umbrella for all packages that involve the softer interaction of people with habitats and species as a primary objective of the holiday.
Nature tourism requires interactions and partnerships with conservation NGOs, government tourism and resource management agencies, community groups and the private sector. Above all it requires the management of the many impacts of massed humans introduced into species rich ecosystems. Even better would be the integration of nature tourism into international strategies for sustainable development. In this context, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been appointed by the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) as the Interagency Coordinator or lead agency responsible for implementation of Agenda 21 issues on tourism. Together with the World Tourism Organization (WTO/OMT), UNEP is the main focal point on sustainable tourism for CSD and the Convention on Biological Diversity for devising global strategies for tourism can contribute to environmental conservation