Tourism and the environment

Posted: 4 June 2008

Perhaps the greatest environmental problem created by tourism is the contribution of air travel to global warming.

Air travel

  • The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that aviation's contribution to climate change is about 3.5 per cent. This could rise to 15 per cent by the year 2050 if no measures are taken.

  • The total warming effect of all emissions produced by aircraft (CO2, H2O and NOx) is estimated to be 2-5 times greater than CO2 alone. (IPCC)

  • Air fuel is untaxed. If air fuel were taxed at the same rate as petrol in the UK, a London-Sydney return flight would cost an extra £925. In the EU there is no VAT levied on air tickets.

  • Travelling the same distance by train produces a third of the carbon emissions of air travel.
  • In 2005, more than 80% of all departures from and nearly 75 per cent of all arrivals in the UK were made by air.
  • Britons are the world’s biggest emitters of CO2 from air travel.


After beaches and coastlines, mountains are the most popular type of tourist destination, accounting for 15-20 per cent of world tourism and generating an estimated US$70-90 billion a year in tourism revenue.

The main advantage has been the additional income it has offered to hard-pressed communities, for whom earning a living is complicated by the remote setting, difficult terrain and often harsh climate. For a growing number of developing countries, revenue from mountain tourism represents a major source of foreign exchange (

Mountains have high levels of unique and rich biodiversity but heavy tourist development activities such as felling trees and poorly planned tours in mountainous regions can endanger these fragile ecosystems as well as the communities that live in these regions.

UNEP has produced a guide Tourism and Mountains: A practical guide to managing the social and environmental impacts of Mountain Tours to help mountain-based tour operators and other mountain recreation professionals improve their environmental and social performance.

  • Europe's Alps are the world's most visited mountains. With 100 million 'visitor-days' a year, tourism in the Alps accounts for 7-10 per cent of all global tourism, generates US$52 billion a year and supports 250,000 jobs.

  • 65-70 million people (25 million in Europe, 20 million in North America, 14 million in Japan) participate in winter sports such as skiing.

  • 25 million people visit the ten most popular mountain National Parks in the US per year.

  • 300,000 visit Machu Picchu in Peru each year, 60,000 of them hiking the Inca Trail.

  • South Korea's 16 mountain national parks cover 4 per cent of the country and attract 30 million visitors a year.

  • The world's first national park was a mountain one: Yellowstone in California in 1872.
Mountains: environmental and other problems
  • There were almost 2,000 ascents of Everest in 2003. Four out of five local households derive some income from tourism. 12 per cent of the trail network is degraded and there is an estimated 17 tonnes of rubbish per kilometre of trail. About a quarter of firewood used in the area is due to tourism - the average tourist in Nepal uses 6kg of firewood per day.

  • Air travel by tourists contributes towards climate change and this in turn has an effect on mountainous regions with rising temperatures increasing the risk of avalanches, landslides, etc. Glaciers are already showing signs of receding in mountains around the world and changing snowfall patterns can have a damaging effect on the tourist industry. For example, In Bhutan, an icy lake fed by melting glaciers waits to become a "tsunami from the sky" and at least 25 other glacial lakes are at risk of overflowing and dumping their contents into the narrow valleys where much of the country's population lives. .It has been calculated that in Switzerland, a 2ºC rise in temperature would result in an annual drop of US$1.7 billion in winter sports revenue.

  • Visitors travelling by car/bus to the Himalayas in India has dramatically increased and many locals are unhappy due to the overcrowding of sacred sites detracting from the religious atmosphere.

  • In the Alps, each weekend at St Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, traffic deposits 30 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 25 tonnes of hydrocarbons and 75kg of lead.

  • Up to 700,000 skiers use Switzerland's mountain slopes on any one day during peak season. Key issues related to ecological damage inflicted by the ski industry include: modification of the environment including removal of forests, levelling of land and carving of pathways; and the production of fake snow, which uses up vast quantities of water and energy, and can deposit artificial additives in snow.

Large numbers of visitors can have a negative impact on wildlife. Studies in Kenya's Masai Mara National Park found that cheetahs were so disturbed by the volume of tourists that they frequently failed to mate, feed or raise their young. But factors other than tourism are greater contributors to the decline of wildlife: in particular, loss of habitat due to deforestation, logging, agriculture and urbanisation.

  • According to a UNEP paper, in Yosemite National Park (USA), infrastructural development for tourists has come at a price causing habitat loss in the park. These actions have also been accompanied by various forms of pollution including air pollution causing harm to species and vegetation.

  • A campaign was launched by the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation to save the Strandja Natural Park, the largest protected area in Bulgaria and one of the five richest places of biodiversity in Europe, to stop the local government and a major investor from developing holiday resorts such as the existing Golden Pearl on the edge of the park. The resort investors were appealing through the courts to remove Strandja’s status as a natural park, in order to allow them to continue developing.

  • A prevalent problem is the importation of illegal wildlife souvenirs. The WWF identified a souvenir "Top 10" in a report in 2002, which included traditional Chinese medicines with ingredients such as tiger, leopard and musk deer; live reptiles; coral and elephant ivory or skin products. Very recently, approximately one ton of ivory was confiscated in China, representing the deaths of at least 80 endangered elephants, and an estimated $5 million.

Tourism, which sells luxury and indulgence, can be a profligate consumer of natural resources:

  • According to a WWF report, every tourist consumes between 300 and 850 litres of water per day.

  • A tourist staying in a hotel uses on average one third more water per day than a local inhabitant.

  • Tourism demand in some cases can cause problems for the local population. During a drought (1994-1996),the town of Tangier (Morocco) suffered from severe freshwater shortage and water supply to tourist facilities had priority over the water needs of the local population.

  • According to an Indian charity, Kabani, in Kerala, near Alappuzha, a region famous for its backwater tourism, the increasing number of tourists has led to significant water pollution affecting the lives of the local people who are dependent on the lake, river and canal water for their daily water requirements. There has also been a decline in biodiversity and loss of fish stock. At Kovalam beach, in the south of Kerala, there is severe water scarcity especially during the peak season when the demand from the hotels and restaurants leads to groundwater depletion.

  • In Botswana, the government is allowing tourist lodges requiring large amounts of water, to be built on the lands of the Kalahari bushmen, but the bushmen are not allowed to pump water from their single borehole and instead have been asked to trek hundreds of miles outside the reserve to collect water (see Survival International.

Worldwide, 50 million people play golf. Each year, up to 5,000 hectares of the Earth's land surface - an area the size of Paris - is cleared for golf courses. The planet's 25,000 golf courses use large areas of land and require huge amounts of water (an 18-hole course can consume more than 2.3 million litres of water daily), fertiliser and pesticides to produce the smooth, green surfaces that golfers demand.

  • Dubai which already has 7 golf courses is to open 11 more over the next three years. Justin Francis, co-founder of, says: “My biggest concern about this rate of construction is the amount of water required. In general, a golf course needs about a million cubic metres of water per hectare [2.5 acres] per year – equivalent to the water consumption of a city of 12,000 inhabitants." Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern ( says: "The proposal to develop 11 new courses in such an arid desert environment throws up serious questions about the long-term sustainability of such a venture, both environmentally and in terms of how it could impinge upon the water needs of local communities."

  • Even in Spain, a golf course in Benidorm uses as much water as 10,000 people. A typical golf course in Thailand uses 1,500kg of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides a year and as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.

  • Chemical runoff from pesticides and fertilisers can pollute rivers and kill wildlife. Golf courses could drastically reduce their water and chemical use by accepting less green fairways, recycling water and using native and less water-hungry grasses.

This section was compiled by Junie Wadhawan from Tourism Concern.