Crowded Shores

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Crowded Shores


describes the impact of tourism around the Mediterranean

beachThe framework of UNEP's Regional Seas Programme lends itself particularly well to examining the relationship between tourism and sustainable development. Many of these seas are popular tourist destinations, receiving a massive influx of visitors. This is particularly true - and has long been so - for the Mediterranean, where tourism is a major challenge, with a significant economic, social and environmental impact.

The Blue Plan, one of the elements of the Mediterranean Action Plan, has highlighted the main trends of tourism in the Mediterranean Basin. This work has served as a basis for the activities of the Tourism Group of the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development (MCSD) whose conclusions were presented and adopted at meetings in Antalya (Turkey), and Monaco in September and October 1998.

Region-wide benefits

In 1990, 135 million tourists stayed in the Mediterranean coastal regions, including 75 million from abroad - mostly from European countries - representing around 16 per cent of all international tourism. Nearly all the countries in the region benefit from the growth in international tourism, if to varying degrees. It accounts, for example, for more than 8 per cent of Spain's GDP, 7.5 per cent in Tunisia, 7 per cent in Greece, 22 per cent in Cyprus and up to 24 per cent in Malta.

The MCSD has also found that the proportion of international tourists compared with the permanent population of the coast has risen continually in the region since 1980 - reaching 299 per cent in Malta. Foreign currency earnings from tourism contribute substantially to the balance of payments, going a long way to compensate for trade deficits. In Tunisia, for example, it covers some 70 to 80 per cent of the deficit, though the precise figure varies from year to year. In Turkey, foreign currency earnings from tourism represented 25 per cent of all exports in 1997.

But there are huge discrepancies between countries in the amount of revenue gained and jobs created, and inequality in the development of tourism. France, Italy and Spain together account for 80 per cent of revenue from the region's international tourism. But countries like Tunisia and Turkey have witnessed a very rapid growth in the last 20 years. Revenue from tourism accounted for 25 per cent of Turkey's exports in 1997, and 60 per cent of the Balearic Islands' GDP.

This growth creates large numbers of jobs and halts emigration, but also changes traditional societies, introducing them to often very different ways of life and consumption models, and transforming the social use of space.

beach garbage

Immediate impact

The impact of tourism on the environment and landscape is very dramatic at first glance. Shorelines are destroyed by new infrastructures, marinas and urban expansion, and by the increase in population (with its need for wastewater and waste disposal) and the pressure on water resources. Outstanding habitats, like dunes, are degraded. A very fast pace of development can aggravate this. The Mediterranean islands provide a physical illustration of the problem of overloading: this appears to be a core issue of sustainable development, although this has been disputed.

Demands for quality

But tourism can have positive environmental effects. Tourist demands for a quality environment, especially for clean bathing water, are a powerful lever for improving water purification facilities and solid waste disposal in popular areas. There is a growing trend towards diversification as tourists discover the region and nature through ecotourism.

In 1998, the MCSD carried out 21 in-depth case studies of a representative sample of destinations, with the support of the countries, the local authorities and the relevant economic and environmental non-governmental organizations. These showed that the following should be considered when drawing up action plans to incorporate tourism into sustainable development:

* Different treatment should be given to:

Old tourist development areas, which come within rehabilitation initiatives.

Areas under development, which often require a review of existing programmes to improve control, especially of their impact on the environment.

Quasi-greenfield areas, such as Libya and Albania, which often represent major environmental challenges: their future tourism development should be carried out with particular attention to sustainability.

* Special attention should be paid to the legislative framework for land use within the context of integrated coastal area management: many countries have passed laws banning construction within 100 or 200 metres of the shore. Without appropriate planning that takes environmental considerations into account, the conflicts surrounding tourism developments will only increase.

* Financing environmental protection through money from tourism has led to some promising experiments. Some countries, such as France and Tunisia, have introduced public land acquisition initiatives.

* Institutional and professional capacity-building to make tourism and the environment more compatible presents another major challenge, especially at local level.

A series of recommendations on tourism and sustainable development should be adopted at the fifth session of the MCSD in Rome in June 1999. The MCSD's preliminary work will also provide substantial input to UNEP's contribution to the work of the seventh session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development

Lucien Chabason is Coordinator of UNEP's Mediterranean Action Plan. For further information contact or

Complementary issues:
Issue on Oceans 1998

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