United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP
The tourism industry, which includes such diverse activities as transport, accommodation, recreation and catering, serves more than 613 million people each year, some travelling internationally and many more domestically. With more than 260 million employees, and an annual investment in capital projects of over $800 billion, it ranks as a main sector of the world economy, accounting for nearly 11 per cent of global GDP. And it is growing at an average rate of 4 per cent a year. Given its scale, it is not surprising that tourism's effects on the environment, underestimated in the past, are now receiving attention. Its potential impacts are numerous and varied, and are linked to natural resource consumption, pollution and building.
Tourism-generated threats are now felt in many developing countries which lack the technological or financial capacity to handle tourists' resource consumption and waste generation - often far greater than those of the home population. For example, it has been estimated that each trekking tourist in Nepal burns about 6 kilograms of wood per day in a country already desperately short of fuel; a big hotel in Cairo uses the same amount of electricity in a year as 3,600 middle-income Egyptian households; while in the Caribbean, tourist demand for seafood is considered the prime cause of increasing pressure on the lobster and conch populations. The use of 'natural' construction materials also often puts scarce resources at risk. Around the world a number of sites, including protected areas, have already been spoiled by the development of nature-based tourism, with damaging consequences for biodiversity.
Tourist activities also generate pollution: discharge of untreated sewage into the sea or rivers, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from transport, and solid wastes - for example it is estimated that the cruise ships in the Caribbean alone produce more than 70,000 tonnes of waste per year. Physical development of tourist facilities and infrastructures also impacts the environment. For example, three-quarters of the sand dunes on the Mediterranean coastline between Spain and Sicily have disappeared, mainly as a result of urbanization linked to tourist development.
The people who profit from tourism are not always those who have to bear its costs. Tourists can disturb the ways of life and social structures of local communities while increasing the cost for local governments of building and maintaining the facilities, such as sewage treatment plants and roads, necessary to cater for large numbers of visitors.
Putting tourism on a sustainable path is a major challenge, requiring partnership and cooperation within the tourism industry, and between the industry, governments and tourists themselves.
Individual companies can take the lead in showing how self-regulation can work by taking voluntary action to reduce pollution, initiating and abiding by codes of practice, and by educating. Likewise, industry associations must continue to develop, promote and adopt codes of conduct and good practice, environmental management and reporting systems, and provide their members with the information necessary to implement them.
The role of governments is equally important. Only they can provide the strategic planning base for tourism which is so clearly needed. Only governments can ensure that valuable and fragile habitats are identified, that baseline studies and monitoring are carried out, and that overall infrastructure needs and implications are assessed. And only they can establish emissions standards and siting and design requirements, and ensure that they are enforced. Wherever possible environmental impact assessments should be carried out, with studies on carrying capacity and limits of acceptable change used to define the number of tourists a site can accommodate.
And tourists themselves must become more aware of the environmental implications of their holidays. Many non-governmental organizations have already made significant steps in modifying consumers' preferences and behaviour through awareness and education programmes, but more remains to be done.
To catalyze appropriate action UNEP, jointly with other international organizations, and in particular the World Tourism Organization and UNESCO, is promoting the definition and development of sustainable tourism through the publication of guidelines and handbooks, the exchange of successful experiences and the support of demonstration projects. UNEP has also put forward principles for the implementation of sustainable tourism, designed to provide a coherent framework for the various conventions governing the industry and to assist all stakeholders to apply sustainable practices.
No-one can question the need for tourism - its benefits to individuals as well as to national and regional economies are clear. Nor would anyone in government or the industry question the need to protect the environmental systems which support it. The challenge, however, is to develop tourism while protecting the environment.