Walking on the wild side...
leaves heavy footprints

Greg Neale
describes the impact tourism has on biodiversity and points to ways in which it can be reduced

All industries are subsidiaries of the world’s natural systems and resources, but few depend on them as obviously as tourism, the largest of them all. Wildlife and wild places beguile hundreds of millions of people a year away from their homes, and send them back refreshed.

In the process they provide jobs and economic development, particularly valuable in developing countries. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has estimated that by the year 2005, the travel industry will have created employment for 305 million people and will be producing 11.4 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. It can help nations develop infrastructure – roads, water and power supply networks, hospitals and schools. Less tangibly, but equally importantly, it offers the possibility of increasing international understanding. But tourism also has serious ill-effects on the very resources on which it depends, reducing biodiversity, destroying habitats and ruining landscapes.

Transport is one of the major contributors to global warming, perhaps the greatest long-term threat to biodiversity and habitats. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that air travel alone is responsible for at least 3 to 3.5 per cent of the climate change being caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. Back on the ground, vehicle exhaust emissions are an even greater source of carbon dioxide, while also damaging our health, the fabric of our historic cities and the natural environment.

Widescale disruption
In Greece and some other Mediterranean countries, the building of tourist hotels and discotheques has disrupted turtle nesting sites, or driven birds from breeding colonies. Raw, untreated sewage pumped into the oceans from tourist hotels damages the health of coral reefs and bathers alike. Tourist litter and rubbish kill unwary wildlife around the world, and overwhelm natural habitats, particularly on small islands.

Even so-called eco-tourism can put undue pressure on fragile regions. The tramping feet of tens of thousands of hillwalkers has seriously eroded mountain paths in Britain’s Snowdonia and Lake and Peak Districts. Even in the wide open spaces of Kenya’s national parks, too many nature loving tourists searching after wildlife can put severe pressure on wildlife and the environment.

In East Africa, Asia and southern Europe, water sources traditionally used by local people have been diverted to supply newly built tourist hotels and lodges. In Southeast Asia and in Hawaii, local farmers have lost their land to golf courses, often without adequate compensation. Tourism has also sharpened inequalities of wealth, disrupted societies and cultures and devalued sacred places.
Even so-called eco-tourism can put undue pressure on fragile regions

There are, however, some encouraging signs. Moves are already under way to ‘green’ conventional travel and tourism. Over the last decade, passenger aircraft efficiency has doubled. The InterContinental Hotels and Resorts Group cut energy costs in its hotels by 27 per cent between 1988 and 1995. More and more companies have been signing up to the Green Globe initiative, and instituting staff and training programmes with sustainable development in mind. Others support initiatives such as those of Tourism Concern, or of the Friends of Conservation group where money donated by the industry is put back into local initiatives, for example publicizing conservation imperatives, or funding community development. Certification schemes can encourage good practice through helping consumers make informed choices while prizes, like the Tourism for Tomorrow awards, stimulate and publicize awareness of sustainable development.

Such improvements must continue, particularly given the projected growth of tourism. We should seek to reduce the need to travel, and plan to shift more tourism to public transport, cycling and walking. And we should increasingly adopt cleaner, renewable energy, waste reduction and conservation activities.

Mobilizing tourists
The spread of ‘volunteer’ and ‘conservation’ tourism is another encouraging trend. The Earthwatch Institute in Britain and North America mobilizes the energy and interest of people who want to take holidays where they actively pursue conservation. Since 1972 it has supported more than 1,920 projects in 118 countries, contributing, it estimates, some 5.8 million work-hours to field research on such diverse subjects as assessing the effects of tourists swimming with dolphins in New Zealand, investigating the impacts of acid rain on the forests of Bohemia, studying traditional herbal medicine in Argentina and measuring pollution off the Russian coast in the Sea of Japan.

Every year the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) brings together more than 95,000 volunteers from all sections of the community for short holidays that include, for example, repairing and building dry stone walls, coppicing woodland, conserving coastal sand-dune nature sites, protecting ancient hay meadows and restoring ponds. Internationally, its volunteers are also engaged in such activities as restoring traditional fishing huts in Iceland, helping naturalists radio-track wolves in Poland and building a tortoise breeding centre in Senegal.

Benefits for local people
Wildlife tourism, properly conducted, can also produce funds for nature conservation, stimulate the political will to protect biodiversity, and benefit local communities. Since the decline of the commercial whaling industry, for example, increasing whale watching has steadily helped regenerate some coastal communities. Between 1992 and 1997, the number of whale watchers increased by 10 per cent a year, and the number of countries where this is a significant tourist activity more than doubled. By 1994, 5.4 million people were whale watching, generating a revenue of $311 million, and helping to ‘foster an appreciation of the importance of marine conservation’, concluded one British Government study.

Of course, tourism in remote wilderness areas must be carefully regulated and involve the consent of local people. But, at its best, nature tourism can provide a new awareness of the fragility of our planet, and – equally important – of the needs of its people. And there is growing evidence that the increase in activity holidays – such as hiking, sailing, cycling or camping – is encouraging more and more people to enjoy simpler lifestyles.

Other developments seek to remind travellers that they belong to a large human family. Newly established local companies are now promoting community tours in some of South Africa’s cities, while a scheme in Senegal encourages tourists to share the lives of West African villagers: the money they spend goes directly to supporting health clinics or schools, agricultural projects or even local football teams.

‘Take only photographs’ it is said, ‘leave only footprints’. The adage may be becoming a little worn, as the world becomes aware of just how deep a footprint tourism can leave behind on the world’s wildlife and wild places. Only if we learn to attune our leisure to the natural systems we come to admire, will we prevent it becoming more crushing still  

Greg Neale, author of The Green Travel Guide (Earthscan), was Environment Correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph, London, from 1989-1999. He is currently engaged on research at Oxford University.

PHOTOGRAPH: Lky Plakonouris/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Tourism 1999, including:
Elizabeth Halpenny and Nicole Otte: Not just nature
Frank Campbell: Whispers and waste (Small Islands) 1999
Francesco Frangialli: Preserving paradise (Small Islands) 1999
Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel: Making a difference (Small Islands) 1999