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The New Barbarians: Tourism and the Destruction of our Planet

The industry generates one out of 10 jobs worldwide, but does this outweigh the destruction that it brings?

Venezia, Canale Grande (Pixabay).

If you have never seen Venice and wish to do so, you better hurry because according to experts, it is fast being destroyed by tourism. Not only by the 80,000 tourists per day that choke its streets and make the awesome historical sites inaccessible, but even more by the  damage created by the huge cruise ships that dock at Mestre...

In 455 Rome was sacked by the so-called barbarians, a disaster that  20 years later led to the collapse of the Empire. As my summer vacation becomes just a memory, I think about my recent trip to Italy. If you visit Rome today, you may see a new kind of sacking: that by done by the hordes of tourists who climb on millennial monuments, jump into the Trevi Fountain, take flash photos in the Sistine Chapel and blithely throw trash indiscriminately on the streets. Needless to say, similar abuses happen in New York, London, Paris, and all other major cities. It’s a well-known fact that even tourists hate tourists!

If you have never seen Venice and wish to do so, you better hurry because according to experts, it is fast being destroyed by tourism. Not only by the 80,000 tourists per day that choke its streets and make the awesome historical sites inaccessible, but even more by the  damage created by the huge cruise ships that dock at Mestre. This has radically affected the entire network of waterways in the lagoon and accelerated the sinking of this iconic city.

The subject of tourism and its negative effects invariably brings to mind urban environments where the planet’s artistic, historic and cultural  attractions are generally clustered, but it’s a lesser known fact that tourism is destroying the more remote  locations –and even natural sites– in more insidious ways. Places that used to be the siren call of exoticism and an alternative worldview, like Bali, Nepal and Bhutan are under siege. While development and tourism are not synonymous, frequently they go hand in hand.

As I discussed in a previous article a few months ago, thanks to its concept of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has been a beacon of anti-materialism, spirituality and the concept of  humanitarian government for decades. Yet today its capital, Thimphu, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and the country is experiencing all the paradoxical effects that go hand in hand with development and tourism.  As a result of this growth, the poverty rate has halved in less than a decade, healthcare and education are free, and since 1980 life expectancy has increased by 20 years and the per capita income by 450%. All this is wonderful news for the Bhutanese, of course. Yet all these developments have increased urbanization, both from tourism and internal relocation, and are jeopardizing that very culture. It is to their immense credit that they are facing the problem head on and in an attempt to stem these disturbing trends, are promoting a form of Bhutanese “glocalisation,” even insisting on national dress in government meetings and in schools.

The tourist board is pushing homestays – a Bhutanese version of bed and breakfast – in an attempt to bring money to rural areas, while giving value to a traditional way of life, thus hoping that this two-pronged approach relieves both the problem of increased tourism and internal relocation.

So we see that both major cities and other picturesque environments are suffering, but natural sites like forests, coastal areas and national parks are not being spared either. Indeed, it is estimated that tourism accounts for a significant extent towards climate change. It contributes to more than 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with transportation accounting for 90 percent of this. It can impact an area by causing soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. Among the most serious of these impacts is the strain it puts on water resources.  Ultimately, when government prioritizes economic imperatives over the needs of the local population it can deprive local populations of sufficient resources. As an example, consider that tourists tend to consume more water when on holiday than they do at home and that amount can run up to 440 liters a day. This is almost double what the inhabitants of an average city use.

London Eye (Pixabay).

Not surprisingly, golf course maintenance is incredibly costly in water resources. Not only does this put pressure on water resources locally, excessive extraction of water can result in more widespread water scarcity as it affects the water table. If the water comes from wells, over pumping can cause saline intrusion into groundwater. One golf course uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.  Excessive water usage is not the only dire consequence associated with this tourist magnet, golf courses  also require outsized amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year, thus contributing to the overall pollution of our planet as well.

Marine sports are just as bad. Anchoring, snorkeling, sport fishing and scuba diving, yachting, and cruising are some of the activities that can cause direct degradation of marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, and subsequent impacts on coastal protection and fisheries.

Local residents and governments don’t always sit back and passively accept the degradation of their cities and natural sites. They push back in many ways.  Protest movements are growing in Venice, in Cinque Terre, in Barcelona. In Venice there is an intense promotion for tourist etiquette. Barcelona has instituted a tourist tax. Milan, Florence and Rome have put a ban on everything from bottles and  cans to selfie sticks. Yet this pushback is still cautious and timid. The tourist industry frequently accounts for a large chunk of a national economy and no one wants to lose such a resource. Mariano Rajoy, until recently Prime Minister of Spain, stated “I don’t know whether tourists should be welcomed with a ‘Hello Mr. Tourist’ poster, but what cannot happen is trying to kick the person who comes here to spend money. That’s nonsense.” Dario Franceschini, Italian Minister of Culture, exulted over the record number of tourists, writing on Twitter: “The growth [in the tourism industry] stimulates the whole economy.”  

This is the bad news, but are there any positive impacts from the tourist industry? Yes, there are. Of course, the principal one is economic. The 2017 Economic Impact Report by the World Travel & Tourism Council indicates that the industry generates one out of 10 jobs worldwide. Ironically, another is environmental, responsible government recognizes that to allow degradation of the environment is to kill the goose that  lays the golden egg. Therefore they take measures to preserve such sites, promoting legislation that contributes to environmental protection, conservation and restoration of urban areas, biological diversity, and sustainable use of natural resources. In Hawaii, new laws and regulations have been enacted to preserve the Hawaiian rainforest and to protect native species. The coral reefs around the islands and the marine life that depend on them for survival are also protected now in many countries. Finally, there are social benefits from tourism. It can create cultural bonds and understanding  between the guest and host through the sharing of local customs, food, traditions and festivals. Tourism is a resource like any other, it requires intelligent understanding and responsible management if it is to be a positive force in our world.

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