Mass tourism is a curse on the planet. It doesn’t have to be

Mass tourism has blessed billions of people around the world. This has hardly been a blessing for the environment.

Mass tourism has blessed billions of people around the world. We can now travel to exotic destinations with greater ease than ever, there to relax, sightsee and party.

Yet mass tourism has hardly been a blessing for the environment. Global tourism leaves a giant carbon footprint and also contributes to large-scale environmental degradation worldwide by converting relatively isolated and previously pristine natural areas into popular travel destinations.

Then there are the increasing rates of pollution generated by mass tourism. Eight out of 10 tourists travel to coastal areas, with beaches being the most popular destinations. This does little to benefit marine ecosystems. Beaches are covered in rubbish, fragile marine areas are inundated by raging holidaymakers, coastal waters are heavily polluted with effluents and untreated sewage.

“[D]During the peak tourist season, marine litter in the Mediterranean region has been found to increase by up to 40%,” UN Environment observed. “With great irony, tourism, which often depends on the Earth’s natural beauty, is a huge contributor to its decline in very visible ways.”

The Mediterranean, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, alone attracts some 220 million tourists who flock to the region each year. Their number is expected to climb to 350 million within two decades. About half of visitors head to the beaches where they often unwittingly wreak havoc on the environment in their numbers.

Tourists pretend to be mermaids on fragile coral reefs in Thailand. Such behavior may seem like harmless fun, but it can be damaging to marine ecosystems. (picture: Facebook)

“Huge tourism infrastructure developments have significantly altered the natural dynamics of Mediterranean coastal ecosystems,” the World Wildlife Fund said. Explain. “For example, more than half of the 46,000 km of coastline is now urbanized, mainly along European coasts. This infrastructure is a major cause of habitat loss in the region, and some places are now beyond repair.

Even previously remote places are not spared the ravages of tourism. In the Galápagos Islands, for example, the number of tourists has almost doubled, 275,000 in 2018, in just a decade. Over the past three decades, local tourism has grown at a rate of nearly 7% each year. Today, these unique and biodiverse islands, which were a formative influence on Charles Darwin in formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection, are about to be irrevocably transformed.

However, all is not catastrophic. More and more tour operators and governments are recognizing the importance of responsible tourism to protect unique biodiversity hotspots from further harm. In an effort to save local marine life, Thailand has closed a popular scenic beach, which became famous as the setting for the Hollywood film The beach, in the Andaman Sea. Before the closure, no less than 5,000 tourists arrived daily on the small beach, transported by some 200 motor boats. Since the beach was closed, marine life is slowly recovering in the area.

Similar measures are being taken on a large scale to deal with some of the worst effects of global mass tourism. One of these efforts, the Global Plastics Tourism Initiative, aims to reduce the impacts of plastic waste generated by tourism. The colossal amounts of plastic waste ending up in the oceans pose an existential threat to many species and entire marine ecosystems.

Unless drastic measures are taken, the already bad enough situation can only get worse. A highly quoted statistic says that by 2050 there may well be more plastic than fish in the oceans. “Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time, and tourism has an important role to play in contributing to the solution,” says UN Environment. “Much of the plastic used in tourism is made to be thrown away and often cannot be recycled, leading to large amounts of pollution.”

Solutions to the large amounts of plastic generated by mass tourism include phasing out all problematic plastic packaging and items, switching from single-use plastic items to reusable plastic items, and adopting effective recycling. “The problem of plastic pollution in tourism is too big for any single organization to solve on its own,” notes the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative. “To match the scale of the problem, changes need to take place across the entire tourism value chain.”

Once plastic waste enters the seas and oceans, it can spread all over the planet. Even the beaches of isolated and uninhabited islands are covered with plastic debris brought by currents and tides. This is why reducing plastic waste must be a top priority worldwide.

Minimizing the other harmful impacts of mass tourism will be equally important if we are to save beleaguered ecosystems from further depredations inflicted by humans. Each of us can do our part. We can stop littering. We can stop trampling the corals. We can stop taking sea creatures as souvenirs.

And we can avoid destinations altogether if they are already plagued by masses of other people.

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