In Depth

Can tourism be responsible?


Is tourism doing more harm than good to the planet? Let’s see the empirical evidence. More than a billion humans took off on journeys last year. 1,138 million, to be precise. That’s about a seventh of all humanity. This figure was a 4.7% growth year-on-year in the number of travellers, and the fifth year in a row of above average growth since the 2009 economic crisis.

Even as climate deliberations have concluded COP21 in Paris, it is no surprise that the impact of tourism is increasingly under scrutiny. While there is little disagreement among all stakeholders that the development of tourism should be sustainable, questions of how to achieve this is raising many debates. International tourism generated $1.5 trillion (with a T!) in export earnings. Yes, the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, ‎food products or automobiles! 1 in 11 jobs globally is from the sector.

All indications suggest that tourist numbers will only multiply. Despite a still stuttering global economy and vastly increased security risks, international tourist arrivals grew by 4.3% in the first eight months of 2015! India has reported double-digit growth in tourism expenditure in this period.

International tourism generated $1.5 trillion (with a T!) in export earnings. Yes, the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, ‎food products or automobiles!

While empirical evidence can leave us cold, anecdotal proof can often be more hard-hitting. If no amount of time lapse pictures of melting snow caps and retreating glaciers are good enough to convince ‘real’ people, increasingly more frequent ‘natural’ disasters nearer home could be the answer. Are successive devastating floods in Uttaranchal and Kashmir, and Chennai a little more convincing?

To what extent does tourism share responsibility for climate change? Given the intricate web of modern economies, it would be impossible single out the share of development and tourism. If a record number of Indians travelled both domestically and abroad in 2014, it is directly related to improving economic conditions. Not all travelled for pleasure, so the water gets muddier. How fair would it be to tell those with new disposable incomes not to travel as it now negatively impacts the planet? Yes, the debates in tourism mirror those at COP.

Let’s take a quick look at the break up of how tourism is adversely impacting the planet. Given tourism’s reliance on actual travel – yes, virtual tours are not the same as actually climbing the Himalayan peaks or diving down the Great Barrier Reef – the component of travel becomes crucial. 72 per cent of tourism’s CO2 come from transportation, and another 24 per cent from accommodation.

By 2050, it is estimated that tourism could generate 40 per cent of global carbon emissions.

By 2050, it is estimated that tourism could generate 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. Crucially, what is expanding faster than the average number of trips taken is the average distance travelled by tourists, which is increasing at a faster rate. Should someone from outside Paris not see the treasures of Louvre just because they have to travel? Is seeing pictures of a ‘teardrop on the face of eternity’, as Tagore described the Taj Mahal, the same as visiting it. Indeed if long distance is to slow down considerably due to impact of carbon emissions, how would impact those employed in the sector. Indeed many nations have made tourism their main revenue earner. Even if Maldives or Seychelles or Solomon Islands or Kiribati, not to speak of huge coastal swathes on all continents, do not get submerged by rising sea levels, can their economies move on to different sectors?

Transcontinental air journeys are another major point of contention. Aviation alone accounts for between 55 and 75 per cent of tourism’s carbon emissions, depending on how it is calculated. Friends in greener societies complain of losing all their good carbon karma points largely by long haul flights! One study estimated that a single transatlantic return flight emits almost half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person annually.

In 2014, slightly over half of all overnight visitors globally travelled to their destination by air (54%). IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has predicted that aviation fuel efficiency would improve by about 2 per cent per year through 2050. The largest airplane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, expect the passenger-kilometers to rise by about 5 per cent annually, negating any gains on fuel efficiency. Unless planes can fly without carbon fuel, there is little chance of sustainable travel here for now.

UNWTO estimates the number of international tourist arrivals worldwide is expected to increase by an average of 3.3% a year over the period 2010 to 2030. In absolute numbers, international tourist arrivals will increase by some 43 million a year. At the projected rate of growth, international tourist arrivals worldwide are expected to reach 1.4 billion by 2020 and 1.8 billion by 2030.

All forms of tourism can be more responsible, say adherents of greener travel. It will not be easy however. Not just mindsets, but even goals and aspirations may have to change for tourism to be more sustainable at a mass level. The usage of water, a crucial resource impacted by tourism, will have to be better planned. The tourism industry generally overuses water resources for hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and personal use of water by tourists. Indeed many resorts and golf courses around the world are built in water scarce regions. If they go, will that be acceptable to the local population. Similarly, standards for air pollution, noise pollution, solid waste management, no-go green zones, fishing, food sourcing could all be deeply divisive issues for local populations across the world.

Indeed there are many laudable efforts on across the world demonstrating how carbon footprints can be reduced. Many are innovative, and deserve greater awareness. Practitioners are generating greater economic benefits for local people, enhancing the well-being of local communities.

Local people in more involved in decisions that affect their lives and life chances, and are making positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. No practice has found widespread global acceptance yet though.

Our planet’s human population looks to peak in the near future, with emerging economies getting more prosperous and their new middle classes in search of a better quality of life. Leisure travel looks to be a big constituent of this improved lifestyle, and ingraining sustainable practices in tourism will be a crucial challenge – for the sheer survival of humanity.

Musafir Namah Bureau


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