Tourism represents one of the top five exports for 83 percent of all countries and is the main source of foreign currency for 38 percent of countries. The industry continues to experience growth even in poor economic times. As consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of their actions, a trend toward “sustainable tourism” has become more popular, and many even take the Sustainable Tourism Pledge. But what is sustainable tourism? And is it actually sustainable?
There are several types of sustainable tourism. In general, sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting a place as a tourist while trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy.
- Responsible tourism is any form of tourism that can be conducted in a more responsible way. This term is often used by industry in place of sustainable tourism, as the term is not as overused and is more easily understood and more broadly defined. A hotel in a metro area such as the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona that adopts greener programs can fall under this category.
- Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features past and present), that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations
- Voluntourism is a form of travel where one volunteers on projects which give back to the community.
Geotourism, a term developed by National Geographic Traveller, is defined as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” This particular definition emphasizes the sense of place more than the other aspects of sustainable tourism.
Photo Credit: National Geographic
Globally, tourism may be responsible for the consumption of 14,080 petajoules of energy and resultant emission of 1,400 metric tons (5.3% of the total global emissions) of CO2. The greatest impacts are caused by air travel, followed by land and sea transport, though the footprint of tourism accommodation and activities is also significant.
Clearly travel impacts climate change; resource use, especially energy and water in the accommodation sector; and the natural and built environment, biodiversity, resource use, pollution and waste.
In a single year, international and national tourists worldwide:
- Use as much energy as 80 percent of Japan’s yearly primary energy supply (5,000 million kWh/year),
- Produce the same amount of garbage as France (35 million tons per year),
- Consume three times the amount of fresh water contained in Lake Superior, between Canada and the United States, in a year (10 million cubic meters).
But tourists increasingly want to be both more responsible and more respectful. A survey of US-based outbound ecotourism operators shows an average growth of 34% a year.
following the global increase of interest in the environment. Travelers want to learn first-hand about endangered species, threatened habitats, want to understand the complex challenges of conservation, and want to experience them. They are also seeking more remote destinations off the beaten path.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Sustainable tourism has the potential to reduce the threats posed by conventional tourism to natural areas and to the people who live in and around them. But how sustainable is it, and how can we track its impact? Balancing the costs and benefits is not easy, but there are some ways we can use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to help.
Use Historic Photos to Show Past Impacts
There is a ton of aerial photography taken in the United States by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Forest Service (USFS). Most of these aerial photos are public information, and can be found at either local USFS offices or from the USDA aerial photography index. Some have been georeferenced, others have not.
Just as in environmental applications, we can use the past to inform the present, noting what changes have happened over time, and predicting what might happen going forward, and what potential impact development may have on that future..
Photo Credit: LIght Pollution Map
Map Light Pollution
Not only does development and the arrival of tourists result in increased transportation and the resultant use of resources and elevated pollution levels, but any visits will also result in light pollution. While not as talked about as other forms of pollution, recent studies show light has a large impact on wildlife habitat.
Before development even begins in an area, the potential intrusion of light can be mapped, its impact calculated, and potentially mitigated.
Wetlands and Marine Protected Areas
The disruption of certain areas is known to have a negative impact on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem, including wetlands and other Marine Protected Areas. (MPA’s). Mapping these ahead of time can help developers avoid or at least lessen impacts, and can also be used to inform tourists and other visitors.
In some cases, minor negative impacts need to be accepted in order to reap greater benefits. For example, in MPA’s, tourism may result in trampled shoreline areas along trails but also allow for hiring of more staff. Hiring the additional staff may be more beneficial to the overall conservation, and worth the sacrifice of intact vegetation by trails.
Aerial photography, satellite imaging, and GIS can be used to monitor areas where tourism is taking place to assure negative impacts are minimized, and inform both users and stakeholders when things are not going well.
Is sustainable tourism sustainable? Evaluation of impacts from the past, mapping potential issues, and monitoring over time will reveal how successful these programs will be. For the moment, public interest and awareness of the environmental impact of tourism and the desire to do something about it is at an all time high. that isn’t a bad thing no matter what role GIS plays in this growing field going forward.
Troy Lambert is a freelance writer, editor, and non-profit consultant by day, and a suspense thriller author by night. He learned about the power of GIS while working as a researcher at a museum, and is always looking for ways to apply this technology and big data in new and innovative ways. Troy is an avid cyclist, skier, and hiker. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho. His work can be found at troylambertwrites.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter @tlambertwrites.