Credit: Creative Commons

Troublesome travel: the effect of tourism on natural landscapes

By Joe Evans

The environmental cost of our holidays.

In early summer 2019, a huge clean-up operation was launched on the slopes of Mount Everest to remove both the bodies of climbers killed on the slopes over the years, as well as the rubbish and waste left by the hundreds of tourists who attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain every year. Previously, anything left on the slopes of the mountain – especially in the death zone above 8,000 metres – was just left there, as it was judged to be not worth risking the lives of climbers and Sherpas to collect. What changed last summer? Why did people suddenly decide to risk their lives on the mountain to collect waste that had been up there for years, or even decades, and what should we consider changing about our travel plans (when we eventually get to go on holiday) to minimise the danger created by tourists?

In pre-covid times, the popularity of holidays overseas and the numbers of people going on them was forecast to continue growing, with travel and adventure companies springing up every year to cover everything you could possibly want to do abroad, down to some impressively niche offerings. The 2019 cleanup on Everest came in a record year for the number of climbing permits handed out by the government of Nepal, as more people than ever before attempted the climb. Though the increase in visitors is credited with giving a huge boost to the Nepalese economy, the question raised – especially with the 11 deaths last year being attributed to the sheer number of people – is whether things have gone too far, and whether overall tourism is having a negative impact on destinations. As more people across the world have the money and access to allow them to go on holiday, the crowding effect increases the amount of waste produced, which raises the issue of how to deal with this influx of litter and sewage.

Ecologically irresponsible waste disposal by people on holiday and the companies that host them can have devastating consequences. In 2018 the island of Boracay in the Philippines was “shut down” due to raw sewage pollution, and Ko Phi Phi Leh in Thailand was closed indefinitely as the sheer volume of tourist boats was causing irreparable ecological damage in Maya Bay, which was seeing up to 5,000 visitors a day. But even on a small scale, it can be enough to raise doubts about the benefits of increased tourist traffic to hotspots. Restrictions on camping have had to be introduced in the area around John O’ Groats, for example, as wild campers have caused too much damage to livestock and property through littering and irresponsible handling of pets. Of course, some of this will be caused by people who do not know or care about the problems caused to the local area through pollution and damage, but in many cases it can be traced to the high number of visitors to the area – leading wild campers to pitch their tents in inappropriate places to have more space for themselves – or a lack of knowledge of the rules of wild camping by inexperienced tourists.

On top of all this, the journey to the holiday destination can be as damaging to the environment and landscape as irresponsible tourists themselves. Air travel is one of the most polluting methods of travel available to the public, heaping a hefty contribution to air pollution along with all the pollution from litter and waste produced by tourists upon reaching their destination. Cruise ships cause catastrophic destruction to marine life near harbours, as they have to keep their engines running constantly, churning up the seabed and shredding any marine life caught too close to the propellers. Feeling guilty about going on holiday yet?

It is possible to go travelling and see the world while also being mindful of the problems caused by mass tourism, and visitors who are mindful of local cultures and economies, and who try to leave places as near as possible to how they found them, can be a welcome boost to the economy of their destination. By going out and buying things from local markets and hiring local tour guides, you can balance out the disruption caused by your presence, and by being mindful of the environmental cost of certain modes of transport you can have a “green” and exciting holiday as you find alternatives to just flying or getting on a cruise ship. 

In January this year, The Guardian ran a travel piece about a man who booked a spare birth on a trans-Atlantic cargo ship rather than return to Canada by less environmentally friendly means. These ships do, of course, still cause pollution and damage to marine life, but unlike cruise liners, they are integral to the movement of vital goods around the world – and so will sail their route regardless of your presence, thus diminishing your ethical culpability for the pollution. The ships are also usually kept well away from the delicate coastal ecosystems that suffer the most from passengers wanting “beautiful” holiday destinations. Obviously, this is not a complete solution to environmentally friendly travel. For a start, as The Guardian’s article states, the journey took three weeks and cost as much as a small apartment (or a big car), but it does set up a nice segue into the conclusion of this piece: tourism is always going to be damaging in some regard, but you can go a long way to limit this by avoiding big package holiday companies and looking for alternative adventures to the mainstream destinations. By travelling independently of a travel company, you not only give yourself the freedom to have exactly the experience you want, but the money you spend doing so goes directly into the local economy. This aids the people whose homes and cultures you are visiting to clean up and better deal once you leave.


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