A few collectively agreed upon desires during the height of the coronavirus pandemic were to open up businesses, get out of the house, and travel. The lockdown period left people restless and gridlocked; the longing to discover somewhere new ate at the public. As COVID-19 continued to spread viciously worldwide, tourism was at an all time low. Borders were closed, international travel was banned, and national travel was discouraged. The pandemic illustrated the importance of travel not only to mental health and stability, but economic well-being. Tourism plays a key role in trade and commerce, and many local economies rely on tourists. Global industries such as airlines, hotel chains and restaurants felt the brute and disruptive force of the pandemic. Tourism is a key economic player whose hibernation brought a further hit to economies during a year of limited travel.
On the other hand, there are environmental downsides to the industry. Tourism is a large contributor to climate change; air travel is a major cause of polluted skies and airports are some of the most polluting infrastructures in the world. Local cities are torn apart as waves of people stomp into their grounds, destroying the physical landscape. The industry accounts for 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, a figure expected to rise to 25% by 2030. This reality offers a challenge: is there a way to have sustainable tourism? Is it possible for the industry to become both economically viable and environmentally conscientious?
Before the pandemic-induced unemployment in 2020, 10.6% of jobs were supplied by the tourism and travel sector, accounting for 10.4% of total global GDP. The travel and tourism industry lost nearly 4.5 trillion dollars in 2020, resulting in a global GDP decline of 3.7%. The hit was especially large for local economies that depend on tourism as their main source of income. With tourism falling by more than 65 percent in 2020, small tourist islands such as the Bahamas, Maldives, Barbados, and Jamaica experienced a drastic negative shock to their economies. Each respective island is preparing for their GDP to shrink 12-21 percent. Millions of jobs in the tourism sector were lost during the pandemic, specifically those in hospitality. Employees in hotels, such as restaurant workers, bartenders, maintenance workers and housekeepers, endured massive layoffs. Leisure workers, such as tour guides and instructors, were heavily impacted in areas such as Hawaii where leisure activities are a leading attraction. In Hawaii, 7.5 million jobs were lost in both the leisure and hospitality sectors due to the pandemic; this sector usually accounts for 19.3% of total employment in the state. The recovery from the fall is expected to take years.
Despite the financial importance of tourism for smaller nations, it can wreak havoc on their physical habitats. Water depletion for the maintenance of attractions like golf courses and hotels is a major issue in tourist-heavy and drought-prone areas such the Mediterranean and states like Arizona and Nevada. Wasted water leads to stagnant groundwater, which can be toxic and filled with pesticides and fertilizers, killing natural life as the excess water runs off. Construction and the mere physical presence of human activity in forests, coral reefs, beaches and mountains is weakening them. Coral reefs are dying from exposure to toxic chemicals found in sunscreen and intrusive human conduct from snorkelers or everyday beach goers. Deforestation is a continual problem and mountain resorts leave behind garbage, impacting the wildlife there.
The impact of tourism begins before the tourists get to their destination. 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to tourism and tourist-related activities. Transportation is the largest contributor to that percentage. 2.4% of global carbon emissions come directly from airplanes, but travel to and from airports as well as activities in the airport all contribute to a traveler’s individual carbon footprint. LAX alone produces most of California’s carbon monoxide.
The Bahamas is a popular tourist destination, marketed for its sandy beaches and crystal clear water. The country is sustained by tourism, yet its natural resources are already limited. Hurricanes and tropical storms are common in the Bahamas, and with 80% of the land mass only one meter above sea level, the country is susceptible to widespread damage during hurricane season. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian wiped out the islands, trampling beaches and delivering massive amounts of damage to homes, businesses, and ecosystems. Dorian cost about $3.4 billion USD in repairs. The World Bank estimates the annual GDP of the Bahamas to be about $11.25 billion USD, so the hurricane wiped out about a quarter of that output in 2019. Afterwards, the Bahamas expressed that they still needed travelers to come. With tourism accounting for 60% of annual GDP, it is the most critical sector of their economy. However, in the midst of reconstruction, COVID-19 struck, dashing any hope of a rebound in the industry. For the Bahamas, tourism is needed to pay for the environmental damage caused by rising sea levels and climate change, yet contributes to those very problems. This puts them in a continuous cycle of environmental destruction and economic stress. Although stopping tourism in the Bahamas alone will not solve the problem of hurricanes and greenhouse gas emissions, it illustrates the directly conflicting incentives on each side.
Which is more important: the environment or the economy? Is leisure travel ethical when it causes immense environmental damage? While these ethical questions are nearly impossible to answer on their face, there are systems being put in place to bring the best of both worlds. The World Travel and Tourism Council is implementing strategies to help combat the climate crisis by 2050. The Paris Climate Accord is an agreement signed by 195 countries that works to prevent the global temperature from rising yearly. In regard to tourism-specific initiates, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean are actively working to emit sulfur dioxide from their exhaust to help protect the world’s oceans. Travel agencies are committed to educating their customers on how to plan an environmentally friendly trip. Their tips include carpooling to the airport and eating at local restaurants instead of food chains.
Sustainable tourism also takes place at the destination. Respecting ecosystems and local landscapes is just as important as making sure that the travel there is as carbon friendly as possible. Giving back to locals by shopping small or donating to rebuilding funds can offset the harms of tourism. However, small scale changes will not be enough to combat climate change’s steady pace. While eliminating tourism is not practical or financially reasonable, the environment depends on some type of immediate change, which may need to come from government policy.
There is a critical debate on whether it is worth furthering environmental crises to sustain the travel industry. Can sustainable tourism benefit global GDP while simultaneously mitigating the effects of climate change? Or, will we fall into a continuous cycle of environmental destruction? While a definite solution is still inconclusive, actively attempting to reduce carbon emissions during travel is crucial. If everyone holds a small amount of accountability for themselves during leisure travel, both the economy and environment can thrive.