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Natural Environment

The tourist trap: Are your vacation plans bad for the planet?

For many eager holidaymakers, restrictions on international travel have added to the frustrations of the COVID-19 lockdown. But in some of the world’s most overstressed cities, the tourism slowdown has come as a welcome relief.

Steven Matz, World Built Environment Forum
3 August 2021

For many people, the end of lockdowns and easing of international travel restrictions will mark the beginning of holiday season. This will be a welcome development in those places reliant on the economic contribution of the tourism and hospitality sectors. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates losses across the global tourism industry in 2020 to have totalled US$2.4 trillion. Even the best-case projections for 2021 point to only a minor improvement in those fortunes, with losses pegged at $1.7 trillion. And that figure can be expected to grow if vaccine roll outs stall and variant strains continue to emerge. Any return to pre-pandemic patterns of travel will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for businesses feeling the now 20-month long loss of the free-spending tourist hordes. But the effects will be more far reaching than a straightforward economic dividend.

Last year, we looked at how overtourism has disrupted some of the world’s leading destinations. As travellers increasingly seek out “authentic” vacation experiences, neighbourhoods and communities unused to large seasonal influxes of people have suffered a range of adverse consequences.

“Tourism fuels a changing demand for particular goods and services,” says Prof. Claire Colomb, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. “This leads to changing land and building uses and puts pressure on traditional businesses. Residents may also feel aggrieved by what they see as the changing fabric of their neighbourhood.”

Tourism fuels a changing demand for particular goods and services. This leads to changing land and building uses and puts pressure on traditional businesses. Residents may also feel aggrieved by what they see as the changing fabric of their neighbourhood.

Claire Colomb
Professor of Urban Studies and Planning – Bartlett School of Planning, University College London

Amsterdam is among the European cities attempting to tackle this problem. The city has a population of around 860,000 and receives roughly 18 million visitors a year – half of which come from overseas. In an effort to strike a better balance between liveability for residents and hospitality for tourists, the city has taken a number of measures. These include banning holiday rentals, new tourist shops and large tour groups in three city centre neighbourhoods. In July 2021, municipal officials adopted a regulation limiting the number of overnight stays in the city to 20 million per year. In a sign that lawmakers are conscious of the duality of this issue, they have also pledged to intervene should the annual number of stays fall below 10 million.

Boston Consulting Group estimates that the 19 million day-trippers who visited Venice in 2019 spent just €5-20 euros each. This represents significant environmental footprint for negligible economic remuneration. Local authorities have acted by instituting a new day-trippers’ levy, effective from 1st January 2022. For many years, local citizens have campaigned for a ban on cruise ships entering the city’s lagoon. The damage they cause to the delicate local ecosystem and precious architectural heritage has become intolerable for many residents. From 1st August this year, ships over 25,000 tonnes will be banned from Venice’s main waterways and rerouted to the industrial port of Marghera. The Italian government acted after UNESCO threated to add the city to its World Heritage danger list.

There is evidence that, on such matters, holidaymakers are also becoming more conscientious. The UN World Travel Organisation defines sustainable tourism as: "Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities." An Association of British Travel Agents’ survey revealed that 50% of customers consider tour operators’ sustainability credentials to be important or essential when booking a holiday. Back in 2011, that figure was only 20%.

An Association of British Travel Agents’ survey revealed that 50% of customers consider tour operators’ sustainability credentials to be important or essential when booking a holiday. Back in 2011, that figure was only 20%.

More than half of respondents flagged waste and plastic pollution, heritage deterioration, degradation of nature, community harm, climate change and water stress as factors of concern when booking trips. Waste and plastic pollution, cited by 70% of respondents, was first among these worries. Not only unsightly, but harmful to wild and marine life, plastic items are, according to the Ocean Conservancy, the most common waste products found on beaches.

Three-quarters of travellers would seek out accommodation that had reputable third-party sustainability accreditation, according to online travel company Booking.com. And almost half of respondents to the company’s Sustainable Travel Report in 2021 complained about a lack of sustainable travel providers on the market. The survey also highlighted the problem of sourcing sustainable accommodation, with nearly two-fifths of travellers saying online booking sites should offer a sustainability filter option. This may represent a communications failure rather than a supply shortfall: three-quarters of surveyed accommodation partners claimed to have adopted sustainable policies; only one-third promoted their efforts to customers.

Growing consumer awareness of sustainability issues surely means that these numbers will change. Pent up wanderlust may inspire a short-term travel boom as countries co-operate to reopen key aviation corridors. But a new, socially and environmentally-conscious class of traveller may see to it that old fashioned retail tourism is replaced by something altogether more sustainable.