Tourism is an important industry with current growth and business volume rivalling that of oil, car, and food exports. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UN WTO) reports that tourism significantly impacts gross domestic product (GDP) or the total value of goods and services produced in a domestic economy. It generates employment and exports as well. On the average, the industry accounts for 9% of GDP, and one in 11 jobs are tourism-related (UN WTO, 2014). Each year, tourism also generates a total of $1.4 trillion in exports globally corresponding to 6% of all exports and 30% of all service exports. Without policies that ensure sustainability, however, the industry can create environmental problems that counter the economic gains.
Tourism has a direct impact on water supply and quality. Recreational activities done in the water using motorized vehicles and direct sewage discharge into bodies of water promote the accumulation of toxic chemicals in water-dwelling organisms such as shellfish (Rabbany et al., 2013). Consumption of contaminated sea foods can cause gastrointestinal disease in humans and animals. The effects of tourism activities on water quality also include imbalance in the underwater ecology. An overabundance of nutrients causes algal blooms that deplete the oxygen supply in the water causing massive fish kills (Fritsch & Johannson, 2015). Moreover, there is the inadvertent destruction of the aquatic ecosystem at the bottom of bodies of water. Besides the loss of biodiversity, local populations dependent on water resources for their livelihood will also suffer.
Not only can tourism cause water pollution but air pollution as well. Air, rail, and road transportation emit hydrocarbons that contaminate the air increasing the risk of respiratory illness in the local population (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2015). A fast growing tourism industry can further exacerbate air pollution. Another problem caused by tourism is an increased volume of garbage. For example, a litter filtering system built into the Cumberland River of Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls State Park collects an average of 25 bags of garbage left by tourists each year (Fritsch & Johannson, 2015). The large volume of garbage further strains existing landfills and clogs waterways that can cause inland flooding. In the Caribbean Sea, 70,000 tons of waste are said to be generated by cruise ships (Rabbany et al., 2013). Garbage contaminates and kills fish and other marine animals. Again, this threatens the local economies reliant on marine resources.
The advantages of the tourism industry cannot be overlooked, but there is a need to minimize the negative effects on the environment because these have a far reaching impact on host communities. Laws and regulations should ensure that tourism enterprises conduct environmental impact studies and consider the results in their business plan with the goal of leaving as little a human footprint as possible. If not, the industry can aggravate or cause human health problems, calamities, loss of biodiversity with implications on food supply, and loss of livelihood. These phenomena come with a cost that can offset the value generated by the industry. Sustainable tourism, on the other hand, strengthens the present as well as the future economy truly contributing to national development.