The planet is sick from tourism

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

Each year, close to a billion people worldwide go on vacation, leaving pollution and environmental degradation in their wake.. Some professionals are even sounding an alarm.

It is an ocean of waste that drifts in the water: cans, plastic bags, popped balloons… All of the world’s trash, thrown overboard from boats or off wharfs, abandoned on a beach on the other side of the world, end up there, somewhere between Hawaii and California. A giant whirlwind of hot air creates an aquatic funnel, a real vacuum of trash. This ocean of refuse, called “waste dump of the North Pacific,” is as large as Texas and contains six times more plastic than plankton. Here, and in six other identical cesspools throughout the world, is where our scraps end up, from our lollipop sticks to our soda cans on the beach, left after we pack up camp.

Long live algae

Raking beaches with power shovels to ensure perfect sand for vacationing visitors disrupts coastal ecosystems. Natural debris (algae, drift wood…) play a role in the food chain, from plankton and shellfish, to fish, and are home to the coastal line’s “inhabitants’’. […] The result of this is that some beaches, too perfect from excessive raking, have been washed away by waves.

Vacationing pollutes, degrades, and disrupts. Each year, close to a billion people travelled for pleasure, covering an average of 1,900 kilometers each, leaving more or less attractive souvenirs behind them. The air is not spared: vacation and leisure are responsible for more than 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 1.6% of which are attributable to airplanes. This pollution does not spare any corner of the planet, from deserts to ice floes, from ocean trenches to the highest summits. […] And it doesn’t end there: in 2020, 1.6 billion tourists will trample the planet, 45% of which will be travelling to Europe. China alone will welcome 100 million globe-trotters.

Ronald Sanabria, Costarican director of sustainable tourism for the Rainforest Alliance NGO, points out the direct consequences of this trend: “Water and energy resources are being exhausted, natural areas are over-visited, trash is piling up because it is not being removed, wastewater flows any which way, local species are disappearing or are trying to compete with the introduction of exogenous species. And that’s without even addressing the visual pollution on some sites and the contempt shown to local cultures!

Reduced pollution planes

According to the Direction générale de l’aviation civile (French civil aviation authority), air transport represents “only” 1.6% of greenhouse gas emissions. But this rate could rise to approximately 3% around 2050. Airbus and Boeing are trying to make their aircrafts lighter and to improve their flight performance. […]

The 19 Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) were just removed from the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s List to be added to the more depressing list of endangered sites. One hundred thousand visitors tread these small islands populated by dozens of endemic species, giant tortoise, marine and land iguanas, albatross, cormorants, and sea lions. Over the last fifteen years, this archipelago has seen tourism rise by 150%. They have seen so much traffic that the animals, disturbed, have changed behavior. Furthermore, this invasion favors the introduction of new species, which in turn threaten the ecobalance of this unique archipelago. […]

Machu Picchu, despite the fact that it is located at 2,045 meters above sea level, in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, could also be included in the list of endangered masterpieces. Up to 2,500 tourists visit daily, and according to Peruvian authorities, this figure could triple after the site’s new classification as part of the New Seven Wonders of the World by a Swiss foundation. To welcome visitors, part of the tropical forest has already been cut down, making room for roads, hotels, and boutiques. This deforestation then causes soil erosion and landslides. Water seepage could also cause rocks to loosen and the ruins to sink.

The summits have not been spared. Mount Everest has thus become the world’s highest dump site. […] Approximately 700,000 visitors each year converge on the foot of the king of all summits, and the road leading to the highest of the 8,000 base camps is now filled with restaurants and cybercafés that disregard the combined sewer system and selective collection. Sherpas cut down rare trees to heat water required for meal preparation and showers for tourists.

The situation is so serious that some environmental organizations are requesting that access, to Mount Everest – already strictly regulated – be banned completely. Sir Edmund Hilary, conqueror of the summit in 1953, raised the alarm back in 2006: “I recommended to the Nepalese government that they stop granting authorization and let the mountain rest for several years.” In vain. […]

But the major issue is water, because of pollution or scarcity. . In many places where desertification is gaining ground, golf courses and swimming pools are appearing—even in places weathered by the sun. In Spain, 58 building permits were granted in 2005 to create new greens. Once playable, they will be added to the list of 300 already existing courses. […]

In 2005, based on data provided by hotel operators throughout the world, the Ernst & Young audit firm conducted a study of average water consumption per night: 200 liters for 1- or 2- star hotels and 550 for top-of-the-line/luxury hotels. Yet the daily water consumption by the “local population” is much lower: 137 liters in France and 30 liters in most African countries.

So, should we give up our vacations to save the planet? Not necessarily. For the last few years, travel professionals have started becoming aware of the precariousness of their means of living, and the propositions to develop new ideas for travel are multiplying. In 1995, for the first time in its history, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) organized the first World Conference on Sustainable Tourism in Lanzarote (Canary Islands). In 2004, it produced a benchmark text. […]

According to a survey conducted by BVA, 86% of participants were willing to adopt ecologically responsible behavior in the place where they vacation. Two-thirds said they favor destinations that are environmentally friendly and as many said they would happily opt for a mode of transportation that pollutes less. More than half would even be willing to pay more, through an ecotax or by choosing accommodations with an “ecolabel.” […]

La planète malade du tourisme

Marion Festraëts and Julien Le Bot

L’, 07/26/2007

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