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How Destinations Can Address the Impact of Tourism on the Physical Environment

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The tourism industry is hard to define. It has no single concrete product and overlaps an entire range of distinct industries, from transport to accommodation to food beverage and more. Regardless, the industry's status as a leading and resilient economic sector could not be denied. In 2019, the globe saw no less than 1.5 billion tourist arrivals, a 4% increase from a year earlier, with U.S. travel and tourism pouring a staggering $ 2.9 trillion to the nation's GDP. In that same year, this industry also pitched in a total of $ 580.7 billion to the global GDP - the highest contributed by any other country worldwide.

The complex nature of tourism, however, is not confined to the difficulty of defining it or its power in global economics. Somehow, it also maintains a tricky relationship with the environment - one that is clearly symbiotic yet potentially hazardous at the same time. While the industry can be used to increase awareness of environmental values and finance conservation initiatives, it can also undermine the resources it is supposed to preserve, even introducing new challenges in existing efforts to protect them. The impact of tourism on the physical environment is something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the industry.

From depletion of water supplies to land degradation to sewage pollution to disrupted marine ecosystems and more, the world has seen how the wild, unregulated dynamics of this industry can rear its ugly head. This makes solid mitigating policies and measures critical in shaping the sector's environmental consciousness.

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The following are proven strategies that governments can adopt en route to an environmentally sustainable and responsible tourism industry:

Creation of Dedicated Institutions

Institutions devoted to tourism-related environmental causes can take different forms, such as ministries that address specific issues confronted by particular areas. This clearly requires well-credentialed experts providing necessary training for officials who will directly manage the projects. The good news is external support is generally easy to come by, with many international donors and agencies historically assisting in governments' sustainable tourism endeavors across local and regional levels.

The option to create environmental institutions in government is highly viable for several reasons but mainly because it allows for closer and stricter local control and is usually more favorable to the general public. In an island destination, for instance, a department may be created to solve the rising demands of tourism and their environmental impact, as well as to roll out projects funded by the government or international donors. In the same manner, environmental divisions under sectoral agencies may be instituted to focus on pressing concerns affecting a place or community.

Increased Environmental Investments

Providing solutions to tourism-related current or future environmental issues can be done mainly through strategic, well-organized projects, from building new water supply and infrastructure to drumming up public education and many more. These are regarded as established solutions to the negative impact of tourism activities, more notably in terms of more efficient garbage collection and disposal, reduced pollution, and controlled urbanization.

According to some conservation experts, tourism development can benefit the environment because, under particular circumstances, developers can undertake current and potential environmental problems by way of water and sanitation projects. It may be noted that many tourism areas which flourished without sound planning have eventually succumbed to environmental pressure, leading to a drop in tourist arrivals and ultimately crippling the industry to an extent.

Even more interesting is that even areas that operate with careful planning have not been assured of better outcomes. Only when governments saw the decrease in tourist activities and felt the pressure exerted by environmental movements, both local and global, did they consider making serious investments in sewage systems, public education and so on. Aside from reducing the impact of tourism on the environment, these projects can be presented as protective measures when seeking funding for tourism projects. After all, developers are known to include environmental soundness as a key criterion for approving proposals.

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As different economic sectors lay down their investment plans, policies can be made to allot a portion of such investments to environmental protection. Policymakers and developers have both made considerable contributions to increasing environmental awareness and have somehow created an impression of being more in tune with environmental causes.

For instance, investments can be packaged as environmental projects related to the particular industry or as reinforcers of the governments' ongoing environmental agenda. Budgeting is usually more liberal during the planning stage so that more groups and demands can be accommodated. In other words, new projects can be viewed as opportunities for proposing environmental projects in their initial phases.

Tourist Volume Regulation

Another way to reduce the environmental impact of tourism on the environment is to limit development and the influx of tourists where needed. To limit development means to use stricter screening processes for accepting projects, including the drafting of clear guidelines to be observed. Development control can also be done in many other ways, such as by requiring permits and public hearings for specific projects, controlling the construction of tourism-related structures, and the like. Tourist volume and duration of stay can also be regulated in popular destinations by implementing measures like collecting entrance fees and other charges.

Unfortunately, in developing countries, experts do not believe in regulating tourist volume due to the potential loss of income it brings. These countries have a great need to draw in investments, as well as employment and income opportunities, making tourist control policies next to impossible.

Designation of Environmentally Protected Areas

As far as sustainable tourism is concerned, one of the most transparent efforts by governments worldwide is the designation of protected areas. These are fragile environments where tourism and other forms of development, such as the building of new roads and the exposure of delicate zones to urbanization, have been known to introduce threats. In any case, this approach is intended to serve three key purposes: help simplify the process of approving tourism projects, preserve good environmental conditions as a tourist attraction in itself, and increase revenues for environmental projects through the collection of fees.

On the other hand, the designation of protected areas can also lead to complications, if guidelines are implemented at all. For instance, a local population may resist such a measure out of fear that the government will take over private property. In fact, in many areas around the globe, "protected areas" only exist in writing, such as Latin America.

Another benefit of designating protected areas is to manage ecosystem stress and reduce the environmental damage that often accompanies large development projects. Local governments typically succeed in shunning potentially destructive projects with the help of environmentalists and local communities.

Moreover, local governments can entice ecotourists by using a particular site's protected area designation as its own selling point.

Making the Strategies Work

The implementation and success of the four strategies detailed above often rely on how the development of environmental policies occurred. Many issues affect the promotion of such a process, from the key players involved to the strength of their collaboration to the original structure of the policy process and, of course, the relationship between an area's social, economic and environmental sectors.

The policy-making process itself will normally involve the local and state governments, big and small tourism enterprises, local NGO's and community movers, and local and global developers.

As expected, each one of these groups will participate in the process according to their individual interests and values, and some will be more crucial to the implementation of specific types of strategies than others.

When it comes to designating environmentally protected areas and establishing environment-promoting institutions, local and state governments are generally the key campaigners. The support offered by the tourism-related businesses and developers in the government's environmental initiatives is remarkable as well. Such initiatives are often funded and enforced by governments, and businesses are not often not affected financially. For their part, developers only view such initiatives as increased opportunities for business.

How the policy process is created can also impact how they finally turn out, building or reinforcing relationships between the different parties involved and affecting how different interests and influences work out as the process ensues. Inevitably, local conditions will have a bearing on the outcome of the policies created, and sometimes, a particular area's social, economic and environmental makeup can play a crucial role.


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Despite the seemingly innate complexity of tourism, it is clear that careful planning can lead to the sustainable protection of environmental resources without curtailing the development of the industry as one of the biggest in the world. From four core strategies, namely the creation of dedicated institutions, increased environmental investments, regulation of tourist volume, and the designation of environmentally protected areas, national and local governments can devise more targeted techniques that preserve that delicate balance between environmental protection and economic growth, depending on the demands and limits of the area being protected and developed.

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