Tourism and its Social, Cultural and Environmental Impact

As much as I love travel and think that independent and sustainable tourism’s positive benefits far outweigh its negative effects, tourism as a whole does have negative social, cultural and environmental effects. Instead of my normal ramblings, I thought for this article I would simply share an excerpt from a graduate paper that I wrote back in 2008. Ignoring the scholarly talk, I think it’s a good summary of the broad impact of tourism.

Tourism and it’s Social, Cultural and Environmental Impact – 2008 Graduate Paper Excerpt


Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries with worldwide receipts of US$ 733 billion in 2006. In 2020, international arrivals are expected to reach 1.6 billion, almost double today’s figure (United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2007). Tourism is the number one industry in many countries due to its fast growing economic sector and ability to create foreign exchange earnings and job creation (UNWTO, 2007). As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism has produced vast economic benefits and is an ideal economic strategy for many developed and developing countries (Hampton, 2003; Schwartz, 1997). Tourism’s movement of people, ideas, and capital has created many positive and negative socio-cultural, environmental and economic impacts, as tourism development can transform regions into entirely new settings (Fennell, 1999).

There have been many negative socio-cultural impacts brought about by tourism. For example, tourism has played a role in value transformation, the creation of black markets, drugs, prostitution, reinforcement of stereotypes, and violence (Schwartz, 1997). In addition, conflicts between tourists and hosts are caused due to the differences in natural origin, communication, and cultural values; often resulting in a superficial relationship (Reisinger & Turner, 2003). Further, commodification, “McDisneyization,” and globalization all have caused a degree of negative impact (Hill & Woodland, 2005; Reed, 1995; Ritzer & Liska, 1997). However, tourism also creates positive intercultural interactions and communication. Other benefits include: a sense of cultural enrichment and psychological satisfaction, an increase in positive attitudes, a break in isolation of cultural groups, a cultural exchange of ideas, and various other benefits (Reisinger & Turner, 2003).

In addition to socio-cultural issues, tourism also has an impact on the environment. Tourism perpetuates the world’s carbon dioxide output with long distance air and ground travel that emits a considerable amount of carbon dioxide into the environment (Buckley, 2002). Other problems such as soil erosion, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on threatened and endangered species, heightened vulnerability to forest fires, loss of biodiversity, threatened food and energy supplies, etc. have been identified (UNEP, 2007). However, it is important to note that tourism can lead to positive action by encouraging sustainable policies, and fostering conservation awareness (Page & Dowling, 2002).

Finally, although tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, that generates billions of dollars for many economies, negative economic concerns are numerous too. In accordance with globalization, tourism can be seen as a form of imperialism as there remains a global concentration of wealth that further emphasizes existing inequalities (Crick, 1989; Scheyvens, 2002). Consequently, tourism contributes to high foreign exchange leakages, and a weak multiplier effect that leads to a dependence on imported products, expatriate skills, and foreign investments (Schyvens, 2002). In order to alleviate some of these issues, tourism development must integrate the concept of sustainability by involving local communities.

Given that international arrivals are at an all time high, an examination of the impacts created by tourism is essential. Prior to 1970, there has been little attention to these impacts by businesses and governments as tourism was regarded as a “smokeless” industry, free of negative effects (Honey & Stewart, 2002). However, due to the growing knowledge of myriad effects of tourism, the concept of sustainable development entered the tourism sphere. Since 1980, sustainability as a concept has been growing. Sustainability can be defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Jordon 1995, p. 166). With the tourism industries recognition of their global impact, the concept of sustainable tourism has come to the forefront.

Tourism businesses have seen many changes in the past 35 years; there has been an increase in global environmental consciousness, activism, and global organizing to help the rise of environmental standards, social standards and corporate responsibility. New environmental regulation policies and various initiatives have existed such as: definition and principles of sustainable tourism, codes of conduct, best practices, sustainability based awards, eco labels, industry associations, travel magazines and guidebooks, environmental and community based NGO’s, international financial institutions, United Nations, and the World Tourism Organization (Honey & Stewart, 2002).

These initiatives can be seen as a step towards sustainability within the tourism industry. Consumers and travel organizations have shown strong support for responsible tourism (The International Ecotourism Society, 2004). Many consumers state a willingness to pay for more ethical practices, to donate to local communities, and to support certification. Although consumers find many important features when purchasing a tourism product, the desire for a sustainable product is on the rise (TIES, 2004).

Although awareness and desire for sustainability is increasing, integration of environmental policies poses a hurdle as sustainable development has become one of the main challenges for the 21st century (Vernon et al., 2003). Sustainable tourism development must lead to the management of resources that “fulfils economic, social, and aesthetic needs while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems” (Page & Dowling, 2002, p. 16). Implementation of sustainable tourism practices has been limited because often times the adoption of sustainable principles within an organization does not equate with implementation (Butler, 1998). The tourism industry has received insufficient guidance on the operationalization of sustainable tourism (Tepelus, 2005).

There is a dire need for the tourism industry as a whole to take steps towards sustainability with practical implementation. Sustainable policies need to be added to existing processes in order to incorporate environmental, social and economic impacts suffered by business activities (Font et al., 2006). For the industry as a whole to become more sustainable, sustainability must be ensured along the entire supply chain.

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