Tourism Development and Planetary Health: A Destructive or Reconstructive Relationship?

This article discusses how the value and sustainability of nature have been overwhelmingly challenged by tourism development prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, particularly when tourism consumption normalises ego-enhancement and nature-exploitation.

Planetary health concerns the fundamental relationship between the health of human beings and the health of the planet. The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health insinuated that natural resources were continually being exploited by human beings despite human health being better than ever before — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course — and especially as life expectancy increased and poverty decreased significantly in recent years (John Drake, April 22, 2021, “What is Planetary Health?”, Forbes).

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change very recently declared that substantial decreases in greenhouse gas emissions were necessary to counteract global warning. The global temperature could increase up to 1.5°C within the next two decades, and for the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, this scenario represents a “code red for humanity” (Jon Sharman and Louise Boyle, August 2021, IPCC report 2021, The Independent).

The tourism industry is not only extremely vulnerable to climate change, as the deadly effects of a heatwave in the tourist city of Las Vegas in the US recently exemplified, but is damaging to the environment through the emission of greenhouse gasses by many of its subsectors. High levels of immobility since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020 temporarily ensured that the planet was less exposed to fossil CO2 emissions, which were 7% lower in 2020 than the previous year (Adam Vaughan, Dec 11, 2020, “Record CO2 emissions drop in 2020 won’t do much to halt climate change”, New Scientist).

The challenge for air travel in the tourism industry concerns tensions between the need for economic growth and the need to protect the planet’s health from the effects of carbon emissions. Airline emissions are likely to rise despite some reprieve over the past 18 months due to widespread immobility. The International Air Transport Association predicts that by 2037, there will be 8.2 billion airline passengers compared to 4.5 billion in 2019 (Lucy Budd and Stephen Ison, Feb 7, 2020, “Air travel restrictions won’t protect us from the coronavirus”, The Conversation). Cruise ships too have high carbon footprints. It is projected that around 50,000 Europeans have died annually from shipping industry pollution (James Ellsmoor, April 26, 2019, “Cruise ship pollution is causing serious health and environmental problems”, Forbes).

Evidence concerning the impact of tourism on the flora and fauna of planet earth is largely incontrovertible. Academics, environmentalists, scientists and green politicians have long been proclaiming that it is imperative to conserve natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystems, particularly as this practice symbiotically supports the health of both the human and physical planet. But we have impacted our planet without fully realising the consequences of our actions. For instance, 14,000 tons of toxic sunscreen have seeped into the ocean yearly, threatening coral reefs and marine life (American Chemical Society, Jan 9, 2019, “Sunscreen and cosmetics compound may harm coral by altering fatty acids”, ScienceDaily). Luxury forms of travel continue to create higher carbon footprints than more simplistic forms of travel, or what has been heralded and branded as “slow tourism” by the sustainable tourism lobby (for example, walking and cycling). Such softer (reconstructive) approaches to tourism development do not fully impress the neoliberal tendencies of the international tourism industry, which would need “revenge tourism”, mass tourism and high economic growth to surge ahead and atone for the economic losses of the pandemic era.

Yet the current discussion focuses on economic degrowth and requirements for reconstructive and sustainable forms of tourism. These academic ambitions concern the popular supposition that large bouts of immobility have encouraged human beings to shake off the shackles of tourism consumption and appreciate their less-consumptive lifestyles, and that over-tourism is socio-culturally and economically unsustainable in the long term.

Nonetheless, the human desire to consume tourism experiences and the industry’s need to accumulate capital often go against any such prescriptions for a healthy planet. Forms of tourism consumption can promote ego-enhancement, self-validation and heightened social status, and these forms of well-being become standardised practices, where the commoditisation of planetary geography and the infinite use of natural resources are actually normalised by the industry. The effects of tourism behaviour and consumption on the environment are mutually reinforcing, where the outcomes not only threaten the environment but also affect tourists. The government of the Philippines closed Boracay Island in 2018 for six months to clean dangerous sewage discharged from unregulated resorts. Tourism impacts the planet but the planet impacts tourism too.

Human beings and tourists need to think more closely about the fundamental importance of being planetary citizens. We should collectively feel part of the same planet, which needs to be valued and respected. Planetary citizenship conveys an ideological system of thinking, which accentuates the view of the Earth as a single community. Although we may have a right to appreciate the great splendours and natural curiosities of the planet, we do need to be individually, civically and constitutionally responsible to protect it.

Professor Marcus L. Stephenson
School of Hospitality and Service Management


This article was first published in The Edge, 16 August 2021.