Unit I7 - Tourism Impacts


Unit I7


Tourism in rural areas involves people who come from other countries for the pleasure of visiting the local environment. Since tourists spend money on travel, hotels, food, entertainment and recreation, they can be an important source of income and thus of economic development for areas with few other possible sources of revenue.

If you live on an island or coast, tourists will be attracted by their image of the tropical environment: sun and sea, white sandy beaches and waving palm trees, lush vegetation and friendly natives. If you are in a forest or mountain area, they will imagine interesting vegetation and beautiful scenery. In a savanna or desert area, they will expect wide open spaces and roaming animals. The reality is never quite the same as the tourist image, but while it can be different, it should not disappoint them or tourism will ultimately fail. People do not come several thousand kilometres to see the same dirt, pollution, industry and degraded environments that they have at home.

Tourism thus depends on the quality of the environment for its success, and good tourist development requires the protection and even the improvement of the environment. The most important tourism resources are the natural beauty of the area, its distinctive or exotic character, its recreation possibilities, and the cultural interest of the people. The hotels, resorts, transportation networks, recreation facilities and other tourism infrastructure can complement but never completely replace the dependence on environmental resources.

The basic problem with tourism development is that tourism facilities and the tourists themselves have impacts on the environment. If care is not taken, the tourism development itself can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends. This problem can be particularly serious in developing countries where the environment is often fragile and easily degraded, and where the government may not have much capacity to protect the environment or manage the impacts of developers.

Economic and social impacts

The economic and social impacts of tourism are a big subject that cannot be covered thoroughly here. They should be examined in detail for any large tourism development project.

Economically, tourism can create jobs for local people and bring money into the country. However many tourists like their comforts from home, and it is often necessary to import a large part of their requirements, so that much of the money may leave the country again to pay for these imports. If the resorts and hotels have been financed by overseas investors, they will also want to export their profits. The developers may want the government to improve the airport, roads and other infrastructure, and possibly to provide tax breaks and other financial advantages, which cost the country money. The remaining benefit to a developing country from some kinds of tourism development may thus be small indeed. Other kinds of tourist facilities provided by villages or financed locally may be economically more interesting.

The social impacts of tourism may also be important. Most jobs for local people in the tourist industry are as servants, house maids, waiters, gardeners and other menial work that may give people a sense of inferiority. At the same time the tourists come from other societies with different values and lifestyles, and because they have come seeking pleasure, they may spend large amounts of money and behave in ways that even they would not accept at home. Local people seeing the tourist example may want to live and behave the same way. Tourists may also, out of ignorance or carelessness, fail to respect local customs and moral values. These and other social effects may be among the most important long-term impacts of tourism development.

Environmental impacts of tourism facilities

Tourism development usually starts with the construction of hotels, resorts and other places for tourists to stay. In addition there may be restaurants, night clubs, and recreation facilities such as golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, and marinas. These facilities require a lot of space, perhaps on land that has traditionally been used by local people. Land and resources used for tourism are not available for other uses; developers may even want to keep local people away from beaches, reefs and lagoon areas reserved for tourists only. Whenever possible, tourism developers prefer to build on the coast, where the hotel will front on a beach and perhaps a coral reef, yet the coast is a fragile and vulnerable area with the greatest conflicts between uses.

The construction of these facilities can have the same kinds of impacts as any other construction projects, such as soil erosion, changes in water runoff, and damage to natural environments. If the resort is on the coast, the plans frequently call for changes in the coastline, such as the creation or improvement of a beach, the construction of an artificial island, or the dredging of a harbour or building of a dock for tour boats to use to pick up and leave off the tourists. These changes may upset normal coastal processes and be very difficult to maintain. Coastal hotel sites themselves are often vulnerable to storm damage, erosion and other problems because of their exposed location.

Tourist developments also require resources that may be scarce in a rural area. Water may be in short supply, yet tourist use of water is usually much greater per person than among the local population. Tourists require large quantities of high quality food; if it cannot be produced locally, it will have to be imported.

The sewage from large hotels can be a source of pollution if it is not treated and disposed of carefully. Most hotel projects include waste water treatment plants, but these can be difficult to maintain in developing countries and need to be monitored regularly. Tourist facilities also produce large amounts of solid waste which can add to the existing solid waste disposal problems.

Infrastructure requirements

Any major tourist development requires a good airport where large jets can bring tourists from overseas countries. Visits by tour ships may require improved docking facilities. Roads may have to be built to resort sites, or improved for tour buses. Water and electricity supplies may have to be increased. All these kinds of infrastructure require investments which must be added on to the direct cost of a tourism project.

Building roads, airports and docks can have major environmental impacts which are beyond the scope of this unit. Their overall effects, however, may be positive as well as negative. Such facilities benefit local people as well as tourists, reducing the isolation of remote areas and increasing the convenience of travel within the country and overseas. Tourism development can thus support useful expenditures that could not be justified for the local people alone.

Damage from tourist use

Tourists are often unaware of how fragile some rural environments are. They may trample vegetation and thus cause erosion, or disturb birds and wildlife. They may leave their rubbish behind, littering the environment. They are apt to break corals as the walk or swim over the reef. Even anchoring in a fragile reef area can result in significant damage to corals. Tourists love to collect corals, shells, butterflies and other pretty objects as souvenirs, but too much collecting can damage the natural environment. Fishing is sport for a tourist, but it may take away resources needed as food in nearby villages.

Where a few tourists may do little damage, thousands of them can be a disaster. Think of the difference between one tourist breaking off a piece of coral, and hundreds of tourists each taking a piece of coral; a reef could quickly be stripped of its corals and shells. Areas subject to heavy tourist pressure should be protected from damaging activities. Laws may be needed to protect wildlife and to control collecting.

The increasing demand for curios such as corals, stuffed turtles, turtle shell jewelry, mounted butterflies, and traditional objects made with rare bird feathers or animal skins can threaten rare species with extinction. The manufacture and sale of such objects should be prohibited or strictly controlled. International trade in endangered species is illegal, and tourists can be fined and have such objects confiscated. Shells for handicrafts or collectors, and trees used for carving can also be wiped out locally or reduced to low levels when too much is used to supply the tourist trade.

Planning tourism development

One major question to be answered in planning tourism development is what scale of tourism is appropriate for the local environment and culture. Every place has a carrying capacity that cannot be exceeded without bringing about serious changes or even the collapse of important resources or systems. While some small-scale tourism can be fit in almost anywhere, large scale tourism can cause major problems if it is not planned very carefully.

The number of tourists an area can absorb should be decided before tourism development goes too far, because there always will be pressures for bigger and bigger developments. The appropriate scale of tourism may be determined by the most limited resource, such as water or coastal land, or by the desire to prevent serious social or cultural impacts. How many people, for instance, can a community receive comfortably as visitors, or how would it feel to be outnumbered by the tourists in your own village?

Comprehensive planning for tourism

Unlike most development projects that only involve a specific site or area, tourism frequently depends to some extent on an entire country or large rural area. It is therefore in the interest of the tourist industry to see that the overall planning of the country's development includes the requirements of tourism. As more governments begin environmental planning and make physical plans (including town plans, master plans and coastal zone plans), it is essential that these plans include the sites of particular scenic or recreational potential. The coastlines, vistas, swimming beaches, waterfalls, mountains and lagoons that tourists visit and photograph are capital assets just like hotels, but they are generally not owned by the tourism interests that benefit from them. Only careful comprehensive planning, and often the understanding and support of the traditional owners, can protect these resources from degradation and destruction.

Planning helps in making choices between conflicting uses, or in finding ways to make them compatible. It should aim to locate unsightly or polluting activities, like industrial areas, fuel storage depots, rubbish dumps, etc., where they will not destroy the beauty of a town or coastline or conflict with tourist sites. In many towns, there are already too many cases where urban pollution is making tourist sites or beaches unsightly or unsafe. Planning early for tourism development can help to avoid damaging and expensive errors and also to prevent the gradual erosion of environmental values significant to tourism.

Improvements that help tourism, like better transportation, tree planting, restoration of historic sites, urban beautification and cleanliness, also improve the environment for the local population. Tourism development can help to stimulate general community improvement.


One area where tourism interest coincides with the long-term interest of a country is in the conservation of nature and traditional culture. Tourists are particularly attracted by unusual vegetation, birds and wildlife, by coral reefs and lagoons, and by distinctive cultures, customs and life styles. Very little has been done to develop these resources for better tourism, and ways need to be found to make them available without putting them at risk or degrading them.

The development of protected areas such as national parks and reserves can be one way to protect a country's heritage and to make it available for local education and tourism. The investment in facilities such as trails, signs, picnic shelters and visitors' centres is usually repaid through tourists who come in larger numbers and stay longer because there are more things to see and do.

Conservation areas will also attract special categories of tourists with interests in botany, bird watching, wildlife, nature photography, skin diving, archaeology, etc. Such kinds of tourists are generally more interested in the country they visit and less apt to cause serious social impacts.

Overall, tourism tends to be a mixed blessing in its benefits and impacts on the rural environment. If it is allowed to grow unplanned, it can have serious social and environmental impacts while providing little real economic benefit. If developed with care, it can bring many advantages to small rural communities with few other resources. 


Arthur Lyon Dahl. 1980. Conservation planning and environmental monitoring for tourism development. p. 125-128. In D.G. Pearce (ed.), Tourism in the South Pacific: the contribution of research to development and planning. Proceedings UNESCO Tourism Workshop. N. Z. MAB Report 6. Department of Geography, Univ. Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Reprinted with revisions in S. Pac. Commission Env. Newsletter 4:22-26 (1982).

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Last updated 2 July 2008