How is the rise of global tourism affecting the environment?

Over the last sixty years, the tourism industry has grown from just tens of millions to nearly 700 million in 2004. Across the world, travel is a trillion-dollar industry, and in some countries over half of their GDP comes directly from tourism. But, despite the economic advantages we’ve seen from the growth of travel and international holidays, there are increasing concerns over the effect it’s having on our environment.

The “greenhouse effect”, which is caused by gases like carbon dioxide and methane becoming trapped in the atmosphere, is known to cause global warming. The tourism industry is known for being energy intensive, and a recent study has estimated that around 8% of worldwide greenhouse emissions are now being caused by tourism. The study also shows that between 2009 and 2013 there was an annual growth in emissions of 3%.

This is four times higher than previous estimates that tourism is accounting for around 3% of global greenhouse emissions. The researchers believe that the reason for this is that most previous estimates didn’t account for other emissions linked to tourism, including food, retail services and infrastructure in popular holiday destinations. “Since we provide a more comprehensive and complete scope, our estimates are higher than those provided by previous studies,” said lead author of the study, Arunima Malik.

When it comes to “carbon footprint” ranking, the US tops the list, followed by China, Germany and India. The researchers commented that a significant proportion of this was made up by travel in these countries, and overall half of the total increase in emissions caused by tourism occurred in high and middle income countries.

This study has highlighted the desperate need for more innovative ways to reduce emissions. Daniel Scott, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at University of Waterloo in Ontario who wasn’t involved in the study commented: “People are often surprised at the size of their travel and tourism emissions.”

“A frequent flyer can have a larger carbon footprint from their work or leisure travel than their entire carbon footprint at home. All of international tourism depends on air travel, and technological innovations are urgently required for aviation to be part of the decarbonized global economy.” He added that despite the progress being made in energy efficiency, the growth in tourism means that emissions will continue to rise.

Jukka Heinonen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iceland, said the study is “something that should have been done for some time already.” He added “More and more people are reaching the level of income where they travel. “Many people who are really environmentally concerned and taking actions in their daily lives toward reducing emissions are also global-minded people who have social relationships around the world.”

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