If Only Wanderlust Weren't So Wasteful.

The tourism industry is unsustainable; but that's starting to change.

Lydia Loopesko
October 18, 2022
Sign that says "wanderlust" with an arrow on a ski slope with trees in the background and snow around

The tourism industry is booming. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourism accounts for a total of about 1.4 billion international arrivals a year, 56 times what it was in 1950. The huge increase in numbers of tourists has left many site managers grappling with how to maintain the beauty and character of their sites while also enjoying increasing revenues.

With these people come their things, many of which are often left behind, either purposefully (as in disposable goods), or unintentionally. The more remote the site, the greater the issue of waste disposal. The elements atop Mount Everest, for example, make removal particularly difficult as many items are discarded in favor of climbers’ safety. Racked with exhaustion on their way down, some climbers jettison their bulky items slowing them down and causing a safety risk. These items can later become a hazard for other climbers in the high winds of Base Camp 4.\

A mountain with mounds of trash surrounding it

But most tourist waste is meant to be discarded. Tourists dispose of tons of plastic bottles every day, not to mention all the plastic cups, plates, forks, and food wrappers they use. Based on an analysis by UNEP, European tourists generate about 1 kg of waste per person per day, a number that doubles for American tourists.

As an example, Machu Picchu, the beautiful mountain citadel, is bursting at the seams with visitors. The city, built for an estimated 750 people, was visited by 1.4 million people in 2016. Multiply that number of people by their waste and the amount is staggering. Yet the only ingress into the deep mountain valleys or the area are by train. And what comes in must come out; any waste must therefore take up valuable space on crowded trains that would otherwise bring in tourists.

The issue is even worse when trash is left on beaches, where it can be quickly transported across the world’s oceans and can have a tremendous toll on marine life. In 2018, the island of Boracay in the Philippines was closed to the public for a period of six months while the whole island was rehabilitated and cleaned due to the effects of excessive human occupation.

A beach with trash covering the sand and ocean and palm trees in the back

Yet, landfill waste is not the only issue; humans produce large amounts of human waste. In the frequent cases where waste disposal systems are unfamiliar to tourists, improper disposal can cause serious back-up and damage to fragile sewer systems. Backed up human waste can go on to infect the water supply and cause environmental degradation.

The problem of waste is not only reserved to what we produce, but also to what we consume. Tourists expect a certain level of service and amenities, a level that is often ill suited to local resources. Pools, fountains, hot showers, and daily laundry services can put a strain on more arid climates. On the eastern African island of Zanzibar locals are allocated 30 liters of water per day, whereas tourists in luxury resorts can enjoy up to 2,000 liters per tourist per day. And in places where water is scarce, hotels and resorts will viciously fight for their rights to precious water, even setting up guards along pipelines.

So, what is being done?

There are growing discussions about the tourism waste problem (as evidenced by this blog and many others), and there is hope that with this gradual awareness things will change, and they already are. For example, the UNEP published a manual for water and waste management: what the tourism industry can do to improve its performance. This guidance is aimed at helping site managers and local authorities address the inequalities and inefficiencies of the tourism sector.

A mountain with clouds surrounding it

Such calls for action are being heeded. In a 2021 interview, the site manager of Machu Picchu spoke of the issues the site had previously had with tourism waste management. With the help of a local private company, the municipality was able to purchase a trash compacter. More rubbish was therefore able to fit on trains and be removed from the site. The site is also considering a biomass plant to produce energy from organic waste that would help it achieve its goal of being completely carbon neutral by 2050.

Carbon neutrality has already been achieved by the Sydney Opera House, certified carbon neutral since 2018 and is now looking at becoming climate positive. The building has also reduced its water consumption by 30% in the last few years. It’s also making efforts to become a single-use plastic free site and reduce office paper use by 50% while ensuring that paper procured is 100% recycled or certified as sustainable.

These examples of tourist sites taking action do show a positive trend toward reducing the carbon footprint of the tourism industry. Furthermore, the visibility of these sites can be used to highlight the importance of sustainability. By focusing on the important efforts they are making toward being green, they can inform the public of the importance of sustainability and serve as an example for other sites and the millions of tourists that visit each year.

Lydia Loopesko
October 18, 2022

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