Positive environmental impacts
A counter argument to the negative environmental impacts of tourism discussed in the previous step is that tourism encourages the protection and conservation of our built and natural environments.
In some ways it is easier to focus on the positive environmental impact tourism can have on the built environment as when more tourists come into an area, there is more money to pay for the maintenance and repair of built heritage, such as the Great Wall of China (Fletcher et al, 2018). The negative impacts are also often seen as easier to control in a built environment rather than a natural one.
The creation of national parks, reserves, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, conservation areas etc. around the world encourages and, in some cases, enforces the protection of the natural environment. Though these areas are rarely set up with tourism in mind, rather focusing on conservation efforts, the money brought in by tourism pays for tour guides and rangers in places like Yellowstone Park (USA), the Fjordland National Park (New Zealand), and Białowieża National Park (Poland) as well as paying for anti-poaching efforts all over the world, but especially in areas where animals targeted by poachers are most in danger, like sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Many of these positive impacts rely on ‘getting the balance right’ and the ultimate term referring to environmental impacts – but also applies to social and economic impacts in the context of the sustainable development of man-made activities – is carrying capacity (Kennell, 2014).
This term has held sway since the 1960s and has been defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as:
…the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction.
Though the definition includes economic and socio-cultural impacts, it is more commonly used when addressing environmental impacts (Mathieson & Wall, 1982) and more recently, the emphasis has shifted to associated concepts such as ‘Limits of Acceptable Change Visitor Impact Management’, ‘Visitor Experience and Resource Protection’, and ‘Recreation Opportunity Spectrum’ (Kennell, 2014).
How carrying capacity is managed is dependent on a number of factors including the type of tourism, seasonality, and the nature of the destination.
How can carrying capacity be used to create a positive environmental impact? Is it only used to reduce numbers and therefore mitigate the negative impacts, or can it be used to make truly positive impacts on the destination environment?
Fletcher, J., Fyall, A., Gilbert, D. & Wanhill, S. (2018) Tourism: Principles and practice (6th ed). Pearson. https://locate.coventry.ac.uk/permalink/f/gr8698/COV_ALMA51103766060002011
Kennell, J. (2016). Carrying capacity. In J. Jafari & H. Xiao (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Tourism. Springer International Publishing.
Mathieson, A. & Wall, G. (1982). Tourism: Economic, physical and social impacts. Longman.
UNWTO (1981). Saturation of tourist destinations: Report of the secretary general. World Tourism Organization.
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