Nothing seems to be able to quell the human urge to visit foreign places. The tourism sector currently accounts for 5 percent of global GDP and continues to grow, particularly in developing countries. Tourism is one of the top five export earners in 150 countries, and the number one export in 60. While this may be good news for national economies, if not properly managed it can be bad news for the environment and local populations. Tourists are traveling more often and to more distant destinations, using more energy-intensive, fossil fuel-based transport, and the sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution has increased to 5 percent of global emissions. Other unsustainable practices, such as excessive water use, waste generation, and habitat encroachment are threatening ecosystems, biodiversity, and local culture.
But if done right, tourism can be a positive force for both the local economy and the environment. Green tourism aims to reduce poverty by creating local jobs and stimulating local business, while establishing ecologically sustainable practices that preserve resources and reduce pollution. Currently, far too little of tourism profits touch the people living in and near tourist destinations. Increasing local involvement can not only generate income but also encourage communities to protect their environment. Investing in energy efficiency and waste management can reduce GHG emissions and pollution and also save hotel owners and service providers money. Under the right circumstances, natural areas, biodiversity, and cultural heritage—three of the main reasons people travel in the first place—can all reap the benefits of sustainable tourism.
UNEP hosts the secretariat of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism an initiative designed to inject sustainability principles into the mainstream of tourism policies, development, and operations.
For more information on UNEP’s work on green tourism, please visit the Tourism and Environment Programme.