Can tourism kill a destination?

Image Gallery: Famous Landmarks Parts of the Great Wall have already been hurt by tourism. See more pictures of famous landmarks.

Whether you travel to the mountains, the beach or a theme park, vacations are a time to relax and take a break from the daily grind. Individually, these excursions can hardly be considered harmful. After all, experiencing a national park by car or touring a historic site alone causes few noticeable negative effects. It's the cumulative effects of many pleasure trips -- more than 1.4 billion in the United States in 2001 -- that damage or disrupt many tourist destinations.

Tourism, as an industry, does offer some significant economic benefits. In 2008, Americans spent a total of $767 billion on tourism-related costs like hotels, air travel, food and shopping. This spending funneled down into individual communities in the form of income for business owners and sales tax revenue for state and local governments. For example, Gatlinburg, Tenn., a tourist town in the Appalachian Mountains with just 4,000 permanent residents, brought in almost $12 million in taxes during the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year. Tourism also creates jobs. Hotel staff, airline pilots, souvenir vendors and other tourism-related jobs totaled 5.9 million in 2008. For these reasons, economically depressed towns suffering from a loss of industry or population often try to attract tourists to stop or even stay in their communities.

While these economic benefits are impressive, there are reasons why scholars have called tourism a "devil's bargain." Tourism either poses a threat to the natural or man-made environment, or it poses a threat to the local culture and society (and sometimes it does both). Vacation destinations are unique in that they must try to accommodate a large number of tourists without disturbing the setting to which the tourists are attracted. Places as varied as Yellowstone National Park and the Great Wall of China must contend with this dilemma -- allowing as many people as possible to experience the sights without disturbing habitat or desecrating ancient architecture. Similarly, the communities that attract tourists are altered. Longtime citizens may not recognize their hometown once tourist development takes hold.

On the next page, we'll take a look at how tourism can hurt the destination's environment.