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.
©iStockphoto.com/Laoshi

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.

Tourism's Effect on the Environment

Tourism has become increasingly popular over the last century as more and more people have gained access to car travel, air travel and vacation time from work. One draw for tourists is the world's natural wonders, which are appealing for their scenery and wild, unspoiled beauty. Do you see a paradox for these areas? They must balance visitation and development with environmental preservation. Man-made tourist destinations -- iconic structures of immense cultural or architectural importance -- face similar challenges. The volume of visitors must be controlled because ancient walls and sculptures are often extraordinarily fragile and particularly prone to vandalism.

If left to their own devices, tourists can often be very destructive. Yellowstone National Park is perhaps the best example of such unfortunate behavior. Problems began soon after President Ulysses S. Grant created the park in 1872. Companies cut timber, killed wildlife, farmed the land and even rechanneled some of the hot springs. Tourists carved their names into rocks and trees, broke off pieces of ancient formations for souvenirs, and even put laundry soap in the geysers with the mistaken belief that it would hasten the eruption. In an effort restore order, the United States Army troops, under General Philip Sheridan, occupied the park in 1886 and stayed for three decades. Today, the park operates under a very strict set of rules as it continues to recover from decades of uncontrolled tourism.

Another natural place that has experienced environmental degradation is Mount Everest, though it's less due to ignorance than the sheer difficulty of trash disposal on the world's highest peak. A 1963 National Geographic article dubbed Mount Everest "the highest junkyard on Earth" due to the mountain of discarded oxygen bottles, kerosene containers and climbing gear left on its slopes. After another five decades of climbing, the trash has gotten so bad that climbers plan expeditions specifically for trash collection. For example, in April 2010, concerned climbers began an expedition to remove 4,410 pounds (2,000 kilograms) of garbage from the "death-zone," the dangerous region above 26,250 feet (8,000 meters).

Man-made wonders have also fallen victim to overzealous tourism. One such structure is the Great Wall of China, an ancient series of fortifications 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) in length that are believed to be between 2,000 and 400 years old. This World Heritage Site fell victim to centuries of deterioration from natural erosion and dismantling by local citizens, but it's the estimated 13 million tourists that threaten the one-third of the wall that remains. Tourists have removed bricks and defaced surfaces, while developers created a Disneyland-like atmosphere around some of the wall's more popular sections.

Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple in Cambodia, experienced similar problems, and those in charge responded with around-the-clock security patrols to prevent vandalism and theft. Massive restoration efforts by organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Apsara (a Cambodian authority created by governmental decree in 1995), and the World Monuments Fund (WMF) saved the site -- which hosted 321,000 visitors in 2001 -- from certain deterioration. While efforts to protect such destinations have increased over the last decade, the threat posed by intensive tourism and overdevelopment is still very real.

Tourism's Effect on Communities

It's easy to see why people would pay good money to live in Jackson Hole, Wyo.'s incredible setting.
It's easy to see why people would pay good money to live in Jackson Hole, Wyo.'s incredible setting.
©iStockphoto.com/Laoshi

The effect tourism has on the environment gets a great deal of attention since scenery is often what draws people to destinations in the first place. But it's also important to recognize how tourism impacts communities and residents. Before towns build hotels, restaurants, gift shops and other attractions to accommodate tourists, they're often farming villages or mining towns -- typical places with typical people. Tourism changes all that. Outside business interests buy up land for commercial and residential developments, eventually pushing farmers, ranchers and small business owners out of a job. New people move in, raising land value and changing the identity of the community. Locals soon find themselves living in a hometown they don't recognize.

Changes in a community's identity can often be drastic. A great example of this is Aspen, Colo., a town whose transformation was so dramatic that "Aspenization" has come to describe any uncontrolled, undesirable development. In the early 1900s, Aspen was a mining town on the verge of extinction. But after World War II, the ski industry took hold and Swiss-chalet-style resorts began popping up everywhere. Today, Aspen would be virtually unrecognizable to those who lived there just 60 or 70 years ago.

Some sections of the Great Wall of China are undergoing similar identity changes. At Badaling, a restored section of wall from the Ming Dynasty is almost completely overshadowed by the Western-style development that threatens to engulf it. There, you can ride toboggans or cable cars before sitting down for lunch at KFC and coffee at Starbucks. The development at both Aspen and Badaling are good examples of how the identity of a place can change as a result of tourism.

The other harmful effect of tourism on a community is that the cost of living can become very high. As a destination becomes increasingly popular, more people want to live there, causing the land value to skyrocket, as was the case in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a former agricultural town at the gateway to Teton National Park. When tourism first began to take hold in the 1960s, small lots were selling for $12,500, a high price for the time. But by 2007, the median home price hit $1 million, and the cheapest condo sold for an incredible $512,500. Many local residents who were priced out of their own community decided to relocate. Workers in the town's restaurants, hotels and ski resorts, many of them earning minimum wage, also found it impossible to live in Jackson Hole. This situation caused resentment between laborers and locals, and the newcomers to the town. Unfortunately, communities everywhere now have to deal with these issues as the tourist industry grows around the world.

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