Exploring the relationship between tourism and ecological footprint

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In today’s world, tourism is gradually becoming a dynamic sector which has emerged as an alternate engine for economic development. Many countries, especially developing countries like Seychelles, Costa Rica and Peru are increasing adopting tourism as the main pillar for development. There is a growing body of literature that highlights the tourism industry as a key contributor to carbon emissions, particularly due to air travel and associated social, economic and environmental impacts. Visitors have detrimental effects on destinations if the carrying capacity of the area has been breached. The growth of tourism in many regions of the world has ignored concerns of increasing ecological resource use. Hotels, attractions and other tourism-related infrastructure are now recognized as sites of resource over-consumption.

For understanding the relationship between ecological footprint and tourism, it is imperative to first grasp the concept of sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism is a form of tourism which endeavors to reduce impact on the environment and local culture, while generating employment opportunities for the local population. It is a form of tourism that should create a sustainable and ethically equitable economy through social solidarity and integration. Sustainable tourism can be achieved through consensual respect for the environment which simultaneously provides income generating opportunities and is economically affordable for tourists. The tourists as an important stakeholder should also be awareof sustainable tourism and should adhere to norms and rules which do not degrade the environment of the destination. According to the European Commission, sustainable tourism is defined as, “any form of development, improvement or tourism activity that respects the environment, preserves in the long term the natural and cultural resources and is socially and economically durable and equitable”.

Studying eco-sustainability of tourism areas is part of sustainable development research. In tourism areas, the ecosystem comprises both the environment and the human system. The environmental system is basically physical, whereas the human system, consisting of both tourists and residents, is the dominant factor driving ecosystem change. If the combined influence of tourists and residents exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, which is the ecological threshold of eco-sustainability in the tourism area, then the structure, function and stability of the environment will degenerate. Hence, eco-sustainability assessment of tourism areas should be based on analyses of the relationship between the influence of tourists and residents on the environment and the environmental carrying capacity.

The ecological footprint (EF) concept was introduced in the 1990s by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel. The concept is rooted in the search for indicators of sustainable development and more in particular the wish to measure how the human appropriation of the earth’s resources relates to the carrying capacity of the earth. The aggregated use of land is seen as a good common denominator to express the impact of humans on the earth’s natural resources. The EF measures the amount of biologically productive land and sea area, an individual, a region, a given population or a human activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the corresponding emissions (such as carbon dioxide from fossil use), using prevailing technology and resource management practices. It compares this measurement to how much land and sea area is available. The EF is usually measured in global hectares. Biologically productive land and sea includes area that supports human demand for food, fibre, timber, energy and space for infrastructure and absorbs the carbon dioxide emissions from the human economy. The EF is a tool to assess sustainability and can be used in any area focusing on any activity. When used for tourism, the EF basically assesses the land directly used for tourist infrastructure, the average footprint for food and fibre consumption.

The EFA of tourism in the Seychelles leads to a number of insights. First, the environmental integrity achieved in the islands is based on a trade-off. Protected areas largely contribute to the image of a green, pristine and sustainable destination that attracts wealthy tourists. Consequently, tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner and contributes directly and indirectly to the financing of protected areas. The Seychelles are unique in their effort to attract high-value tourists, which has made it possible to successfully compete with other destinations in the tropics, to generate foreign exchange earnings of substantial volume, and to implement large protected areas excluding economic activities. This has contributed to the image of a pristine, sustainable destination. However, the footprint analysis revealed that this success is based on a trade-off because a large ecological hinterland is needed to maintain the system. The ecological ‘costs’ of environmental protection are reflected in thefootprint analysis, which reveals that the Seychellesare dependent on a large ecological hinterland to maintain the tourist system. An average holiday in the Seychelles corresponds to 17/37% of the annual footprint of a citizen of an industrialized country. However, the biologically productive area available on a global per capita level is only 2 ha, setting aside 12% of the global area for biodiversity protection. A single journey to the Seychelles thus requires almost the same area as available per human being on a global scale.

To conclude, tourism is widely regarded as a major world industry. Recent interest within tourism research has focused on the development of lower ecological cost forms of tourism. Although a single definition of sustainable development has yet to find widespread acceptance, the general principles, approaches, and indeed overall desirability of sustainable tourism are positively regarded. A key component of sustainable tourism is the amount of ecological resources that tourism and tourists consume. In order to quantify this level of resource use, the Ecological Footprint is presented as one possible indicator. The Ecological Footprint is an area-based indicator that amalgamates many different areas of ecological resource use into one number; the amount of land (ha) required to support the lifestyle of one individual. The Ecological Footprint creates a value for a specific set of human activities and behaviors that can be directly compared to others. This indicator could be used in a tourism context to compare different types of accommodation, transportation, activity, and tourist food choice.