Irresponsible tourism is any activity that risks disrespecting, exploiting, polluting, or causing suffering to the local wildlife and human population as well as the local environment. This involves making choices and taking actions with little thought of the impact or consequences for the marine ecosystem: plants, animals, habitat.
There are many examples of irresponsible tourism in destinations around the world; here the focus is marine tourism.
The amount of money spent on global leisure travel annually is in the trillions of dollars with nearly 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals worldwide. Tourism is an important source of income in many developing nations and a major expense for many people.
Holidays are an escape. They are the time to leave stress behind, to relax, and to enjoy. People don’t want to feel guilty about travel or think of themselves as irresponsible travellers. Unfortunately, irresponsible tourism can have a massive negative effect on the very places and creatures we are travelling to see. We cannot afford to not think about our impact.
Marine ecosystems are already stressed from the sheer number of human issues (acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction, global warming, pollution, etc.) affecting them. Thoughtless or destructive behavior from tourists (whether intentional or not) does not need to add to our ocean’s problems. While the effects of irresponsible tourism on the ocean are not at all on the same level as other stresses, it is an area, with a little thought and some behavioral changes, that we can personally affect.
We must all be aware of the consequences of our choices when we interact with the ocean and consider our actions, as well as those of others, when we visit marine environments.
Tourists cannot help but have an impact on their environment when travelling and there are a myriad of ways in which they do. The issues mentioned here can help you think about the choices you make as a tourist and the impact of those choices. This list is by no means an exhaustive one.
Touching Marine Life
Humans are tactile animals. And curious ones. As children we touch everything as a way to learn. Unfortunately, in the marine environment, our touch can cause unintentional, but lasting, damage.
Many marine species (sea turtles, manta and other rays, whale sharks and other sharks, etc.) have an anti-bacterial coating over their body to protect them. Bacteria and parasites are often unable to permeate this mucus layer thus keeping the animal healthy from disease or infection. When humans touch this slimy layer, we can damage or remove it, unintentionally making these animals vulnerable to sickness and disease.
Fragile coral reefs can easily be broken by our touch or accidental kick. Decades of growth can be eliminated in one careless move of our bodies. But even a gentle, curious touch can cause damage. Like other marine animals, corals protect themselves with a protective mucus layer. By touching a coral and removing that layer, we expose corals to harmful pathogens. Even worse, this can trigger a stress response; the coral ejects the plant species that help to support their life, causing the coral to bleach.
Feeding Wild Marine Animals
Individual tourists sometimes feed wild ocean animals in an attempt to get a closer look or to get a better photograph. Some tour operators regularly feed marine animals in order to guarantee sightings for their guests. These practices present a number of risks to wild animal species.
While the seashell trade is not well known, it is a massive industry that can have devastating effects on marine life. To keep up with demand from tourists, molluscs are collected in industrial quantities (30-100 tons per month in some areas). They are collected by dragging nets along the seafloor, causing habitat damage, and are left on shore to dry – leaving the animal inside to suffocate. Both the animal and the habitat are killed for the seashell souvenir.
Empty seashells removed from the beach will not destroy an aquatic habitat nor kill its former inhabitant. However, these empty shells are still important for the ecosystem both on the beach, and when they are washed back into the ocean. They break down and provide nutrients for the growth of other species, provide material for birds’ nests, a home or attachment surface for algae, sea grass, sponges and other microorganisms, fish use them to hide from predators, and hermit crabs use them as shelter. And the removal of large shells and shell fragments can alter the rate of shoreline erosion.
As much as 30 million fish, 1.5 million live stony corals, and 10 million other invertebrates each year are removed to make small souvenirs or curios. Many of these come from threatened species or were otherwise unsustainably removed from the ocean. The more demand created for these products, the more will be removed from the ocean to make them.
Vacation is the time to indulge ourselves. Accordingly, tourism creates a substantial amount of waste and pollution, putting a huge strain on resources in isolated or developing parts of the world. Tourism can produce twice as much waste as local residents, much of it single-use plastic. This is especially problematic in areas without proper waste management systems in place.
Reef Damaging Sunscreen
Chemicals in sunscreen and personal care products (soaps, shampoos, perfume, etc.) have been shown to harm or kill marine species. Annually, 14,000 tons of sunscreen and 82,000 different chemicals from personal-care products wash into the oceans. When you swim, dive or snorkel, the products on your body seep into the water and can be absorbed by coral and other marine species.
Captive Marine Animal Parks
There are over 3000 captive dolphins and more than 50 orca in over 330 different entertainment parks around the world. Wild cetaceans (the order that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) swim 40-100 miles per day at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour and dive hundreds of meters deep. The concrete tanks where they live in marine parks are 200,000 times smaller than their natural habitat.
Millions of animal lovers enjoy dolphin shows around the world believing that they are cruelty-free and aiding in conservation. In reality, they are unable to engage in any of their natural behaviors; from swimming and catching prey, to choosing their mate and living in family groups, their lives are not cruelty-free.
Damage to Fragile Ecosystems
In their eagerness to take photos or enjoy the ocean, many careless tourists are not mindful of protecting and preserving fragile marine habitats. Shallow corals are frequently destroyed by people walking on them, kicking them with fins, or dropping boat anchors without regard to the habitat below. The more people using an environment, the more damage it will suffer.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Tourism is responsible for approximately eight percent of global carbon emissions. From plane flights and other transportation to lodging and tourism activities, may things contribute to this carbon footprint. For example, a one-way flight from London to New York emits the same amount of greenhouse gas as the average person in Zimbabwe in one year. However, to cater to visitors, many hotels and restaurants import the majority of their food products; the further it travels, the higher the emissions. As much as 80% of food consumed in Pacific islands comes from overseas. Hotels catering to tourists also have additional power needs, from swimming pools, to air conditioning, to fancy lighting, it all contributes to tourism’s carbon emissions.
Tourism relies heavily on coastal regions which necessarily means an increase in coastal development. Mangrove forests and seagrass meadows are frequently removed to create open beaches for tourists. Piers and stilted restaurants and hotels are built on top of coral reefs. Beaches that have served as nesting sites for sea turtles for generations are disturbed by tourists and tourist activities on the beach.
Cruise ships continue to increase in popularity, and in size. With an average of 4000 passengers and 1650 crew, they have adverse effects on the marine environment. Not only can they dump garbage and untreated sewage at sea, but oil leaks into the water further pollute the ocean. In order to bring guests ashore in ports of call, anchors may be dropped. In George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman, more than 300 acres of coral reef have been lost to cruise ship anchors. Similarly, in order for smaller islands and remote locations to receive cruise ships, they must create a port which requires dredging a deep enough area. This can directly destroy coastal marine ecosystems and indirectly, through sediment build-up, eventually degrade adjacent coral reef ecosystems as well.
Responsible tourists should aim to protect the natural environment they are travelling to enjoy. There are many ways to reach that goal. Overall, consider your choices, before you travel and while on vacation, and weigh the benefits against any negative impact. And use your voice – if you see others (tour operators or tourists) damaging habits or wildlife, don’t be shy, ask them to consider the environment. It’s up to each one of us to decide for ourselves that we don’t want to contribute to the destruction of these precious ecosystems.
Don’t Touch Animals or Fragile Habitats
An awesome picture isn’t worth the life or health of a marine animal or destruction of its environment. It is easy to think that our one quick touch doesn’t hurt anything, but think of everyone else and the cumulative effect.
Don’t Feed Wild Marine Animals
While it can be tempting to feed animals or participate in tours that feed animals to bring them closer, there are lasting negative effects. It is better, and more memorable, to observe a rare animal in the wild, behaving naturally. This not only shows us the beauty and variety of nature and all who share our blue planet, but also helps to remind us of the need to protect it.
Make Responsible Purchases
First, consider if you need it and if you will use it once you are back home. Let your memories and your photographs be your souvenirs. If you do want to make purchases, choose sustainable alternatives. Remember that just because something is for sale, doesn’t mean it is okay to purchase. Reconsider any wildlife or plant products. What is it made of? Where did it come from? How was it taken? Can nature replace it? When in doubt, don’t buy. Instead, support local vendors making traditional crafts out of sustainable materials or by repurposing items.
Here are several guides that can help you to make responsible purchasing decisions:
Make a Good Buy, Buyer Beware, Be Informed, Buy Informed – A Guide for Travelers, Caribbean Traveler’s Guide
Don’t Collect Seashells
Seashells are part of the ecosystem and serve a function within it. Even though the animal who lived in the shell isn’t there anymore, others will use it. Or it will break down and provide nutrition or a habitat for others. Does one shell really make a difference? With over a billion people traveling internationally, what if they all took just one shell? We must remember that we do not live alone on the planet.
Support Responsible Tourist Operators
More and more tourist operators are prioritizing the marine environment over easy tourist dollars. Reward this choice by choosing these operators. Don’t participate in tours that feed wildlife. Be wary of opportunities where you are guaranteed to see wild animals; it’s better to have a chance of seeing an animal behaving naturally than to risk that animal’s health and safety for your enjoyment.
Don’t Visit Captive Marine Animal Parks
Travelers have a responsibility to research captive facilities prior to visiting. By giving your tourist dollar to these parks, you are supporting them and encouraging the exploitation of these animals. Instead, look for organizations that take tourists to a natural setting to witness animals in the wild. Regardless of conservation claims by parks with captive animals, the best way to protect marine mammals is to protect their habitat and leave them free. Truly enjoying the beauty of these majestic animals means seeing them in the ocean where they belong.
Use Ocean Safe Personal Care Products
To limit your use of sunscreen, seek shade during the day whenever possible and wear clothing that covers your skin when in the sun. For the sunscreen you so use, purchase reef-safe sunscreen without chemicals that can harm marine life. The Protect Land + Sea Certification website lists ingredients and safe products.
Reduce and Reuse
Tourism doesn’t have to contribute to local waste problems but can be part of the solution. Limit your waste while travelling, especially in areas without adequate waste management services. Do not use single-use plastics but bring a reusable cup or mug, and bags while on vacation. Tourism has the potential to build awareness around the issues and inspire infrastructure improvements. In order to preserve the natural beauty of our vacation destinations, we must reduce the waste we create and set an example to inspire change.
Be Aware of Environment
When interacting with the ocean, be aware of your impact. Don’t stand on coral or fragile habitats. Don’t drop an anchor in sensitive marine environments; use a mooring instead. Similarly, talk to tour boat operators to ensure that they are aware of the environment; encourage development of a sustainable tourism industry that protects local marine habitats.
Make Responsible Travel Choices
When planning a vacation, think about your impact and make choices with the environment in mind.
Spread the Word
Many of the irresponsible behaviour of tourists come from a lack of understanding of the situation. Spread the word about making responsible tourism decisions. Social media makes this easy to do. Share your travel experiences and encourage family and friends to protect marine animals and habitats on their holiday.
Many organizations work to educate people on responsible and sustainable tourism. Others work to protect marine environments while still encouraging their recreational use.
Learn more about some of these organizations, their work, and what you can do:
Many of the successes in irresponsible tourism are on a small scale – personal and community changes prioritizing wildlife and the environment. However, there have been some national laws helping to encourage responsible behavior.
Canada Bans Captive Whales and Dolphins
In 2019, Canada’s parliament passed legislation preventing whales, dolphins, and porpoises from being bred or held in captivity bowing to public pressure.
Hawaii Bans Coral Reef Damaging Sunscreen
In 2018, Hawaii became the first US state to ban certain sunscreen from sale or distribution that contains chemicals which damage coral reefs. As more people choose reef-safe sunscreens, all manufacturers will be encouraged to change their ingredients.
Palau Bans Damaging Sunscreen
Also in 2018, the small island nation of Palau banned the wearing or selling of sunscreen containing 10 different coral reef damaging chemicals. A movement is slowly starting as the US Virgin Islands and Bonaire, a Dutch Caribbean island, have introduced similar bans.