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How harmful is tourism for the environment?

July 29, 2022

Heat waves, drought, forest fires — the past few weeks in particular have made us increasingly aware of climate change. To what extent is the travel industry contributing to this?

View from a beach bar to the sea with tourists on Palma beach in Mallorca
The travel industry also harms the climate — with the greatest culprit being flyingImage: Lakomski/Jan Huebner/imago images

When it's high season on the Spanish tourist island of Mallorca, it's not unusual to have up to 10 aircraft on the horizon at the same time. Exactly 2,014 arrivals and departures were scheduled at Palma's airport last weekend — an average of one takeoff or landing every 90 seconds. During the summer months, this is the normal volume of air traffic for Mallorca. And this has vast consequences for the environment.

Tourism accounts for 8% of global emissions

"There are few places in the world that contribute as much to global warming as Mallorca," says Jaume Adrover, a spokesperson for the Mallorca-based environmental group Terraferida. "And this is due to only one activity: tourism."

Over the past 20 years, he says, the island's airport has registered 1.4 million aircraft passages with 195 million passengers — the majority of them vacationers from places like Germany and Great Britain.

The consequences of tourism to the island for the climate are enormous, Adrover says. In the course of the past two decades, 100 trillion tons of CO2 alone have been emitted by air traffic on Mallorca alone.

Spain Mallorca Planes over wind mills
An airplane every 90 seconds: the normal volume of traffic in the skies over MallorcaImage: picture alliance/United Archives

The Balearic island is just one example. According to experts, tourism causes about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"At first glance, that may not sound like much," says Wolfgang Strasdas, head of research at the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Eberswalde University of Applied Sciences in Germany. But, he adds, there aren't many other industries that account for a larger share.

And every single sector must make its contribution toward reduction, he explains. "Tourism is an important industry when we talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Breaking down emissions sources

First and foremost, it's about mobility, as most emissions are caused by travel to and from the destination.

"Of course, what I eat on vacation also plays a role," Strasdas points out. Tourists eat a much more "emissions-intensive" diet, such as eating more meat than usual and due to the presence of food buffets at hotels and restaurants. 

According to the German Hotel and Restaurant Association, about 17 to 50 kilograms (37 to 110 pounds) of CO2 are produced per guest and overnight stay, depending on the star category of the hotel.

And water consumption per person in five-star hotels amounts to a staggering 522 liters a day.

The cruise industry also has a lot of catching up to do.  "Although individual pilot projects give cause for hope, the industry as a whole is not yet on course to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement in time," says German environmental group NABU, for example.

The deck of a cruise ship with pool and sun loungers
A cruise ship journey is by no means climate-friendlyImage: TUI

'We can't go on like this'

The tourism industry seems to have realized that the days of carefree travel are over. "We can't go on like this," said Norbert Fiebig, president of the German Travel Association DRV.

Air travel and the emissions caused by it are the industry's "Achilles' heel," he adds. The goal must be CO2-neutral mobility. The World Tourism Organization also places the onus on the industry itself.

CO2 emissions from tourism rose 60% between 2005 and 2016, according to the Glasgow Declaration, which was presented at the UN climate change conference in 2021 and which 600 representatives of the tourism industry have now signed. They all pledged to become climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest.

Tourists posing for photos at Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain
Cities like Barcelona, but also Venice and Amsterdam are groaning under the weight of 'overtourism'Image: Michael Weber/imageBROKER/picture alliance

But that will not be easy. The aviation industry, of all sectors, is unlikely to see any fundamental change, at least in the short term. 

"Progress in this area has been so slow that serious doubts are warranted about the aviation industry's ability to achieve its zero-emissions target by mid-century," the think tank Transport & Environment stated.

Waiting for alternative fuels to be developed could prove counterproductive, it adds, as large-scale production is still a long way off. In addition, the volume of air travel continues to increase year after year, which negates any savings.

As of now, flying less is the most effective way to reduce emissions in this area.

Airport passengers board a plane in Vilnius
Flying is responsible for the majority of the tourism industry's emissionsImage: Micha Korb/picture alliance

Making airfare reflect true costs

There's another issue: Anyone looking to book a last-minute vacation to Mallorca in August, for example, can find flights from Germany for as little as €140 ($143) — round-trip, mind you.

For Strasdas, "That's far too cheap." Airfares need to reflect environmental costs, tax advantages still enjoyed by the airline industry need to be eliminated, and an international CO2 emissions trading system needs to be introduced, he believes.

If prices were higher, the fact that many people might then no longer be able to afford a vacation to Mallorca is not something he considers problematic. "It's not a human right," he says. "It's not about taking away someone's ability to have a vacation." He adds that people can visit other destinations closer by.

Adrover would also like to see a reduction in the number of vacationers coming to Mallorca. But he doesn't really believe this will happen. He is concerned about investment plans currently being made by the airport; in Palma alone, the airport operator is investing around €200 million into modernization, according to official sources.

Adrover suspects, however, that the airport's intends to clandestinely expand its capacity.

Then it could be even more crowded in the skies over the island.

This article was originally written in German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent