This report analyzes the environmental impacts of the tourism industry, which is the third largest retail industry in the United States, behind only automotive dealers and food stores. In 1998, travel and tourism contributed $91 billion to the U.S. economy, supporting 16.2 million jobs directly and indirectly. While extensive research has documented the significant economic impact of such service industries as tourism, little has been written about their effect on environmental quality.
This study uses a framework developed from the industrial ecology literature to assess the impacts of the tourism industry on the environment. Three categories of impact are discussed: direct impacts, including impacts from the travel to a destination, the tourist activities in and of themselves at that destination, such as hiking or boating, and from the creation, operation, and maintenance of facilities that cater to the tourist; "upstream" impacts, resulting from travel service providers’ ability to influence suppliers; and "downstream" impacts, where service providers can influence the behavior or consumption patterns of customers.
We have identified impacts from tourist-related transportation, including aircraft, automobiles, and recreational land and marine vehicles; tourist-related development, tourist activities, and direct impacts of the lodging and cruise industries. Although the direct impacts of the lodging and cruise industries and impacts of tourist-related transportation were not very significant, we found on the other hand that tourist activities can have significant impacts, depending on the type and location of activity. Tourist-related development can also have significant cumulative impacts on water quality and the aesthetics of host communities. Opportunity for upstream and downstream leverage within the tourism industry is considerable. Hotels can exert upstream influence on their suppliers to provide environmentally sound products, such as recyclable toiletries. Similarly, the cruise industry can use its leverage to convince suppliers to improve the environmental quality of shipboard products. Opportunity for downstream influence exists as well. Travel agents can influence where and how a tourist travels, and tour operators can educate tourists about ways to minimize their impact on the environment.
The fragmented nature of the tourism industry is not conducive to regulation that encompasses all aspects of the industry. Therefore, educational efforts aimed at supporting existing regulations and encouraging environmentally responsible behavior where no regulations exist seem most promising as a management scheme. These educational efforts should be framed in accordance with the targeted audience (i.e., tourists and industry sectors). Tourists may be more receptive to educational initiatives that focus on the environmental benefits of altering their behavior, while industry sectors are more likely to be responsive to educational efforts that emphasize cost savings and an improved public image.