With World Environment Day last Saturday and the progressive lifting of travel restrictions due to Covid-19, the question of tourism’s impact on the environment is once again an issue. Perhaps even more so than before. Can we satisfy our desire to get away from it all with a clean conscience for the “afterworld”?

Tourists wearing surgical masks walk by the Trevi Fountain in downtown Rome on August 19, 2020 (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)
Tourists wearing surgical masks walk by the Trevi Fountain in downtown Rome on August 19, 2020 (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

The pandemic had a brutal impact on the tourism industry, giving us an opportunity to rethink our models, including travel, in order to build the famous “afterworld”. Theoretically. But new solutions still have to be implemented to compensate for the economic shock of the total shutdown of international tourism for months, notably in the developing countries that often depend on this industry.


The Covid-19 pandemic – the tourism industry brought to a standstill

According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), the entire sector went into a recession phase during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is due to the various lockdowns and successive border closing imposed by many countries. In 2020, the tourism and travel sector accounted for 272 million jobs around the world, contributing to 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Its sudden shutdown was problematic for most economies, but even more so for developing countries. For them, tourism is an economic powerhouse and its slowdown has an immediate impact on land use planning, transportation, agriculture, craftsmen and the construction and public works sector.

It is the second most prosperous industry in Africa, with 55% growth expected between 2017 and 2027, but it came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic. Part of the revenue from this growth was supposed to go, directly or indirectly, to environmental conservation. The impact has hit park management, community conservation efforts and, more generally, the jobs of some 23 million Africans, most of whom live in rural areas rich in biodiversity. With the loss of this income and the increase in socioeconomic and food pressures, populations have turned more to non-sustainable practices such as poaching and illegal logging.



In Morocco, some establishments saw a 70% drop in their visits in just a few months. This loss of activity has imperiled the very existence of many businesses. Fearing their inability to deal with the situation, some countries such as Mexico were tempted to prioritize the economic aspect over health concerns; they kept their borders open and adopted health measures that were as flexible as possible, without lockdowns, without fines and without Covid tests for tourists. This policy’s results in terms of infections and deaths are now strongly criticized.

This crucial sector is now on track for a rebound and notably counts on vaccination campaigns. At the end of May, in Madrid, the International Tourism Fair welcomed nearly 5,000 companies from 55 countries, 50,000 professionals and 37 international delegations. Its slogan: “Tourism is back”.


Environment and tourism: should we just pick up where we left off?

While there may be many reasons to be happy about this return to normal, there remain many reasons to be worried about it. At a time when the international community is trying to avoid global warming above the 1.5°C threshold, rebooting a machine that will generate 5 to 6.5 billion metric tons of CO2 a year by 2025 seems a bit like playing with fire.

To use sociologist Rodolphe Christin’s expression, tourism as it has been practiced in recent decades is a “world-devouring parasite”. Especially in that, as a friend that is a bit of a traitor, it slows down the diversification of business activity in the countries visited such as those in the Mediterranean basin, papering over the real problems while leading them down a dead-end alley. Any unforeseen event – a pandemic for example – can drastically accentuate inequalities between countries, notably between the developed and developing worlds. Tourism is obviously going to bounce back, but what kind of tourism do we want and how do we limit its negative externalities?


Sustainable tourism: new ways of traveling

Are there more sustainable ways of travelling? Other than the vaccine passport, how did the crisis change the tourism industry? Could it be an opportunity to rethink the sector and our practices? Tourism that is sensible, clean, responsible, sustainable, ecotourism… there are plenty of ideas for establishing new norms. A general standard can be summed up as follows: travel less often and not as far, but for longer stays, and discover worlds that are as just as rich and unknown as those at the other side of the planet. Green tourism requires us to work harder to protect nature by avoiding overcrowded sites, emphasizing “soft” modes of transport and eco-responsible lodging, while avoiding disturbing natural habitats, waste and the use of plastic bottles. The aim is to respect the sites visited and those who live there and focus spending on locally-made products.

Although vacations will always exist and it will once again seem normal to seek out wonderful places to spend them, one fact is certain – mass tourism cannot go on without a high cost for the environment and development. It will have to be reinvented so that it doesn’t die or kill others. For this, a solution lies in increasing awareness in civil society of the impacts of a sector that evokes pleasure, curiosity, leisure and many other components of our existence that justify its continuation.



The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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