“Unprecedented growth” in the tourism industry could become unsustainable without an equivalent focus on conservation, according to Megan Epler Wood, the director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative within Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Epler Wood said she has worked in ecotourism for over 25 years, researching the industry’s future and global impact. At a lecture Monday, she examined whether tourism has improved living conditions in the areas it affects.
Many researchers in Epler Wood’s field have expressed concerns that the pressure of sustaining a constant influx of visitors has forced businesses to focus on marketing, adding that 80 percent of revenue goes toward promoting additional tourism.
“If tourism keeps operating the way it does, destinations will be very overburdened,” she said. “More money needs to be put into conserving the product that is attracting tourists.”
Locals in many tourist areas believe that while the industry produces significant revenue, it will damage the environment unless investments are also made in conservation, according to Epler Wood.
“In order for businesses to sustain themselves, they need to invest in natural and social capital,” she said.
As an example, Epler Wood cited her research team’s finding that the presence of tourists leads to an overall increase in water consumption, power consumption and waste production.
“The tourists are not paying for these increases,” she said. “Rather, the burden is put on the local community.”
Encouraging native businesses to spend in conservation efforts has been a challenge because “people have great difficulty spending money on future outcomes that are not tangible,” according to Wood.
She stressed that the future of tourism must include a means to conserve the environment and encourage countries to place greater value on their natural capital.
“Traveler costs need to increase — countries around the world cannot afford to give their resources away,” she said. “Citizens of tourist locations need to be informed of the value of the land, in order to make real profits and conserve their destinations.”