The tourism industry indeed has several positive impacts on the environment.
While most people think of tourism as travel for leisure and holidays, the United Nations World Tourism Organization  further assert that ‘tourism is a social, cultural, economic phenomenon which entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes. These people are called visitors (which may be either tourists or excursionists; residents or non-residents) and tourism has to do with their activities, some of which involve tourism expenditure.’
Today, the tourism sector is one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and development around the world with a growing number of destinations and intense diversification. The processes by which tourism affects the environment are not much different from the ways in which humans’ other activities impact on the environment , with environment referring to the natural biophysical surrounding. Basically, tourism development is largely centered on the natural and/or cultural/social environment such as the Parque Nacional Tortuguero in Costa Rica or the Machu Picchu in Peru. In many cases, tourism has played an important role in preserving and protecting the environment. The positive impacts of tourism on the environment include raising funds for natural resource management, boosting conservation practices, promoting sustainable development and spreading ecological awareness.
Tourism can considerably help in environmental preservation (maintain in original conditions) as it involves building a positive relationship between tourists and the environment. Many natural parks and sensitive reserves have emerged over the past years as they are home to various endangered animals and plants. By applying parks fees and the sort, revenues can be directed to their protection and proper management. For example, in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa, all visitors must pay the conservation levy either during pre-bookings or at checkouts; this money is invested in wildlife management, especially to combat rhino poaching. Additionally, tourists and tour operators may provide special fees for conservation activities while governments may levy taxes on certain conservation activities which in turn is used to manage these eco-sensitive regions.
Since the tourism sector is closely related to the environment, many destinations have invested in conserving (sustainable use) their natural assets to charm more tourists. Following the growth in global tourism and nature-based tourism, many national parks are increasingly attracting more visitors resulting in more dynamic and innovative management measures which are considered as advantageous for both conservation and regional development. From marine reserves to bird watching lodges, tourism plays a key role in establishing wildlife and private game reserves thus helping in biodiversity conservation . Also, in regions where there are financial, political and human shortfalls, tourism can play a significant role in supporting conservation on public or private lands. In Vietnam for example, the national parks are recognized as playing an important role in national development; several ministries and agencies are involved in the governance of the protected areas as they are a means to acquire financial resources, create alternative livelihoods and support local socio-economic development .
Moreover, by applying more stringent laws and regulations, illegal trade and over-exploiting of wildlife and flora can be prevented. One of the most successful conservation stories is the conservation of mountain gorillas across the Bwindi National Park and Virunga Massif. Once thought to be extinct by the 20th century, these massive creatures have risen up the ladder from critically endangered to endangered as a result of stringent conservation efforts and policies . Strict measures have been put in place to protect the mountain gorillas in the wild with the level of defense roughly 20 times more than other endangered animals. The African Wildlife Foundation reports that the park has become a national treasure attracting tourists from all over the world for the gorilla treks that can require as much as a $1,500 permit . By working together with the community members who act as guides, own the lodges and thus receive a proportion of the tourism activities’ money, gorilla poaching decreased considerably while interest to protect them peaked.
As tourists become more environmentally conscious and choose eco-friendly practices, tourism stakeholders are also propelled into sustainable practices to meet the market’s new demands. A change in tourism development strategies and infrastructure can be seen in several destinations such as Asia-Pacific where the number of tourists in increasing: hotels are embracing green measures, using renewable sources of energy and natural drainage ponds. In fact, a number of measures has been implemented by tourism stakeholders from the tourist himself to service providers. As the mindset of the tourist swings in favor of sustainable practices, there is less pollution and disturbance in natural sites and more fervor to help in environmental conservation and protection. Hotel managers are investing in technology to decrease environmental impacts such as automated showers or using rainwater for irrigating lawns, tour operators are offering more eco-friendly activities while food distributors are adopting organic planting and farming.
Also, the number of eco-tourists looking for typical nature-based activities and accommodation has increased and thus many eco-lodges have also popped up in national parks and coastal regions. Special attention is given to the construction of ecotourism infrastructure to reduce environmental impacts and disturbance in the natural surroundings. In Costa Rica for instance, eco-lodges built in the Amazon forest are designed to blend in the natural environment and are built using locally available materials; sustainable approaches to handle day-today activities are also included such as disposing of waste in waste-to-energy systems for cooking. In many cases, these eco-lodges actually serve the purpose of protecting these natural sites from commercial development which would cause significant environmental damage in the long term.
One of the best ways in which tourism has a positive impact on the environment is through education. As tourists visit natural sites, they form deeper relationships with the environment which may influence their environmental behavior and attitude positively. This experience can change the way they value the environment and their everyday activities such as engaging in recycling and composting. In many cases, expeditions to remote untouched places such as Antarctica or the Himalayas raises ecological awareness in tourists; by visualizing the clean, pristine environment and how they are being/or might eventually be affected by the consequences of their actions such as climate change resulting from the heavy use of fossil fuels, there can be a change in their environmental behavior. In the same manner, these tourists can encourage their peers and families to go for eco-friendly practices and support conservation projects in their localities, workplaces and online.
It can be seen that the tourism sector has important positive impacts on the environment. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that actually, the relationship between the environment and tourism is quite complicated making it difficult to keep track of the impacts of tourism activities on the natural surroundings. Cause-effect relationships take time to manifest themselves and very often, may be cumulative in nature or indirect consequences of tourism activities or difficult to separate from other human activities in a region. Very often, the most enthusiastic nature advocates such as hunters, photographers and hikers may actually be the ones causing the most damage to the environment . With the growing concern of climate change and its projected devastating impacts on the environment, tourism has become a key element for environmental conservation and raising ecological awareness.