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Rethinking Tourism as an Environmental Justice Issue

Navily Zhen

As we return to normalcy after a global pandemic, people are ready to travel again and explore new parts of the world safely. However, it is important to address the implications of traveling and hospitality, particularly the hotel industry, on the environment and local communities. Tourism has the potential to promote economic development and may even contribute to increased conservation and biodiversity in some destinations. The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”

A nation practicing sustainable tourism is Costa Rica. Costa Rica has established the “Costa Rican Tourism Institute,” which protects national parks and natural areas to gain more tourists and boost the economy through tourism. The country is now a model for nations seeking to manage tourism responsibly. Unfortunately, many tourist nations and destinations have yet to adopt similar practices, instead exploiting local communities and ecosystems.

In many cases, reliance on tourism for economic growth, and tourists themselves, can negatively impact local natural resources and people. The construction of hotels and resorts has diminished the aesthetic appeal of a destination, deemed as “visual pollution” when contrasting these buildings to the natural environment. Constructing hotels also impacts the environment directly as construction erodes soil, uses environmentally degrading materials such as concrete, and displaces wildlife from their original habitats by clearing the land. In Hawaii, where tourism generates 10 billion dollars per year for the economy, the number of hotel rooms has increased from 65,000 to 132,000 between 1985-2010. The intensive usage of water and electricity from this industry has placed an incredible strain on our already limited natural resources. 60% of the animal and plant species in Hawaii are now considered endangered because of the hotel industry.

Tourism and hospitality is also an issue of environmental justice as many low-income communities in the Global South rely on tourism in hopes of gaining benefits. Instead, tourism development is prioritized over environmental conservation, ignoring the well-being of local communities. Native Hawaiians are the poorest, sickest, and least educated in Hawaii. Despite this, the 10 billion dollar industry continues to profit off of these communities, with no revenue returning to the locals. Resorts in Hawaii are also built on culturally significant sites, ultimately affecting their ability to practice their traditional and more sustainable ways of living, including fishing and gathering food. Therefore, there needs to be a shift towards community-based tourism, which aims to involve communities in all aspects of tourism, ranging from planning to active participation. Including local communities and reimbursing them for their contributions to the land is essential in establishing sustainable practices that are also more equitable. Community-based tourism also serves as a more authentic and educational experience for tourists, learning from those who are most knowledgeable on the land and how to best preserve it.

To ensure a just and sustainable transition, sustainable tourism initiatives will guide the future of the tourism and hospitality industries. As current and future tourists, we can adopt a more sustainable mindset to be more aware and careful of where we travel, ensuring that our actions support local communities and protect the local environment.


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  6. Zivrali, E. (2022, July 13). What is Community-Based Tourism and Why Does it Matter? Solimar International.


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