par Juliette Paemelaere (EnvIM 2018)


“Anywhere in the world that you go diving, you shouldn’t grab or take away any marine life”


This excerpt from the 2013 Guide on appropriate touristic behaviors issued by the Chinese government revealed the global lack of environmental education of the Chinese people. Though Chinese tourists globally hold a terrible reputation when travelling abroad, scant international literature exist on their behavior at home. Considering the national concentration of natural resources and the fact that China will become the biggest tourism market by 2020 and has the most important domestic market, the topic is a central concern in terms of environmental conservation, which has received increasing attention in recent years.

Tourism globally developed so much it is known to be a key economic sector for many countries around the globe. Its contribution to GDP increased by 25% between 1995 and 2005 and is now one of the main generators of employment according to the World Trade Organization. China ranks first in the world for travel’s and tourism’s contribution to employment (66,086,000 jobs in 2014). Tourism in China has got an enormous potential; as the country concentrates 40 of the 911 UNESCO sites worldwide and tourism is highly encouraged at the government level through national policies (Outline for National Tourism and Leisure 2013-2020). This article discusses the environmental impacts of mass tourism on the natural Chinese capital, inspired by my personal travelling experience during the Golden Week, especially drawing on examples from Zhangjiajie National Park, one of the main Chinese landmarks ranked AAA by the UNESCO, which has already been put under a lot of environmental stress due to uncontrolled touristic fluxes. While a few features in this article are specific to the Chinese tourists, the main conclusions drafted here are relevant to most types of mass tourism.


Entrance line for the bus in Wulingyuan (Zhangjiajie National Park, Paemelaere, 2018)


A connected world… at what price?

The main reasons for the sudden development of tourism lies in the democratization of air transport, the increase of global income and the standardization of retirement and salary work and its annual leaves all over the globe. This democratization allows people to travel at a lower price than a few years ago, but is also a central factor of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to estimations from the WTO, tourism has the potential to contribute up to 5.3% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with transport accounting for about 90% of this. Travelling accounts for about 50% of traffic movements, concentrating 65 to 73% of the total energy consumption[1].

Local air pollution caused by traffic jam can be a main concern in touristic areas with high density. The use of renewable sources of energy should increase to face the growing demand from tourists. Sustainable transports have good potential for enhancing local air quality. In Zhangjiajie National Park for example, the buses are hybrid vehicles, and shuttle trains have been constructed to avoid air pollution within the park. The park managers emphasize this initiative on public signs.

(Zhangjiajie National Park, Paemelaere, 2018)

Here, the low concentration of nitrate, nitrite, sulfite and hypochlorite, which are oxyanions is highlighted. Though the English translation may not be very accurate, the Chinese characters n°3-6 are often used to deal with air pollution levels in popular mainstream Chinese media. It does not correspond to the scientific standard but means that air quality is good.

Cheaper flights and trains have a key role in the increase of tourism, causing substantial atmospheric pollution.

World Bank & Statista numbers, 2018

One study by the International Civil Aviation Organization from 2001 estimated that a single transatlantic return flight emits almost half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person per year. Though aeronautic companies like to boast about the reduction of carburant use by planes, many of these innovations belong to what is called “greenwashing” (disinformation disseminated by an organization through marketing techniques so as to present an environmentally responsible public image). In 2007 the Airbus A380 for example was introduced as an environmental friendly plane. Even if it can welcome more passengers and therefore reduce the number of commercial flights, according to the Ifen (Institut Français de l’Environnement), the energy efficiency gains are not sufficient to prevent a substantial increase of the aerial sector environmental impact, as traffic is more important. This impact is, in some extend, also linked to the emission of ozone depleting substances substitutes such as HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), a cooling fluid having a high radiative global warming potential, hundreds to thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, rising the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Civil aviation is responsible for 2 to 3% of the world’s total use of fossil fuels and up to 3.5% of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect (the greenhouse effect known to be caused by humans).


Tourism development: a tricky opportunity for growth

The strongest growth of tourism is expected to occur mainly in the global South, with 4/5 of the 50 poorest countries in the world relying on it as their main economic resource. One main reason for this resides in the preservation of natural landscapes in less industrialized and less urbanized parts of the world. As tourism allows a territory to open up, get infrastructures, and provides local people with employment, it is often welcomed as an opportunity to get wealthier. This justifies investment and can even benefit local economies when properly managed. However, the related sustainability challenges are even greater for the global South, as these various countries seldom have the necessary resources to protect their environmental heritage in a context of economic growth.

Sustainability issues do not only concern environmental impacts. They also include the cultural and social consequences of mass tourism. The absence of preservation of privileged touristic destinations and the lack of conservation of natural areas can have dramatic effects on local communities, such as land eviction, massive displacement or gentrification. These issues are even more exacerbated in the poorest areas, as Alain Escadafal showed in an article on The Conversation.

Source: Linsheng Zong et. al., “Research on environmental impacts of tourism in China: Progress and Prospects”, Journal of Environmental Management, n°92, pp. 2972-2983, 2011

In the wake of tourism globalization and its rise as an important economic sector worldwide (currently contributing to 10.4% of global GDP according to the World Travel and Tourism Council), the need to address sustainability in a comprehensive way drastically increased. To invite governments to take action, the World Tourism Organization placed a first milestone in 1999 when it published the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. Other key international treaties tackling environmental impacts of tourism are the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism from 2002, or the Guidelines on Biodiversity and Tourism Development published in 2003. The Convention on Biological Diversity also includes tourism as a potential threat to nature preservation. The WTO quickly became central in the international regime of tourism. It released a “Guide for Policy Makers” to integrate sustainability in their development plans. This Guide directly addresses the numerous adverse impacts tourism can have on biophysical aspects of key environmental areas.


Biophysical aspects at the core of nature tourism

Tourism deals with common goods and sometimes rely on areas of public concerns. Air, water, natural and cultural resources can correspond to such areas. More than any other economic sector, environment is a central component of tourism and a factor of competitiveness. The tourism environment corresponds to the group of elements or interactions centered on the socio-cultural components. It goes beyond the biophysical environment, essentially composed of natural elements (water, air, sound, soil, flora and fauna and soundscape). Impacts on the physical integrity of the natural capital are particularly counterproductive to maintain tourism. Pollution for example creates aesthetic pollution as it degrades landscapes, just like buildings and roads over numerous natural sites do. The touristic highlight loses quality and saturates as the crowd grows, which limits the enjoyment of valuable sites.

The environmental impacts of tourism gained recognition as governments realized tourism could destroy valuable economic assets. Often, users of prized touristic sites are willing to pay more for sites of high environmental value and areas with rich ecosystems. An ecosystem consists of the community of organisms plus the associated physical environment, such as a forest, a grassland or a lake, etc. It is the basis of human survival and development. Ecosystems value varies according to different factors such as their provisioning, the regulation and the social, environmental and economic services they provide. Main touristic landmarks are often ecologically fragile ecosystems. The Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) for example attract visitors because of their environmental richness. The KBAs are qualified by the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) if they meet one or more of 11 criteria, clustered into five categories: threatened biodiversity, geographically restricted biodiversity, ecological integrity, biological processes, and, irreplaceability. Because of their status, they require specific management. In theory, the KBAs cannot be exploited for touristic purposes, but governments, jointly with private companies, regularly covet these unique landscapes to develop national parks and touristic infrastructures. This increases the need for compromises between economic interests, local activities, and cultural traditions.

Because of the very specific interaction between tourism and environment, governments cannot just consider sound planning policies as a bonus. Poorly managed sites with rich ecosystems tend to lose their value over time for several reasons. Some of them are linked with the noise pollution generated by tourists for example, which can cause distress to wildlife in KBAs and similar rich areas, as noise pollution pervades their natural habitat. Such wildlife exist in most Chinese national parks, like the Swan Goose in Qingdao, or the Snow Leopard in Sanjiangyuan. Noise can affect foxes and other animals that rely on their hearing when they hunt for example. If endangered species are disappearing from the site that has been preserved because of their presence, it loses its inherent value. Even when the species are not endangered, there is also a risk of harmful behaviors from disrespectful tourists. Earlier this summer, four Chinese threw rocks at a Giant Panda in a natural reserve. There is plethora of such examples, proving the need for prevention.


A prevention sign in Zhangjiajie National Park (Paemelaere, 2018)


Artificial paradise

Tourism has long been linked to intense construction development to welcome travelers like in Benidorm. Operators have tended to overbuild infrastructures in very unsustainable conditions to maximize profit. Rapidly constructed accommodations can turn into energy costing infrastructures and represent a danger to human health. These infrastructures include accommodation, restaurants or roads. Their development is linked to increased CO2 emissions because of cooling, heating, cooking in restaurants, cleaning, etc.

Touristic accommodation construction development has also caused the modification of natural habitat. As tourism requires substantial rapid investment, this phenomenon occurs fasters in touristic hotspot. For construction purposes, building materials are obtained from the extraction of sand for example, which degrades existing coastlines and affects coral reefs. Vast lands can be deforested to face infrastructural development, especially in unregulated tourist areas. Hinterland forests are often targeted with priority, leading to soil erosion, desertification and destruction of habitat. This in turn impacts many birds and mammals, which have sometimes already been endangered. Land planning is central to avoid such adverse effects. Intelligent tools of landscape ecology such as Geographic Information System constitute an interesting strategy to maximize land potential. Performing an Ecological Quality Assessment can also support decision-making.

Tourism is not always based on enjoyment of relatively natural sites. Another form of tourism has come along with the development of man-made infrastructures such as ski resorts, or aquatic parks for example. This type of resorts aim to simulate natural landscapes in a reproductive manner. This phenomenon has been called the “disneylandization of the world” (a concept coined by Sylvie Brunel in 2006). It generates environmental concerns when it includes the deportation of animals outside of their natural environment for example, or the on-site reproduction of natural elements. Tons of sand can be displaced to create artificial beaches. High quantities of salt are used on skiing trails to make them more convenient, which degrades the alpine vegetation. Moreover, the energy supplying for such resorts is responsible for massive emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matters. Their water consumption is as consequent, and modifies water courses and affects fishes and marine life. Again, the examples are numerous and widely known: boat cruises, jet skiing, etc. China just opened a state-of-the-art artificial ski resort of 17,000 square meters, as part of the national plan to win the 2022 Winter Olympics, and it already includes the biggest indoor ski resort of the world (80,000 square meters), in Harbin. One can fear the environmental consequences of one such infrastructure, especially when entrance fee is so low (roughly 8€) that it is very likely to concentrate massive crowds.


Crowdie seasons

According to the CIHEAM, “negative impacts from tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use within acceptable limits of change”. This situation is typically referred to as “over-tourism”, as a consequence of mass tourism. This tendency derives from short-term spatial and temporal concentration. Crowds attract crowds, just like for urban development patterns, with self-maintained socio-economic clusters.

The main issue is actually not the mass of tourists, but the density of people. Touristic sites face increased demand especially during incoming peaks, such as national holidays. A small number of tourists in a vulnerable land can generate as bad or even worse impacts on the environment than a bigger quantity in an adequately-planned area. When local infrastructures are not designed for a large number of people, the damages can be severe and sometimes irreversible. This is especially true for developing countries with fragile amenities like water treatment system or sewage that can quickly be deregulated with the influx of tourists. Such impacts are likely to trigger health issues such as epidemics, just like droughts have a great potential to degenerate into water shortage for the locals.

A relevant illustration of the concentration phenomenon is the trampling impacts on vegetation and soil on popular hiking trails. They are numerous, as observed in the table below:


Fresh water, a non-renewable resource, is also put under consequent stress during tourism peaks. Water consumption increases a lot during national holidays, with the use of water parks and water activities like jet skis, museums, botanical gardens, but also as a consequence of personal use. According to the WTO, the daily use of water per capita by tourists in developing countries can be as much as 10 to 15 times greater than by local residents. Tourism beingoften concentrated in warm weather and arid areas characterized by scarce water supply, supplying tourists with the required amount of water implies that operators may put local communities at risk. Depending on local means, new sources of water cannot always be developed. Attention has recently been given to innovative policies, especially following the World Economic Forum “Go to Low-carbon Travel and Tourism Industry” in 2009. Staggering energy consumption over the year for example can help avoiding too much pressure on local resources and the corresponding negative effects (local air pollution and water eutrophication for example).


Leave me some space

If concentration is the main issue of tourism, there is a great need for regulation measures. Seasonality is a major issue for the sustainability of tourism, as it creates peaks and troughs. During peaks, increased congestion usually trigger the worst negative impacts on the environment. National holidays are usually commonly shared and officially planned. Yet, the responsible authorities do not seem to address seasonality. What is even worse, they encourage massive tourism. In China, the Outline for National Tourism and Leisure (2013-2020) highlights the need to respect the “Regulations on statutory paid annual leave entitlements for Chinese workers”. Similarly, a new ticket price reduction policy was implemented in 2018, with 981 state-owned scenic spots either free or cheaper than in 2017.

During the Golden Week, a national holiday starting October 1st, half of the country travel at the same time, with 726 million people recorded this year according to the China Daily, which is 9% more than in 2017. In Zhangjiajie only, one of the most frequented Chinese scenic spots, more than 40,000 tourists a day have access to the park (the Mont Saint Michel, one of the most visited French touristic hotspot, only receives 9.000 visitors a day). Lines are grotesque – with up to six hours spent queuing throughout the day and prevent the full enjoyment of the fantastic landscapes. The amount of people allowed in the park is ridiculous.


Arrivals and income of the park from 1982 to 2005 (Source: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park Administration, 2006)


Endless line for entrance in Zhangjiajie National Park (Paemelaere, 2018)

The required infrastructures were lacking. Buses, cable cars and shuttle trains were too scarce to cope with the massive crowds. So… If bigger fluxes are expected and can be regulated, why does the government remain inactive? The lack of regulation proves an obvious interest in the income generated by the tickets price and individual consumption on food, hotels and public infrastructures, whatever the human and social prices are.

Comprehensive tourism management strategies for accommodation and infrastructures in general have to be integrated into tourism development strategies. They need to be more bottom-up and integrate land planning tools just the way sustainable urban policies are designed to avoid such backlashes.


Litter, litters, littering

Last but not least, with tourism come a grotesque amount of solid wastes. Do tourists behave differently on holidays than at home and pay less attention to their ecological footprint? This can be increased by their will to relax, have a different lifestyle to break with the routine, which means not to cook for example, or taking longer showers for example. The tendency to produce more garbage on holidays exists worldwide. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 4.8 million tones, 14% of all solid waste, is produced each year solely by tourists. Because of peak seasons, waste management systems can face overloading, improper waste disposal. Another explanation of this tendency lies in waste production from hotels, restaurants and other facilities which use a huge amounts of products, very often delivered in personal single use plastic packaging. China faces a crucial challenge in this regard, due to a national issue of over-packaging and the lack of awareness on this issue. Also, people try to be as fast as possible to save time for the main attractions. This time pressure is especially true for China because of the massive crowd.

As tap water is not drinkable in China, a lot of plastic bottles are used, especially when travelling, as people lose access to their water boilers. Many people eat take away food packed in non-recyclable plastic wrappings such as Polypropylene or Styrofoam and drink from plastic cups with straws. Many snacks are conditioned under vacuum packaging, and those are eaten by most Chinese people on holidays. At any shop, sellers systematically wrap the goods with plastic bags.

Considering the income generated by touristic fluxes, more investments in appropriate infrastructures could be performed. For example, only a few public bins exist, which discourages people from recycling their garbage. Constructing more of them is not a luxurious investment and should be an easy way to avoid left-overs to pervade the natural sites. Based on best available practices, governmental actors should provide touristic sites with suitable infrastructure in general, to avoid landfill and increase recycling practices mostly through garbage sorting. New technologies like underground waste disposal system, already used in Bergen, or recycling vending machines like those found on Cyprus beaches are concrete examples. It seems Chinese municipalities tackle this issue through end-of-pipe solutions, addressing treatment instead of prevention. Prevention lies in environmental education, which is a heavy issue to address. Numerous local employees are responsible for collecting all on-site garbage. At the end of the day, not many plastic packaging and bottles remain outside of the public bins, which provides a short term solution to the issue, as well as an income for these people. Yet, this type of after-hand care does not foster individual awareness. Such public services may become counter-productive as individuals rely on them, and do not shift neither their own behaviors regarding waste nor their consuming habits.


Educating the masses

The behavioral factor accounts for much. Chinese tourists globally hold a bad reputation for being disrespectful toward their environment and other people (especially in lines). This is true abroad but also within the country, and striking because of the density of people. Chinese news regularly report damages caused by tourists in high environmental value sites. Recently, a young Chinese was arrested for having destroyed a 200.000-400.000 year old fossil formation in a geo-park in Zhangye, Gansu province. Intentionally damaging scenic zones has already been criminalized in the Chinese law but is seldom enforced. I witnessed a lot of disrespectful behaviors such as casually throwing bottles (even big size ones) on the ground or getting

One of the many awareness signs in Zhangjiajie National Park (Paemelaere, 2018)

Education is key to progressively modify people’s habits. Different actors can influence the tourists’ behaviors. As people travel massively, tour guides have a central role to play in raising awareness about sustainable behaviors and respect for nature. Some hotels have an environmental friendly policy and green standards about which they like to communicate. In the bathroom for example, they invite clients to be cautious with their consumption of water or toilet paper. However, these hotels remain the exception. In China, the mainstream touristic consumption model largely relies on single-use items refurbished daily. Other incentives are aimed to increase public awareness on their surrounding environment. For example in Zhangjiajie, QR codes are often seen on trees, linked to a WeChat page (every single Chinese with a smartphone holds a WeChat account) explaining the botanical aspects behind them.

Zhangjiajie National Park (Paemelaere, 2018)

This can raise people’s curiosity and bring them closer to their environment through digital communication. Other signs urge people to respect endemic species like monkeys. Although they clearly indicate not to tease or feed them, people keep doing so, showing no respect for the site regulations. Tourist information centers are numerous across the park and well located in the main transportation hubs, but the delivered information is not environmentally-oriented. They only provide tourists with maps and offer souvenirs, food or other type of goods. These centers could display more data on the environmental impacts of tourism. Travel agencies also represent a good opportunity to raise awareness, generate cultural exchange and to create an educational creative platform aimed at orientating behaviors and encouraging sustainable practices through games for example.


Making tourism more sustainable: a new economic opportunity

Generally, the mainstream Chinese culture today does not promote environment-friendly behaviors. They are still considered as of lower interest. It is therefore crucial to develop a positive image around sustainability, even for tourism, and to create an attractive environment for its promotion. The need to reduce the environmental damages caused by mass tourism is greater than ever, and China especially has everything to gain from investing in sustainable practices. A commonly held cliché is that the country is too polluted to be visited. Tourists may cancel their trip because of air pollution peaks. Not only does mass tourism harm the environment, but global climate change in turn also affects tourism, as natural disasters reduce the appeal of some geographical regions. South-East Asia has already suffered from this increasing phenomenon.

According to the WTO, “making tourism more sustainable is not just about controlling and managing the negative impacts of the industry”. This invites to think of tourism as an inner environment-friendly activity benefiting the ecosystems on which it relies. As cheap fare tourism may open the floodgates to an environmental catastrophe and the end of natural authentic experiences, it is urgent for government and business to integrate the environmental and social costs of activities in their economic price. Tourism can contribute in conservation through financial contributions such as special fees for parking, and higher park entrance fees. This has the potential to support local economies while preserving the environment – or at least avoid to over-harm it. State actors’ responsibilities should not be forgotten in that regard. Increasing the cost of foreign tourism, instead of lowering tickets price, is a way of limiting the environmental impacts. It reminds people of the sites’ value in economic terms. Since this type of policy can be considered as elitism, it is essential for national governments to enable their citizens to enjoy freely the national heritage while discouraging massive fluxes from overseas. Policies need to shift from a quantitative approach based on influx indicators to more relevant perspectives such as the individual financial expenditure. Limiting the afflux of tourists in vulnerable areas is central in that regard

In its guide for sustainable tourism techniques, the WTO formulates a range of recommendations, from working with national parks and private reserves, to promoting development and management of ecotourism while encouraging landowners to practice sustainable land management. Education remains central to make people collaborate and modify their consuming patterns and behaviors towards the environment. On-site information must be provided at relevant time and place. Knowledge needs to be spread among tourism enterprises as well, to encourage them to support sustainable practices and integrate those in their business model.

It is urgent for the Chinese Governmental authorities to encourage sustainable behaviors in tourism. Worryingly enough, the “Outline for National Tourism and Leisure” published in 2013 does not even refer to environmental incentives. Policy-makers could implement taxes to penalize unsustainable practice such as damaging a natural site. Similarly, government representatives can provide financial support to encourage sustainable practices for private tourism enterprises. When required, state actors should partly contribute to new infrastructures investments through Private Public Partnerships.

Giving hope, Hangzhou city in Shanghai surroundings can be considered as a good example of sustainable tourism policies. In 20 years, it developed the largest bike-share scheme in the world, cleaned its air and created many parks around its remarkable canals, to maximize the public enjoyment of its famous landmarks.




[1] Beckena S, Simmonsb DG, Frampton C. “Energy use associated with different travel choices.” Tourism Management 2003 ; 24:267-277

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