Assessing Tourism's Resource Use

Scenarios of an Unsustainable Future

Stefan Gössling und Paul Peeters

Tourism has entered a period of “Great Acceleration” in humanity’s global environmental impact. Even if efficiency gains were substantial, these would be outpaced by arrival numbers, growth in the average distances travelled, and a trend towards greater resource use intensities in a small but growing share of upscale tourism. In the consumption of water, energy, and food, demand for land, and emissions of CO2, tourism’s impact will double within 25-45 years.

These insights question the green growth rhetoric characterizing many current policy documents (e.g. UNEP, UNWTO). Earth systems are now significantly affected by human activities. Critical resources are becoming scarce, ecosystem services increasingly degraded, and pollution and waste increasingly difficult to absorb. Tourism is directly and indirectly implicated in all of these processes.

The tourism system becomes more energy, CO2, freshwater, land and food intense on a per trip and per guest night basis. At the same time, the total number of tourists continues to increase, a result of a growing and wealthier world population engaging in more resource intense tourism.

Our scenario study suggests that by 2050, there will be between 7.77 (Economic Slowdown scenario) and 13.6 (Global Growth)billion tourist trips (domestic plus international) wit a business as usual (BAU) scenario estimated at 13.6 billion trips, compared to the almost 5 billion in 2005. Tourism’s overall resource consumption may grow by between 92 percent (water) and 189 percent (land use) in the period 2010-2050.

Energy use and CO2 emissions

Tourism is anticipated to double its energy use over the coming 25 years in the BAU scenario, despite efficiency gains. Further growth would occur up to 2050, both in the global growth and BAU scenario. In the economic slowdown scenario, even significantly reduced population growth and economic stabilization result in continued growth in resource use, though at far more moderate levels than in the other scenarios.

Both energy and CO2 emissions in tourism are primarily related to transport, which account for 75 percent. However, there are huge differences between the energy needed for different trips. Energy use for a home-based bicycle tour may not require any direct input of fossil fuels at all, while long-haul trips involving flight/cruise elements can require energy inputs exceeding 3000 kg of fuel per traveller. As energy use and emissions are interrelated, both energy and CO2 emissions would double from current levels up to 2037-2038.

Water consumption

Though people also consume water at home, there is evidence that tourism increases overall water consumption. Direct water use ranges between 84 and 2425 litres per tourist per day in accommodation (including water use in rooms, for gardens, and pools irrigation), with activities adding 10-875 litres per guest night.

Biofuels will have an even greater water footprint, as the production of one litre of liquid biofuels currently requires 2500 litres of water on global average. This is relevant, given the (aviation) sector’s focus on biofuels as a main pillar for future “sustainable” development. Food consumption accounts for an estimated average of 6000 litres per tourist per day.

Total water use in tourism will continue to increase, despite anticipated improvements in water efficiency. Direct water use is expected to grow at a slower pace than indirect water use. Changing diets towards higher-order foods, as well as continued growth in fuel use both affect indirect water consumption. Over the next 45 years, water consumption (both direct and indirect) is expected to double, from an estimated 138 km3 in 2010 to 265 km3 by 2050.

Land use

Direct use of land for tourism and recreation purposes include airports, roads, railways, paths, pedestrian walks, shopping areas, parking, campsites, vacation homes, golf courses, marinas, ski areas. Indirect land use may be related to food production, burying grounds for solid wastes, waste water treatment, and industrial areas required for production (computers, TVs, beds, etc.). The area affected by tourism is thus significantly greater than the directly built area.

Depending on accommodation type, area use per bed varies substantially, from 25 m2 needed for B&Bs up to 200 m2 for vacation homes. Up-market hotels and resorts consume most land, while city hotels require comparably small areas.

It is anticipated that over the next 25 years, land use for tourism will double, and almost triple to 2050, mostly because of additional roads, as well as an expansion of air traffic and tourism-related activities. The share of area used for accommodation infrastructure is comparably small in absolute terms, even though it is expected to grow significantly in relative terms. Notably, accommodation may be built in particularly sensitive areas, such as coastal zones. Current land use of approximately 62,000 km2 is projected to increase to 178,700 km2 in the BAU scenario to 2050.

Food consumption

Food production has a wide range of sustainability implications, including land conversion and the associated loss of species and ecosystems. Tourism is also a factor in the consumption of “problematic” foods, such as giant shrimps leading to the deforestation of mangroves. The difference between standard diets at home and diets on holiday is at least 0.5 kg per person per day. It is likely that foods consumed in tourism also include a higher share of higher-order foods. Global tourism may thus have resulted in the consumption of almost 39.4 Mt of food, 10.9 Mt more than in an “at home” scenario. By 2050 food consumption in tourism will have doubled from 39.4 Mt in 2010 to 82 Mt.

Towards sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism will be defined as the point in time when absolute resource use will begin to decline and get far below current levels, despite a growing number of travellers, indicating a development in recognition of the physical boundaries of the planetary system. This will require considerable efforts to reduce resource consumption, and to minimize emissions of CO2 and land use.

Ultimately, this is in the interest of tourists, industry, and government, as tourism is dependent on stable resource flows and a healthy functioning global eco system, including stable climate. Critical planetary boundaries have already been transgressed with regard to biodiversity loss, nitrogen cycle, and climate change, and the prospect of systemic disruptions is no longer an issue of the long-term future. Clearly, global tourism is not only increasingly less sustainable, but also becoming increasingly vulnerable to such systemic disruptions.

Stefan Gössling is a professor at the School of Business and Economics at Linnaeus University, Kalmar, and at the Department of Service Management, Lund University, Sweden. He has been working on sustainable tourism since 1994, focusing primarily on transport, mobility, energy, and water.

Paul Peeters is an associate professor at the Centre for Sustainable Tourism & Transport, NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands, specialising in tourism transport and its impacts on climate change and other environmental impacts.

This article is based on the academic paper “Assessing tourism's global environmental impact 1900–2050” by Stefan Gössling and Paul Peeters (2015) in: Journal of Sustainable Tourism,

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