A snake swallowing its own tail: mass tourism is destroying destinations, says Martin Šauer

19 Jul 2022 Jana Sosnová

Tourism contributes about eight percent of global CO2 production. Between 2005 and 2016, tourism-related emissions rose by more than half. In an interview, economist Martin Šauer, a specialist in destination development and tourism, explains why it is important to travel sustainably and what steps each of us can take.

What do we mean by sustainable tourism?

The classic definition of sustainable tourism is based on the general concept of sustainable development. However, the problem with this concept is the internal contradiction in its individual components. Sustainable development rests on three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. We can only speak of sustainability when all three components intersect. Simply put, it’s about trying to still benefit from tourism economically, while minimising pressure on a destination’s environmental and social resources.

Could you give a specific example?

For example, Copenhagen is not seeking to reduce its overall visitor numbers, but it is looking for ways to reduce pressure on the main tourist attractions and maintain a positive relationship between locals and visitors. This includes the broader redistribution of tourism revenues in terms of the space, time, and different segments of the offer. In addition, destination management seeks to modify visitor behaviour in favour of more sustainable forms of consumption – in terms of transport, accommodation, sales of local products, etc. Importantly, Copenhagen does not see tourism and its development in isolation from other of the city’s functions, but instead sees it as a means to achieve the overall sustainability of the city.

To what extent was sustainable tourism developed in the Czech Republic before the pandemic, and what is its current status?

This is a difficult question to answer because we haven’t got the data to back it up. While academics and institutions have come up with different sets of sustainability indicators, no-one is measuring the sustainability of tourism in the Czech Republic in any long-term and comprehensive way. Recently, we’ve seen this topic receiving more attention in the media. At the same time, preferences on the demand side are also changing, but these involve rather specific market segments. From a global perspective, however, we aren’t observing much change. We’re not flying less, and we’re not looking en masse for environmentally friendly accommodation.

Are local people’s attitudes towards tourism changing?

Yes, they are changing. In many places we’re seeing at the very least apathy, and in some places even strongly negative attitudes towards tourists. In general, these relate to seasonally congested locations. Here in South Moravia, Pavlov is a good example.

What negative economic effects does mass tourism have on local communities?

These include, for example, rising prices – especially on the property market – and the displacement of indigenous people from town centres. In some cases, there’s also dependence on tourism or seasonal employment.

Are we also seeing social and cultural impacts?

Socio-cultural impacts are generally not as clear and immediate as their economic counterparts and are therefore more difficult to identify and measure. As a result, they’re also less publicised. One example is the so-called commodification or adaptation of an area’s culture to the demands of tourism, where local traditional religious ceremonies and folklore festivals are offered as a commodity and adapted to the demands of tourists. An important factor is negative attitudes towards visitors. Local people may have a number of reasons for such attitudes, such as overcrowding in public spaces or inappropriate tourist behaviour. Nor should we overlook the rise in crime or damage to cultural and historical monuments. Last but not least, we can also see a dualisation of society, see it being split into two socio-economic classes – poor and rich – between which a deep gulf is emerging.

What are the negative environmental impacts of mass tourism?

We’ve probably all got a pretty good idea of the impacts on the environment. For example, there’s the reduction in biodiversity, damage to ecosystems, or excessive pressure on non-renewable natural resources such as water, land, and energy. Other negative impacts include air pollution or large amounts of waste.

What is a tourist trap?

A tourist trap emerges when tourism, through its own large-scale development, destroys the potential of a destination to attract visitors in future. It is like a snake swallowing its own tail. Sooner or later, the aforementioned impacts of mass tourism will begin to negatively affect the natural, cultural, and social resources of the destination that initially made the place attractive and drew visitors.

How does sustainable tourism relate to the climate crisis?

First of all, in relation to transport and its emissions. However, tourism also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. Tourism as a whole contributes about 8% of CO2 emissions, of which almost half are caused by transport. The biggest impact is, of course, air transport, which is the least environmentally friendly. Around 12% of emissions are then generated by the production of the goods we consume during our journeys, and 10% by the consumption of food and drink. Accommodation accounts for 6% of tourism emissions. Here, for example, the operation of air conditioning and heating in rooms and swimming pools is most demanding. Between 2005 and 2016, total tourism-related emissions increased by 60%.

Where in the Czech Republic is sustainable tourism doing well?

In the Broumov region, for example. They’re building their regional identity and tourism offer on three pillars. The first is the rock towers and formations of the Adršpach-Teplice Rocks and the Broumov Walls. Next up, churches and monasteries also attract visitors: the Broumov Monastery and other rural Baroque churches are national cultural monuments. In addition, there’s a varied cultural programme reflecting the inner vitality of the region. The third pillar of the offer consists of the local chimneys, which represent the region’s industrial history.

Incidentally, Broumov is currently bidding for the title of European Capital of Culture for 2028, competing in the Czech Republic with Brno, Liberec, and České Budějovice. Broumov is also a typical peripheral region with less than ideal accessibility.

So it’s a quiet, isolated location, then?

Except for selected holidays and summer vacations, the region is quiet and time passes more slowly there. And that’s what the locals want to enjoy. Despite the trend for short stays, they’re choosing to offer longer stays, trying to engage guests in authentic local life and give them the opportunity to identify with the local identity. Last year’s season was characterised by people looking for peace and reflection away from the hustle and bustle. The monastery and other buildings offer the ideal environment for self-discovery, catching up on rest, and regenerating one’s mental and physical strength. According to local residents, such guests are ideal for Broumov, because they take a genuine interest in the place and become, in effect, transient residents.

Can other destinations learn from the Broumov region?

Unfortunately, this is not a one-size-fits-all recipe for every destination. Prague, Český Krumlov, and similar locations would find it very difficult to apply such a strategy on a large scale. Their fame and image will always give rise to mass tourism, so targeted regulatory measures are more appropriate in such cases. Similarly, the rule of spatially dispersing visitors over a wider area cannot be universally enforced. While this strategy may be successful in some places, elsewhere, especially in protected areas, it’s advisable to concentrate visitors in selected locations and keep them from straying too far.

How do you think tourism has changed since the pandemic?

The question is whether we can even talk about a ‘post-pandemic’ period. Covid is here to stay, and we have to learn to live with it. We don’t know in what form it will coexist with us. Moreover, we’re currently living in a very unstable period. The war in Ukraine, high inflation, the threat of stagflation, the likelihood of further waves of Covid – all these are factors that complicate any picture of the future. Personally, I don’t like making forecasts. However, we are now seeing a very rapid recovery in tourist demand. After long, enforced abstinence, people are keen to travel again. From a sustainable development point of view, I believe that things are likely to return to ‘business as usual’. As yet, the remedies of sustainable tourism are not working very well, or only in specific cases. The key to change lies in the nature of our consumer behaviour.

What steps can ordinary tourists take to travel more sustainably?

If it’s about eliminating our carbon footprint, then we should clearly think about our mode of transport. Where it makes sense, travel by car and train rather than by plane. If I have to fly, then to more distant destinations and using direct flights. After all, the biggest emissions from air travel are associated with take-off and landing. It’s also important not to neglect public transport use at the destination itself.

I’d also recommend looking for environmentally friendly accommodation and being responsible with your food. Food consumption generates a quarter of the world’s emissions. Yet a third of it is thrown away. The tourism industry contributes to this through concepts such as all-inclusive or open buffet hotel meals, which encourage food waste. From an economic point of view, tourists should then spend their money more in local businesses and avoid global chains.

Do tourists need to rethink some of their priorities when travelling sustainably?

Exactly. In general, people should think about the consequences of their actions and behave in a foreign community like guests. I’d recommend bringing habits we have from our home environment along on our travels – for example, if I’m looking for eco-friendly accommodation that means I’m probably being eco-friendly at home. A change in behaviour doesn’t necessarily lead to a loss of experience, quite the opposite. It can be a source of new and unexpected things that you’ll remember for a long time. So-called ‘slow tourism’ isn’t just about eco-friendly transport, it’s also a concept that goes against the current grain. It means staying longer in a geographically smaller part of a destination and exploring it in more depth. This is how we should think about our plans and itineraries.

Sustainable tourism

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as a destination’s ability to maintain its potential to compete with new, historically underutilised destinations, attract first-time and repeat visitors, maintain its cultural uniqueness, and be in balance with the environment. A study by UNWTO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that it is important for sustainable tourism to improve the quality of life of local people, who can decide the future direction of a destination. The economic and social benefits of tourism must then be shared equitably. Another key point is protecting and taking care of the cultural and historical heritage of the local community, and pursuing resource efficiency. Equally important is reducing the negative environmental impacts of tourism and looking after the landscape.

Martin Šauer works at the Department of Regional Economics and Administration and has long been involved in the research on development of tourism destinations. He deals with both the conceptual issues in setting destination development strategies and assessing the impact of tourism on regional and local economies. Currently, he is working on the project ‘New Mobility – High-Speed Transport Systems and Transport Behaviour of the Population’, examining the impact of the construction of high-speed rail on tourism development in the Czech Republic. As a member of the Institute of Tourism, he has cooperated with the Ministry of Regional Development on developing the Tourism Strategy for the Czech Republic. He is also active in the Tourism working group at the Regional Permanent Conference of the South Moravian Region. He is a member of the Council of National Geoparks at the Ministry of Environment, which evaluates and certifies local associations in terms of their sustainable development. He is also the Vice-Chair of the Society of Scientific Experts on Tourism.

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