Blogpost by ENP's Jillian Student on the environmental impacts of beach holidays

Published on
January 21, 2019

Are you already longing for a well-deserved rest on a tropical beach? As the temperatures start to dip, we often plan our next vacation to somewhere with the guarantee of warmth.

Most people, when they finally go on vacation, want to “let go” and not be bound by everyday responsibilities. Beaches are the location of choice for our well-deserved rest. However, we often do not look behind the curtain and consider the impacts of the destinations we are visiting.

The beaches that fill our desktop wallpaper may seem serene. In reality, however, the coastal system is one of the most dynamic ecosystems on earth. Small islands are considered highly vulnerable to climate change. Nonetheless, when asked about tourism providers’ main concerns, many tourism providers involved in my research noted the uncertainty of bringing in enough tourists, and not how environmental change will affect them. Tourism has been heralded by organisations such as the UN as one of the important current and potential income streams for developing countries and island states. Locals often see tourism as a benefit or economic necessity. It may seem simple to cater to a beach chair experience. However, it is actually quite complex and the costs are often not taken into consideration: the increased local burden to provide infrastructure, trade-offs between economic growth and the local environment, and how to deal with waste left behind.

Our expectations as tourists are becoming increasingly difficult to cater to. In the case of coastal tourism, we expect good weather, a nice, clean, sandy beach with clear turquoise water. We also expect an authentic experience, but often choose packages because of their convenience. We want peace, but also want to have all of the amenities within a short walking distance. We want to interact with locals, but we also want exclusive experiences. We want to be close to the water.  Below, we look at the physical, social and ecological consequences of our desire to be close to the sea and creating waste on the destinations we visit.

Around the world, you see hotels and other coastal development propped up as close to the shoreline as possible, some just a few meters away from the high-water mark. But, this increases coastal destinations vulnerability to climate change. Not only does coastal development inhibit the natural flow of water and sand, it is incompatible with rising sea levels, exposes expensive buildings to storms, and requires constant maintenance. Although islands are surrounded by water, many are water scarce. We value access to water to make landscapes appealing, keep us clean, comfortable and entertained, but this competes with locals’ need for water.

And then there is waste, something we absolutely do not want to think of while on vacation, but that we create while being there. Most of the amenities we seek have to be imported. Plastic, sunscreen, batteries and the junk we leave behind fill up landfills and can leach into the ground water. Basically, everything inland eventually makes it to the shore. Thailand and the Philippines have closed beaches and Thailand issued strict policy for littering and prohibits smoking on 24 of its beaches in order to address the environmental impacts of waste (e.g. NRC October 26th, 2018; the Independent February 1st, 2018).

Many islands do not have the facilities to treat waste and rely on individual facilities to treat their own waste. That means that there is a lot of dumping into the sea. This is not only problematic when storms and hurricanes land and the waste literarily comes back to us, but it also puts constant pressure on the coral reefs and exposes swimmers.

Meeting our expectations as tourists limits the island destinations’ ability to deal with environmental degradation and prepare for the environmental change. We do not go on a holiday for the good of the island, but for our own good. It is, therefore, difficult for islands to openly talk about the negative implications because the image of their tourism product is at stake. And if they cannot meet expectations of sun, sand, and sea at a cheap price, then some other destination will. Thus, there is an impasse as tourists’ expectations must be met.

I am researching this impasse by looking at how environmental and social challenges emerge in coastal destinations for tourism providers, e.g. hoteliers, beach vendors, dive and boat operators, in the Caribbean. These tourism providers face trade-offs between meeting tourists’ expectations and the environmental implications of tourism on the island. As these challenges are moving targets and a difficult balancing act, my research focuses on how tourism providers and the destination’s environment interact over time.

Tourists’ expectations play a role in how tourism providers prepare for climate change. It is probably too far to ‘ask not what the destination can do for us but what we can do for the destination’. But what if, as we move into the holiday booking season, we considered not just what is best or easiest for us, but what the consequences are to the places we want to visit?


Question for debate:

What should our role be as tourists when booking our next island holiday?


UN heralding tourism for sustainable development and poverty reduction

Thailand and Philippines beach pollution and changed policy