In the Caribbean, tourism employs 2.4 million people and contributes more than $62 billion (15.5%) to GDP (2018) making it the most tourism-reliant region in the world. But the pursuit of tourism-driven economic growth overlooks a significant environmental burden. The global sector is responsible for 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions— 4.5 billion tons of CO2 per year— and for small islands such as Dominica and St. Lucia, where total emissions are a mere drop in the ocean compared to that of large nations, tourism’s contribution to domestic carbon emissions can run as high as 97% and 70% respectively. (Gossling, 2013)
With the high average footprint of tourism-related activities, such as diving classes and jet ski rides, each of which produce about 24 kg of CO2 per tourist, or golf courses which use as much water as 60,000 rural residents and 1,500 kg of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides each year, scientists and economists have suggested that there is a higher cost to the environment from developing tourism over other sectors.
According to a 2018 study reported in the journal, Nature Climate Change, one dollar of travel-related consumption produces a carbon footprint of 1 kg CO2e, which is 25% higher than the global average emissions produced per dollar spent across all sectors. If this formula was applied to the Caribbean it would mean that in 2018, regional tourism contributed 62 billion kg CO2e to global emissions.
A significant proportion of tourism’s carbon footprint is associated with international transport. Aviation and the cruise industry contribute 3-5% of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions, with long haul flights producing 16% of all tourism-related CO2 emissions. Case in point: A round trip flight from New York to Barbados produces 505 kg of CO2 per passenger while a round trip from London Gatwick to Kingston Jamaica produces 985.8 kg of CO2 per passenger— the equivalent of burning 1077 pounds of coal. Comparatively, the average cruise ship passenger was responsible for 820 kg CO2e in emissions in 2017. (Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard)
Hotels are major contributors to global carbon emissions. According to the Hotel Global Decarbonisation Report, the hotel sector has been tasked with reducing absolute carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 in order to keep global warming below the 2-degree threshold agreed upon in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Given their round-the-clock energy consumption, hotels have a higher carbon footprint than other building categories. Laundry facilities, waste disposal and the production of hotel consumables are major carbon emitters.
According to the International Tourism Partnership and Greenview’s Hotel Footprint Tool, the mean carbon footprint per Caribbean hotel room (total greenhouse gas emissions of a hotel divided by the total number of rooms, without factoring in occupancy or floor area) is equivalent to the amount of emissions of 3.4 passenger vehicles per year. A Caribbean hotel room has more than twice the mean carbon footprint of a hotel room in London or Hawaii, almost four times that of Toronto and has a larger footprint than the average room in Thailand or Mexico.
In the Caribbean, hotels tend to source most of their food from imports causing the carbon footprint associated with hotel food to be typically high. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 13 nights in a five-star all-inclusive hotel resort can produce food-related carbon emissions of 205 kg per person and 13 nights in a four-star hotel can produce 91 kg of emissions per person.
Tourists are also directly responsible for a great deal of environmental damage inflicted on their host countries. From natural habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity, over-exploited land and water resources, pollution (land and marine) and coral reef damage, tourism places a great deal of stress on the natural resources on which it depends.
Countries are seeking to curb the environmental impact of tourism by making hotels more green and climate resilient, by integrating eco-tourism into their tourism product and by implementing policies to protect marine and terrestrial resources. But despite these investments, the negative impacts of climate change will be increasingly unavoidable over time.
Climate change will increase the severity of extreme weather events such as droughts, storms and hurricanes, which are likely to negatively impact tourism revenues.
A growing amount of travel will be driven by environmentally conscious decision-making. Travellers will be dissuaded by “flight shame” given the role of aviation in total carbon emissions.
In the years to come, sea level rise will impact coastal tourism infrastructure and development. According to the United Nations, a sea-level rise of one metre would cause more than 29% of major resort properties in the CARICOM region to be partially or fully inundated by water, while 49% would be damaged or destroyed by a combination of sea-level rise and storm surge.
If temperatures rise according to worst-case scenario predictions, scientists predict “the Caribbean alone could generate an extra $22 billion and $46 billion in storm and infrastructure damages and tourism losses by 2050 and 2100.” (Reyer, 2015)
These expenses will be compounded by the social cost of emissions from the carbon intensive tourism sector. According to estimates from the Environmental Defence Fund, the social cost or dollar value of damages from emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is just over $50 per ton. This means that in 2010, the social cost of emissions related damages from Barbados’ tourism sector was $45,250,000. This is more than twice the amount of European tourist expenditures within that market during the first quarter of that year.
While the region as a whole contributes less than 2% to global greenhouse gas emissions, regional emissions on a per capita level are significantly higher than the global average (USAID), with tourism mostly to blame— this should not be neglected simply because aggregate numbers cannot compare to those of large nations.
The relationship of tourism to the environment is complex. Given the sizeable carbon footprint of the industry, the region has been attempting to reduce emissions and environmental impacts while improving the climate resilience of tourism infrastructure, particularly within coastal communities.
Some governments have begun to pre-emptively remove a few tourism eggs from their economic basket and are diversifying across emerging sectors such as blockchain, medical marijuana and renewable energy.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.