The Impact Of Tourism On Water Stress & Scarcity
There’s certainly no denying that travel, tourism and hospitality hold significant value for the global economy, with the latest report from the World Travel & Tourism Council showing that in 2022, the sector contributed 7.6 per cent to global GDP, a rise of 22 per cent on 2021 and just 23 per cent below 2019 levels.
Furthermore, 22 million new jobs were created by the industry, up 7.9 per cent on 2021 and just 11.4 per cent below 2019. Domestic visitor spending rose by 20.4 per cent (just 14.1 per cent behind 2019) and international visitor spending climbed 81.9 per cent (although still lagging 40.4 per cent behind 2019).
As such, it’s clear to see just how valuable the sector is on a global scale – and just how quickly it’s starting to bounce back from the inevitable lull that was seen during the pandemic years as a result of the health crisis and ensuing worldwide lockdowns that saw the tourism industry grind to a sudden and long-lasting halt.
However, as travel and tourism continues to gather pace in the future, it will become increasingly important to weigh up its impact on destination countries from an environmental perspective.
Although it’s true that tourism does contribute a significant amount to local economies and a country’s GDP, it’s also fair to say that it puts additional pressure on natural resources, particularly water.
As such, governments in popular destinations would perhaps be wise to review water management practices now to ensure that a balance can be struck between supporting tourism in local regions and building resilience into water systems as climate change continues to make its presence felt.
Potential for conflict
In 2015, governments around the world adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, setting out a global framework to follow in order to address climate change, fight inequality and injustice, and end extreme poverty.
As the United Nations World Tourism Organisation asserts, tourism can contribute (both directly and indirectly) to all 17 goals, but particularly towards inclusive and sustainable growth, sustainable use of oceans/marine resources and sustainable consumption and production.
Sustainable tourism has a firm position in the 2030 Agenda, but in order to achieve it a clear implementation framework will be required, as well as proper financing and investment in infrastructure, technology and human resources.
SDG Goal 6 stresses that tourism has a critical role to play in achieving water access and security, as well as hygiene and sanitation for all and, in fact, it’s thought that efficient use of water in the tourism industry could hold the key to safeguarding this most precious of resources (alongside safety measures, pollution control, technology efficiency and wastewater management).
However, as worthwhile and as necessary as this may well be, it’s also worth noting that tourism in many places can actually lead to regional water stress and scarcity, resulting in conflict and resentment among local communities. This, in turn, can put the sustainability of tourism at risk, further damaging the economies of tourism destinations.
Research from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and Khiri Travel shows that in 17 coastal and island destinations in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, water demand now exceeds available supply from sustainable resources, which is causing water shortages.
In Jamaica, each individual tourist uses between four and ten times more water each day than a local resident will, while in the Mediterranean, one tourist will use 1.5 to 2.5 times more water daily than a resident.
Depending on their length of stay, the size of the hotel and its amenities, the type and amount of food consumed and other such factors, a tourist can use between 84 to 2,000 litres of water a day.
The GSTC report went on to make suggestions such as ensuring that tourism developments have sufficient infrastructure and monitoring systems in place to conserve and manage drinking water, as well as sewage treatment.
In addition, it called for water tariffs that accurately reflect the cost of service provision and maintenance, as well as enforceable policies and legal frameworks to regulate and monitor water waste and energy use.
And tourism enterprises (with a specific focus on hotels) should be incentivised to adopt water management/reduction and energy conservation strategies to help ease pressure on dwindling supplies.
Case study: Koh Samui
The hugely popular Thai island of Koh Samui is said to be facing a severe water crisis at the moment, driven by a decline in rainfall and an influx of tourists.
According to the Independent, local reports say that many of the island’s water reserves (including the Hin Lad waterfall and the Phru Krajud and Phru Na Mueang reservoirs) have all seen drops in their water levels, with estimates now suggesting that there is only enough water to last until the end of July or thereabouts.
At least one million tourists have visited Koh Samui in the last five months, local media reports suggest, with local residents now starting to buy freshwater at 250BHT to 300BHT for 2,000 litres for daily use, according to the Bangkok Post.
An underwater pipeline is also now being used from the Surat Thani province on the mainland to help ease the water crisis on Koh Samui.
Deputy mayor Sutham Samthong has now called on residents and tourists to both use water wisely. With careful management, the island’s freshwater resources could last for the next two months, after which time rains are expected to come.
However, the El Nino weather phenomenon (which brings with it less rainfall) may drive even more severe water shortages for Koh Samui in the relatively near future.