Coastal management

Tourism versus tourism

The European Union occupies a central position on the world tourism market and the 458 million visitors who visit the Member States every year are an undoubted motor for the economy: 5% of Europe’s GDP is generated by tourism directly and 10% indirectly. However, although generating wealth and jobs, tourism could also become a victim of its success. This is particularly true of coastal areas where the regular influx of visitors has a damaging impact on the social fabric, economic balance, and environment… and thus ultimately on the value of these areas as a tourist attraction.

Golden sands and  straw parasols in Bulgaria. ©Shutterstock Golden sands and straw parasols in Bulgaria. ©Shutterstock
Underwater video. An additional bonus for exotic  coastlines. ©WWF-Canon/Cat Holloway Underwater video. An additional bonus for exotic coastlines. ©WWF-Canon/Cat Holloway

In the space of no more than a few decades tourism has become an inescapable phenomenon of society. Every year hundreds of millions of travellers criss-cross the globe, for the most part packing their swimsuits, sun cream and beach games. This is because among the countless destinations proposed, the coast is by far the most popular. The promise of sun, sea, invigorating air and idyllic beaches has an undeniable power to attract. According to Gabor Vereczi, responsible for sustainable development with the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), “the Mediter - ranean is by far the most popular tourist destination in the world,” with more than 160 million tourists recorded on its European coastline in 2006.

From unsustainable tourism…

A list of all the negative consequences of poorly managed coastal tourism could well run to several pages. Nevertheless, environmental observers agree that three major impact categories can be defined: economic, socio-cultural and environmental.

At the economic level, the arrival of tourists clearly has positive effects on local communities, bringing in considerable amounts of money. It is for this reason that the authorities often invest heavily in major infrastructure intended to make life easier for the tourists (airports, roads and motorways, sea defences, urbanisation, etc.). But all of this has its downside, especially for local populations. The employment structure changes with tourism. Activities linked to industry, agriculture and fishing tend to disappear while seasonal jobs become the norm. This then leads to the situation whereby wages are unable to keep pace with the rising cost of living – especially property prices – that is fuelled by the influx of a prosperous population.

This latter aspect in turn has an impact at the socio-cultural level. As hotels and second homes increase along the coast, local people tend to migrate to the interior. Very often those who remain have no alternative but to adapt to the tourist demand, by opening shops and bars, and local crafts tend towards greater standardisation, etc. A loss of cultural identity then follows, further exacerbated by the loss of traditional jobs.

Finally, at the environmental level, the consequences of coastal tourism are many:

  • Excessive urbanisation and the construction of communication infrastructure is at the root of many problems for the environment, including deforestation and destruction of natural areas, loss of habitat and fauna, extraction of marine sand for use as a construction material, etc. Then there is the visual aspect, often constituting genuine aesthetic pollution.
  • Drinking water supplies become increasingly limited due to the notorious over-consumption by and for tourists who every day use up to three times as much freshwater as local populations – to fill their pools, water their gardens and for washing, for example. What is more, in many cases the waste water is discarded into the sea completely untreated.
  • What is true of water is also true of various energy resources: the consumption of electricity and fossil fuels by tourists is very high (air conditioning and heating, transport, etc.) leading to important emissions of polluting gases. Tourists are also major creators of waste that it is the responsibility of local authorities to collect and dispose of as best they can.
  • Coastal erosion: seawalls, breakwaters and other jetties have the beneficial effect of protecting beaches and urban centres from the effect of waves, erosion and potential flooding.

But very often the problem is simply transferred to beyond the urban areas to zones where such infrastructures do not exist. The result is that these zones are progressively worn down by erosion.

…to responsible tourism

“Local, national and international authorities have become increasingly aware in recent years that tourism, if not properly developed, can self-destruct,” explains Jean-Pierre Martinetti, an expert on sustainable tourism and member of the Tourism Sustainability Group (TSG) set up by the European Commission to look at the problem of sustainable tourism. “When speaking of sustainable tourism,” he continues, “you must always keep in mind this ambivalence. On one hand, tourism can be a predator that destroys a whole environment, damaging that which stimulated its growth in the first place and therefore ultimately working against its own interests. In this sense it is very far indeed from any notion of sustainability. But, on the other hand, it can be a lever for sustainable development as a source of economic development, social progress, exchanges between people, and a knowledge and appreciation of cultures, while at the same time respecting the environment.”

Consisting of experts active in all sectors linked to tourism from throughout the European Union, the TSG started its activities in January 2005. Two years later, it published its final report (1) which was itself the subject of wide-ranging consultation. Jean-Pierre Martinetti: “A common sustainable tourism culture emerged as the work progressed, and this despite our different origins and sensibilities. The challenges were evident: to reduce the seasonal nature of the demand, control the impact of tourism, improve the quality of jobs in tourism, maintain and improve the prosperity and quality of local life, minimise the use of resources and waste production, observe and highlight the natural and cultural heritage, provide access to holidays for all and, finally, use tourism as a lever for sustainable development.” “As the Group’s mission was essentially operational,” continues the expert, “we made a series of concrete proposals to meet these challenges, intended for all those involved in the tourist industry: public and private stakeholders at the tourist destinations, tourism companies, and of course the tourists themselves and everybody that could encourage them to adopt a sustainable behaviour (education, consumer associations, NGOs, etc.).”

“They must all feel responsible for achieving a more sustainable tourism,” concludes Jean- Pierre Martinetti. “But this responsibility is shared between the different players at all levels of the tourism system.”

Matthieu Lethé



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The three pillars of sustainable tourism

Economy, society, environment. These are three key words when speaking of sustainable tourism. The aim is in fact to generate wealth at the different levels of society while also ensuring that the different sectors of economic activity remain profitable. At the same time, human rights and equal opportunities for all must be respected, poverty combated, and different cultures recognised. Finally, the environment must be preserved in all its diversity, especially non-renewable resources and those of value to man. “To achieve the ultimate aim that is the viability of these three pillars,” explains Jean-Pierre Martinetti, “they must be developed in a balanced manner. Too often, mistakes have been made because the emphasis was placed on just one of the three pillars, to the detriment of the others.” The development of tourism must therefore be the fruit of balanced considerations if it is to prove sustainable. Only then will the environment in which it develops be respected in all its diversity.