The balance between tourist and attraction

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Andrea Andres discusses the damages tourism can bring, and different approaches countries have taken to mitigate them.

Tourism is something of a double edge blade. It gives, but it also takes. Tourism has given many places a new lease of life, pouring money into local economies and providing jobs and business opportunities for many. According to Fáilte Ireland, tourists generated €5.6 billion for the Irish economy (not including domestic tourism and those using Irish carriers). But tourism can leave a dark, physical mark on as many places as littering, pollution, erosion, and depleting resources ravage once beautiful sites. The question worth asking is how can the physical impact of tourists be controlled or limited? 

When you think of Bali, beautiful beaches, lush green paddy fields, and colourful coral reefs all come to mind. However, for many tourists, a very serious water crisis is not a reality that comes to our attention. Over 80% of Bali’s economy is dependent on tourism, and this tourism is sucking its groundwater dry - an overwhelming 65% of the island’s groundwater is used by the sector. Water, which should be directed to paddy fields, is being directly diverted to the hotels and villas which use 3,000 litres a day (and this estimate doesn’t include water used in pools, showers, construction and golf courses). 260 out of 400 rivers in Bali have gone dry and Lake Buyan, Bali’s biggest freshwater resource, has dropped by 3.5 metres. With groundwater being exhausted, there is a danger that salt will leak into the groundwater, rendering it unusable. If the damage is done, Bali will be dependent on desalination plants to not only serve its paddy fields, but also the tourism, residential and agricultural sectors. 

There may be a solution to Bali’s dwindling water supply, however. IDEP, a water rights NGO, has proposed “recharge wells” which are wells that redirect rainfall into the island’s water supply. IDEP’s pilot programme has built 10 recharge wells in the centre of Bali with plans for 126 more. Only time will tell if Bali can save its water supply and, in turn, not just save its paddy fields, but also its people.  

Another battle Bali is facing is its plastic pollution problem. According to the Bali Environmental Agency, Bali produced 5,500 tonnes of waste a day. To combat this, Bali’s governor Wayan Koster imposed a ban on single-use plastics, like plastic bags, polystyrene, and plastic straws. This ban was targeted towards producers, suppliers, businesses, and distributors. Further still, a $10 tourist tax was introduced to try and mitigate its plastic pollution. Koster told the Jakarta Post: “Tourists will understand. They will be happy to pay it as it will be used to strengthen our environment and culture.” 

The island isn’t only the place that has introduced a tax to lessen tourist numbers and the impact it has on its tourist attractions. Many European hotspots suffering from over-tourism are also using this approach, including Austria, Belgium, Edinburgh, and Venice. Venice plans to charge €3 to €10 depending on whether a tourist visits during the low, mid or peak season. The money collected from the tourist tax will be used to clean up trash left by visitors on a day trip and fund programmes that will “raise decorum” according to Venice’s Mayor Luigi Brugnano. 

If tourist taxes don’t reduce the numbers, restricting access to a beauty spot is always an option. In 2019, Iceland closed the canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur during the year for all but five weeks. The canyon was popularised by Justin Bieber’s music video “I’ll Show You” and it has since received an influx of visitors until it was closed to ease the environmental damage caused by tourists. Talking to CNN Travel, Hannes Sasi Palsson, owner of Reykjavik-based tourism company Pink Iceland, says: “That part of the country simply can't cope with all those stomping feet" he told CNN Travel. "We have to ask ourselves whether we want to build viewing platforms, charge entry or simply close the area down for a few months a year, giving it time to heal. It's a debate that any country coming to grips with a massive increase in tourism has to grapple with."

Other countries have opted to protect their attractions by creating replicas that visitors can explore instead. The Lascaux Caves, a French attraction housing Palaeolithic cave paintings were showcased to the public in 1948. You can still visit it today. However, the caveat is that you will be visiting a replica of the original Lascaux Caves. After its opening to the public, the cave painting began to deteriorate from the humidity, body heat and carbon dioxide expelled by up to 1,200 visitors a day. To protect the fragile art, a replica was made that was opened to the public in 1983. 

Since it was cracked open in 1922, the tomb of King Tutankhamun has experienced a steady stream of tourists. To stem the flow of visitors, a precise replica of the tomb was created that tourists can see instead. There is no technology that can undo the damage done to the tomb since people have stepped into it 98 years ago. Some critics have lamented that the replicas will not be the same experience as the originals, but this may be the most sustainable way to preserve these fragile wonders. 

Tourism is a boon to many places. Its economic benefits cannot be denied, but its damages to the natural world and to sites simply cannot be ignored. Many governments are starting to impose more sanctions and taxes to mitigate hordes of visitors and tourists from destroying sites, but whether more solutions can be found to find a balance between tourists and attractions remains to be seen.