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Last updated on April 30th, 2024 at 08:01 pm

A re you curious about how a trip to the beach or your next summer beach vacation can impact coastal communities and ecosystems? Visiting beaches for leisure, recreation, or tourism to enjoy sea, sun, and sand can negatively impact beaches and coastal areas. However, the more we understand these impacts, the more we can ensure our actions contribute to benefits for conservation and the surrounding community instead. Let’s dive into everything you need to know about how beach and coastal tourism can impact these critical environments so we can minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive ones. 

As temperatures climb (annually and seasonally) and the intense heat of summer sets in, people are heading to the beach in record numbers, attempting to stay cool. Visiting the beach is a great way to enjoy nature, relax, and beat the heat. However, the increasing number of people flocking to seaside resorts and beach destinations contributes to humans’ significant negative impacts on beaches and coastal environments. Understanding these impacts is the first step toward sustainable beach tourism that is good for us and the planet. 

I hope you’ll leave here today with a better understanding of tourism’s impacts on the beach and find your motivation to plan a sustainable beach holiday so you can do your part to shift tourism from a destructive force to a catalyst for sustainable development. This detailed post was created with scientific research, case studies, and real-life examples. Make sure you pin it to your favorite sustainable travel or beach Pinterest board or bookmark it so you can always have it on hand when planning your beach getaway.

the impacts of beach and coastal tourism the positives and negatives

This is the first article in a two-part series. This post takes a deep dive into the impacts to ensure you are more informed, while part two gives you 22 easy-to-follow sustainable beach planning tips. Make sure you bookmark part 2 and read it as a follow-up for actionable steps and meaningful changes to your next trip to the beach. * Unlike most of my articles, which feature my photography, the photos in this post are paid for through my Canva Pro stock image provider subscription.

QUICK LOOK

  • Beach tourism is one of the most popular forms, and the demand for sea, sand, and sun-filled escapes is only increasing.
  • As more people hit the beach for leisure, recreation, or vacations, the negative impacts on beach and coastal ecosystems is a growing concern.
  • This guide covers four of tourism’s negative impacts on beaches, including climate change and environmental impacts, impacts on wildlife, pollution, and community impacts.
  • We will then cover some of the benefits and the importance of sustainable beach tourism.
  • To finish we will explore some of the nuanced conversations about all-inclusive resorts.

The Rising Interest in Beach Tourism

The noise of crashing waves is relentless, yet the consistent cadence is comforting – bringing a wave of solace over you. As the fresh sea breeze wafts over the distant dunes, rustling the native sedge grasses, you notice bubbles in the sand and wonder what critter is burrowing deep below. Visiting beaches and coastal destinations on holiday always brings me overwhelming feelings of awe at the beauty of our planet. I love combing the tide pools and observing the animals left behind by the receding tides. Seeing a natural beach teeming with life and beautiful native plants calms and restores my soul.

But, in the era of mass-over tourism, our trip to the beach can quickly turn stressful and chaotic, and we often leave more than footprints while exploring the beach.

Experts say coastal and marine tourism is the fastest-growing type of tourism within the already rapidly growing industry. This trend will likely continue as global temperatures rise faster than historical trends, and more people worldwide seek out the classic sand, sea, and sun experience for their next holiday. 

over-crowded beach impacts of beach tourism

If you’re like me and already having a knee-jerk reaction as you envision jam-packed beaches and fights to the death over the last beach chair at over-crowded beachside resorts, just imagine what these crowds can do to the environment. With more people comes environmental damage, including impacts on marine ecosystems and the species that inhabit these areas, pollution, litter, and new social issues for the surrounding community.

On the flip side, coastal areas suffering from over-tourism and the impacts of climate change have acknowledged that sustainable beach tourism action plans can play an essential role in protecting cultural and natural heritage while preserving the environment. Much of the burden regarding sustainable tourism development for coastal areas falls on governments and destination management to implement systems and infrastructure to manage crowds. However, tourists still play an instrumental role in helping these systems achieve their full potential. 

Our individual behaviors and choices at the beach and when planning a sustainable beach vacation can determine the success or failure of sustainable tourism action plans. These choices have an even more significant impact in areas lacking sustainable beach management. When we visit beaches, we become stewards of the land, responsible for taking ownership of what happens at our destinations. To do that, we first need a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of tourism on beaches and coastal destinations.

Negative Impacts of Beach Tourism

I read many papers on the impact of beach tourism while researching my thesis on tourism’s impacts on biodiversity. To summarize some of my findings and general themes from the papers, the rising interest in beach tourism has four broad effects. 

  1. Climate change, increasing natural disasters, and declining ecosystem function
  2. Increased levels of pollution
  3. Changes to biodiversity and impacts on wildlife
  4. Socio-economic impacts on the surrounding community

Let’s go through each of these in-depth to better understand each impacts.

Climate Change, Disaster Management, and Loss of Ecosystem Functions 

As one of the most significant economic sectors, it is no surprise that tourism contributes 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That rate will likely increase as the industry’s growth outpaces decarbonization efforts. 

Beach tourism is likely to account for a decent chunk of tourism’s carbon output, as beach vacations are carbon-intensive. Most of us fly or drive to a beach for a holiday or cruise to visit many beaches. Once there, we likely hop on a motor boat for a tour or stay at large energy-intense resorts. In Europe, beach vacations have the highest carbon intensity per trip compared to alternative experiences.

coastal disasters and hurricanes

House destroyed by hurricane.

Rising emissions and climate change contribute to increasingly extreme weather events with coastal communities on the front line. Severe weather, such as hurricanes, can damage fragile ecosystems and destroy tourism infrastructure, with small communities left paying the price to rebuild.

Poorly managed tourism developed along beaches reduces a coast’s natural ability to manage storms by altering the function of a natural beach. This is concerning because every part of a natural beach, such as reefs, dunes, and vegetation, plays a role in helping our planet regulate and manage weather patterns.

Coral reefs

Reefs act as a wave-breaking mechanism, which can reduce the size of waves and minimize impacts from hurricane damage onshore. They help maintain marine biodiversity. Healthy marine biodiversity = better ocean health, climate resilience, and healthy coastal communities.  

Tourism activities can damage coral reefs in several ways:

  • Contributing to coral bleaching events
  • Boat anchors damaging coral 
  • Swimmers and divers touching and breaking coral
  • Construction and logging debris and sediment from hotel development block sunlight from reaching the reef
  • Sunscreen chemicals damage corals

Without coral reefs, we lose out on great opportunities to see the beautiful world underwater full of life when we SCUBA dive, snorkel, or take a glass bottom boat out on the water. More than that, though, 25% of all marine life would lose its habitat, and that’s not even counting all the species that rely on those species through an interconnected food web.

We would also have less oxygen in the air and much more carbon. The ocean generates at least 50% of our oxygen and absorbs 25% of all our emissions. To continue operating at that level, oceans need healthy coral reefs.

Basically, without coral reefs, the outlook for our planet is very bleak indeed.

Sand dunes, tidal flats, and estuaries

Natural beach elements, like dunes, aren’t just annoying things that block your ocean view or take away from prime sunbathing real estate. These act as a critical defense against tsunami-size waves, flooding, strong winds, and extreme rain. They also help filter out pollutants for better water quality. Migrating birds and numerous other native species rely on these as part of their critical habitats. 

Tourism can impact these features in several ways:

  • Removing dunes to offer an ocean view
  • Filling in estuaries and flats for the development of ocean-side properties
  • Modifying the beach to widen it or make it more aesthetically pleasing 

sand dunes and sedge grass

Native vegetation

Native plants protect against coastal erosion. Yet, plants in Queensland, Australia, are being replaced by invasive coconut palm trees, with significant concerns for erosion, native biodiversity, and storm management. Coconut palms have shallow root systems and long trunks; outside their native habitat, they offer little erosion protection, don’t break wind from storms, and push out native vegetation. Even as Australia attempts to control the spread of the invasive coconut tree in critical habitats like national parks, many remain at popular tourist beaches for aesthetics despite their existence being a threat to the rare littoral forest. They remain as many tourists have come to expect to see them on the shores, and tour operators capitalize on sightseeing tours.

Development along beaches also reduces native vegetation, such as mangrove forests, replacing these critical habitats with hotels, marinas, ports, and other facilities. Mangroves store incredible amounts of carbon, more than most forests, and disrupting them spells disaster for climate management in the future. This loss will cause an increase in erosion and flooding along the beach, threatening the tourism infrastructure that replaced it.

native beach vegetation

What happens when you remove sand dunes or native vegetation?

In 2004, a devastating tsunami tore through the Indian Ocean. Areas with healthy dunes and mangroves survived the worst of the storm. Others were not so lucky. One resort in Sri Lanka removed all the sand dunes to develop their safari resort with ocean views – it was completely destroyed, while other hotels and tourism facilities behind the dunes faired much better. Another study showed a clear link between coastal vegetation and protection from this same 2004 tsunami. Satellite imagery shows that mangrove forests in India protected coastal villages, while villages without mangrove forests were a total loss.

Overall, beaches with natural features and vegetation are our best defense against storms, extreme weather events, flooding, and more. Yet, over-development for aesthetically pleasing tourism resorts and facilities can destroy reefs, remove dunes, and reduce native plant cover, resulting in many problems that ultimately chip away at this natural defense. It is important to find and support tourism activities at the beach that support and boost natural beach dynamics.

These ecosystems are a matter of life and death. Let’s make idolizing natural beaches cool!

Increased Levels of Pollution

Pollution comes in all shapes and sizes, from plastic to raw sewage to air and water pollution. Unfortunately, tourism is a source of almost all pollutants. Many studies have linked rising levels of tourism with increased levels of pollution. In a nutshell, for every additional person who travels to a beach, the level of pollution increases. More tourists = more pollution, which seems like a given, really, but why is pollution so bad?

Each form of pollution has a different cause and effect, making it important to learn about how tourism pollutes marine ecosystems. 

Plastic and solid waste pollution

Plastic and trash are the most common forms of tourist pollution. I am sure that by now, most of us are acquainted with the plastic pollution crisis, as images of sea turtles with straws up their nose and whales with stomachs full of plastic were presented to us during our formative years. Beyond ditching the straws and 6-pack rings – the entire tourism industry significantly contributes to the ongoing plastic crisis. 

plastic pollution at the beach

Plastic pollution, often created by travelers like ourselves, is also one of the tourists’ biggest complaints at beach destinations. To sum that up nicely – we are our own worst enemies. 

Plastic pollution has catastrophic impacts, especially on marine biodiversity, which shows how many of these impacts are connected.

Beyond plastic, solid waste or trash is another major concern. Litter at the beach, from cigarette butts to potato chip bags, to the flip flops you left behind, are causing major problems at beaches around the world.

Water pollution

Many pollutants enter the ocean, which is another serious concern. Sewage runoff is a surprisingly frequent issue of tourism development near the ocean. You might be asking how on earth sewage gets into water systems. When a tourism boom hits a destination, hotels develop too fast before the community or government can plan and develop adequate wastewater management. Many hotels dump sewage directly into the ocean or overflow wastewater treatment during heavy rains. Cruise ships and other boats often dump sewage in the ocean.

  • Eutrophication is when a sudden influx of nutrients (such as sewage) enters the water. This will eventually reduce oxygen levels and alter the water’s pH levels, killing marine life.
  • Sewage on beaches is a significant public health concern. Vancouver beaches closed last summer due to an E.Coli outbreak due to poorly managed wastewater treatment facilities and cruise ships treating Vancouver like their toilet bowl.

water pollution from tourism

Beach tourism also contributes to air pollution from cruise ships, motorboats, and other carbon-intense activities. Noise and light pollution from boats, jetskies, and strips of hotels are other concerns that disrupt the natural cycle of wildlife. Toxic chemical pollution from cleaning products, laundry, cruises, pesticide management, and other sources is also a concern. 

The last thing any of us want while hanging out at the beach is to encounter trash or swim in a “sewage cesspool” and get E. coli. My husband went diving at a popular tourist beach in Vietnam and said he saw more trash than fish. He described the experience as disturbing and upsetting.

As we walk along the beach, we want to see all the fun natural deposits like bits of seaweed, broken shells, and scurrying critters, not cigarette butts and dead animals from ingesting trash. 

Impacts on Wildlife and Loss of Biodiversity

All these ongoing changes make beaches less habitable for native species that have evolved over thousands of years to thrive in a specific environment. Think back to the examples we explored above. If we suddenly fill in an estuary, all the migrating birds relying on this for nesting have nowhere to breed and raise their young. As coral reefs die, many fish no longer have a suitable home, and the entire colorful underworld turns into a bleached and depressing place void of life.

Beyond that, human influence, such as trampling, feeding, harassing, or touching wildlife, on wildlife tours can cause behavioral changes and reduce species’ population size.

Beach modification

A common problem is that many tourist beaches have intentionally or unintentionally altered the sand composition and density, which can hurt native species. This can happen in a few ways. 

  • Beach nourishment is when hotels use artificial replacement sand to change the shape of the beach to make it more aesthetically pleasing for guests or bring in powdery soft sand to replace pebbles. They might also use sand to protect against erosion caused by hotel development or the displacement of native plants. Beach nourishment can bury species, disrupt animal and bird nesting sites, reduce hiding places for crabs, and impact predator/prey relationships.
  • Mass over-tourism means thousands of people are trampling and packing down the sand, making it almost cement-like. Birds are less able to dig and find their favorite crustaceans and insects

shorebirds at the beach with waves

Foreign substances in marine systems

Many foreign substances and chemicals enter the beach from development and the type of sunscreen we wear. 

  • Construction causes sedimentation when cement or debris enters the water. The murky water makes it more difficult for sunlight to penetrate, limiting photosynthesis and making it more challenging for marine organisms to breathe, hunt, and hide. Think of this as driving a car when suddenly, heavy fog appears, limiting your vision.

sedimentation

Loud noises, crowds, and human contact

Human interaction or disturbances of wildlife can alter animal behavior and their ability to survive and thrive. 

  • “Ecotourism” boating adventures cause Osprey to leave their nests frequently, limiting their ability to reproduce and successfully raise their offspring.
  • Tours that feed fish to attract or bait them alter the body size and shape of fish with the increasing starch levels in their diet. – Basically we are making the fish fat and malnourished
  • Dolphin tours that don’t follow strict guidelines and regulations can cause behavioral changes, seasonal migrations, boating accidents, and even a decrease in population size.
  • Boats may collide with or scare large mammals such as whales and dolphins.
  • Getting too close to sea lions causes stampeding, where they crush their young.
  • Migrating or nesting birds may flee their nests or abandon their young in the presence of loud noises, dogs, or large crowds. 
  • Humans may be present on beaches, which is important for sea turtle breeding, which can threaten the success of clutch laying and baby turtles.

whale watching tour

As cool as taking a photo touching a manta ray or dropping food into the ocean as these rays swirl about might seem, tours like this have a dark side. As these kinds of wildlife tours become more popular, they become harder to regulate, and many untrained guides take people out to interact with these animals, causing harm to both the animals and people. This isn’t isolated to manta ray tourism; it applies to all tours seeking animals for viewing, touching, or feeding. When done right, these tours can have many benefits (more on that later), but they often harm the animals.

Consumer choices

Our choices as consumers, from what we order at a beach-side restaurant to what can have unexpected side effects on wildlife.

  • Unsustainable food choices at the beach can contribute to over-fishing concerns of the consumption of rare species.
  • Other beaches may sell souvenirs made from critically endangered species. The hawksbill turtle is one such beach-reliant species that is trafficked and poached for souvenirs.

Manta Ray swimming

While this loss of wildlife is tragic and contributes to declines in biodiversity worldwide, it also diminishes our experiences at the beach. Imagine if you went snorkeling at a coral reef and found it void of all species after construction debris prevented sunlight from reaching the coral. Or if your tour boat hits a whale on a whale-watching tour, injuring its baby. Fewer species means less enjoyment for those of us who want to catch glimpses of certain animals. It is also more enjoyable to view animals in their natural and comfortable habitats – trust me, seals are much more entertaining being their ridiculous selves far away on a rocky shore than scared and stampeding each other because the boat came too close.

Additionally, the health of species in marine systems is directly tied to our health and the planet’s health. The livelihoods of many people who rely on fishing for income or an important source of protein, income, or tourism are also at stake.

Socio-cultural Community Impacts

As much as we would all love to kick back on our beach holiday and pretend that ordering 12 margs benefits the local economy while we work on our tan, the reality can be different. Our money often goes to unexpected places.

Beach tourism can also contribute to gentrification, loss of traditional culture, and the burden of managing pollution and increasing waste. In our efforts to escape real life, we might also miss out on important cultural elements or ways to support local businesses as we relax. 

impacts of beach tourism

Gentrification 

The socio-economic issue of gentrification is a serious issue in popular beach-side communities. This can happen in several ways; perhaps local residents are displaced from affordable housing due to hotel development or a rise in transient rentals like Airbnb. Other times, shops selling lost-cost necessities to locals are replaced by higher-priced goods catering to tourists. E.g., losing low-priced food vendors for luxury swim attire.

While tourism can bring good economic benefits to communities, helping them manage crime and poverty levels, we have to ensure that tourism helps their community and goes to the right people. Hence, locals benefit from new goods, services, sanitation, and low crime.

Economic tourism leakage

Tourism revenue may only sometimes be distributed with equity or to the local community. In these cases, economic tourism leakage means foreign investors may primarily benefit while local communities are left to pay the price of managing negative impacts but without the revenue to develop proper facilities. As much money as possible needs to stay in the communities, as they are the ones that have to foot the bill to clean up litter, manage health care costs linked to increased pollution, and more.

  • In some cases, cruise ship pollution is so significant it can cost some communities 6-7 times more than the economic benefits they get from tourism
  • Many multi-national cruise lines keep over 50% of onshore excursion prices or offer bookings through seasonal companies that do not employ locals year-round.

impacts of beach tourism cruise

Conflict over resources

Tourism is an incredibly resource-intensive sector requiring large amounts of land, food, energy, and water while emitting carbon and other pollutants. This particularly concerns islands such as the Hawai’ian Archipelago or small island developing states like Fiji. On islands where tourism makes up a large portion of the economy and where resources, like freshwater, are precious, a conflict over access to resources is common. Hotels often receive priority rights to water, leaving locals high and quite literally dry. 

Impacts of beach and coastal tourism

Cultural degradation

In many cases, these same island nations and dreamy beach destinations have a vibrant and rich Indigenous culture. Tourism, as an industry, often capitalizes on cultural commodification, which leads to declines in cultural integrity and conflicts among Indigenous groups.

  • Many on-shore excursions do little to connect tourists authentically and genuinely to Indigenous culture.
  • Culture may be altered to appeal to Western-centric travelers who arrive with a certain pre-conceived thought about what culture is like. Hawai’ian Hula performed for tourists is often cited as more of a marketing ploy rather than something that fosters a deep cultural exchange and upholds the cultural traditions behind the Hula.

These types of conflicts can create an environment of animosity toward tourism, with many local residents expressing frustration or a dislike toward tourism. Issues are often ignored, citing that residents need the economic benefits from tourism. However, tourism was not always part of the economy in many places. Communities want to diversify and focus on sustainable tourism that benefits the community and a well-rounded economy.

We must consider the wider impact of beach tourism on the surrounding community as tourism drives up the cost of living, pushes locals out of affordable houses, results in tourism leakage, degrades culture, and depletes precious resources. Take time to learn about these cultural impacts and find meaningful ways to support the local community while giving them space to thrive in their cultural space. 

Summarizing Impacts of Tourism on Beaches

  • Tourism is a carbon-intensive industry, contributing to more extreme weather patterns that can harm beaches and coastal regions. Development can reduce a beach’s ability to manage these extreme weather patterns.
  • Impacts from beach tourism can make it more difficult for species to survive, source food, and hide from predators. Interactions with tourists can alter animal behaviors at critical times in their lifecycles.
  • Tourism contributes to numerous forms of pollution, including plastic and sewage, with concerns for human health, tourist enjoyment, and ecosystem health.
  • Poorly managed tourism development can negatively impact the surrounding community, including gentrification, loss of culture, and economic inequality. Communities carry the burden of managing increasing waste and resource allocation.

The Benefits of Beach Tourism

Now that I have sufficiently horrified you with how tourism can negatively impact beaches and coastal communities, you might have one burning question.

Should we just never visit a beach? 

First of all, that isn’t practical. Second, we should absolutely visit beaches! Beach tourism can benefit us, the local community, and the environment if we take time to be mindful of our experiences at the beach and take an extra step to support sustainable beach destination management. 

Blue Flag Beaches

The Blue Flag, Beach Eco-Certification network is one incredible example of how sustainable beach management and tourism combined can have numerous positive impacts. More than 5,000 beaches in 51 countries have received this esteemed honor, which recognizes efforts in maintaining pristine water quality (no sewage here), trash-free beaches offering facilities and beach cleanups, education surrounding the environment, conservation efforts (yay for beaches that save turtles), accessibility (strollers and wheelchair users welcome!), and mindfulness of the broader community. This comprehensive guide lets you learn more about the Blue Flag certification and 27 top Blue Flag beaches worldwide, recommended by other travel bloggers.

Best Blue Flag Bleaches Around the World

Education and Awareness

Visiting the beach often evokes a strong awareness of pressing threats to beach and marine conservation.

  • Many beaches will have a coastal walk, promenade, or area with information about different species you can find. Take time to read these.
  • You could also visit a nearby ethical aquarium to learn more about conservation.
  • Being at the beach also connects us to marine life, and we are more likely to want to protect it.

We should always combine a fun trip to the beach with efforts to learn about the region’s unique species, ecosystems, or cultural heritage.

Health benefits – for people and nature

After a day in the sun, we often feel happy and healthy – pending that we stay hydrated and use reef-safe sunscreen. The mental and physical health benefits of a day at the beach are numerous. Whether we take a long coastal walk, safely explore a tide pool with kids, go surfing, swim, read a book, get some much-needed vitamin D, or take a deep breath and relax, hitting the beach can be good for the body and mind.

Sustainable beach tourism can actually help conservation efforts and biodiversity protection.

  • Many tourists visit Bermuda to see their colorful and vibrant coral reefs. If these reefs are damaged from tourism or climate change, Bermuda loses out on these markets. This alone is an incentive to protect the reefs from tourism itself and engage tourists in coral reef conservation efforts.
  • Ethical voluntourism, such as releasing baby sea turtles, helps them survive the dangerous journey into the ocean and stabilize their populations. Make sure you find an ethical turtle experience before diving in head first, though. 
  • SCUBA diving experiences that focus on restoring coral reefs are essential to maintaining coral reefs. These experiences help you gain a deeper understanding of the vital role of coral and threats to them in the future while benefitting coral reef communities.
  • Tourists who go above and beyond to visit a beach responsibly can help manage some negative impacts. For example, partaking in a beach clean-up can ensure less waste enters the marine environment. 

scuba diving

Sustainable beach development that relies on innovative solutions, like nature-based solutions, helps foster healthy environments for people and wildlife. We all win when coastal development considers natural beach dynamics and hotels, harbors, piers, and marinas that work to support healthy beaches. The air and water quality is much better, and wildlife thrives. Many advances in technology and green infrastructure result in marinas or piers that are designed considering the spawning needs of fish or important muscles. It is not always us vs them, but a happy planet = happy humans.

Economic benefits

Tourism is incredibly lucrative, contributing 10% of global GDP in 2019. When managed appropriately and equitably, it can go a long way to help coastal conservation and communities manage rising levels of beach tourism.

  • Securing government funding for conservation is difficult in some countries. Through fees, taxes, and entry permits, tourism can help fund conservation efforts, marine park management, and resources to keep beaches clean.
  • Supporting local businesses and traditional ways of life can help boost the region’s economic vitality and preserve a coastal community culture.

However, we should be careful not to over-rely on tourism’s economic contributions. As we saw during the global COVID pandemic, the sudden loss of tourism revenue left many tourism-reliant communities struggling to fund conservation. This should be an added bonus but not the only benefit.

beach tourism

Beaches that develop sustainable management plans that tourists actively engage with are a win-win-win. You will also have a better experience, with less trash and more incredible animals to see. When done right, slow, sustainable development around beaches can minimize pollution, buffer communities against storms, protect the natural environment and deliver many physical and mental health benefits.

What About All-Inclusives?

Mass beach tourism gets a lot of hate. You know, the type of tourism where all-inclusive resort after all-inclusive resort dominates the coast extending as far as the eye can see. Thousands of people descend on the beach every morning at 7 a.m. to get the best chair and stay in the resort, never venturing out to interact with the local community. 

While much of the skepticism aimed at foreign-owned, mass beach resorts is warranted, for they can do much damage. Once hotel complexes and crowds cover these extensive beach areas, there is little left of the original environmental or cultural integrity. 

beach tourism

However, the sentiment that all-inclusive resorts are always bad and coastal ecotourism is always good is not black and white. Shame and blame is not the way to go. There are examples where so-called ecotourism can do more damage than larger, well-planned, all-inclusive resorts. Some tourism researchers question whether containing everyone in a confined space in an area that has already “done its damage” and/or developing mass tourism opportunities rooted in sustainable development is better than ecotourism entering new areas for the first time. Millions of people visit beaches; moving them all to small eco-lodges isn’t feasible, nor is it a more sustainable option. 

When “eco-tourism” goes wrong

We can understand some of the complexities behind this issue by learning from a Marine Protected Area off the beach in Corsica, France. Osprey, large birds of prey, were declining in this region due to overfishing, depletion of their food source, and poor environmental management. This led the government to put protections in place limiting fishing to restore fish populations and protect Osprey populations. The results were promising, and the species’ population began to grow. Then, “ecotourism” entered the chat. 

Osprey bird hunting

With fishing limited in the area, many turned to enterprising boating excursions labeled as “ecotourism” planned without proper impact assessments for beach-loving tourists. Many of these boats took tourists up close to see the Osprey, which previously had little interaction with humans. The result was a decline in their populations due to disturbances impacting their breeding, ability to fish, and rearing their young. 

Ecotourism experiences can also be more expensive and not inclusive in that regard.

When all-inclusive get it right

On the other hand, if future all-inclusive resorts implement sustainability, community, and environmental conservation into their core values, they can be a great choice! They will undoubtedly play a key role in sustainable and contained tourism that can deliver numerous benefits. In Turkey, the coastal resort region of Belek is known for its commitment to developing the region considering environmental sustainability since the late 80s. Many beach resorts here are luxury and all-inclusive, yet they still make strong environmental commitments. They adopt programs to protect native biodiversity, including the vibrant native birds, native pears, and critical loggerhead turtle habitats. The beaches here are clean, and hotels aim to reduce energy and water use, support local farmers and producers, and minimize food waste. 

Belek, Turkey beach resort

While focusing on small, intimate, luxurious eco stays in Australia, Eco Beach Resort helps conserve and preserve Australia’s coastal environment. 

Many locals have expressed frustration when large groups of tourists come to their neighbors, so containing them in an eco-network of all-inclusive or smaller intimate yet luxurious eco stays sounds like a good solution.

All-inclusive can also be a great value and approachable for people with a range of budgets and physical capabilities.

Management and regulation matters

Ultimately, it all comes down to how tourism is managed. Ecotourism must be carefully managed to deliver its intended benefits and live up to the true values of ecotourism. Mass tourism must be developed with sustainability at its core, growing at sustainable levels that minimize potential negative impacts. Ultimately, tourism development should be in the hands of the community and primarily benefit the community and the environment. It should involve environmental impact assessments and consider the wildlife and beach ecosystem. If these things are done, all tourism models can maximize benefits and minimize impacts.

Your decisions also matter. Think critically about your choices at the beach. Weigh your options, considering your budget, goals, travel style, and destination.

Sometimes, we need to relax and take a break from our chaotic lives at home, which is ok. With a little effort, you will surely find a good choice that suits your tastes and allows you to be pampered while minimizing environmental impacts.

Remember, no choice will be 100% perfect, and they all have their tradeoffs; the goal is to minimize negative impacts while maximizing benefits within our means.

Discuss and Share How Tourism Impacts Beaches

I hope that by learning more about the impacts of beach and coastal tourism on the environment and community, you will begin to support better choices and positive impact tourism. Beach tourism can impact ecosystem function, harm wildlife, contribute to pollution, and socio-economic concerns for the community, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Sustainable beach tourism can be part of a vibrating and healthy coastal community, delivering many positive benefits. Seeing these benefits in action through examples like Blue Flag Beaches, well-managed ecotourism, and sustainable resorts in action is a great incentive to make more informed choices. 

Don’t miss part two, where I put together a list of sustainable beach tips for real actional changes you can make to minimize tourism’s impacts on beaches.

  • What was something you learned from this guide?
  • Did anything surprise you?
  • Have you experienced or seen these negative or positive impacts firsthand during your beach vacations?
the impacts of beach and coastal tourism the positives and negatives