We have shown that such a pursuit of economic growth comes with a significant carbon burden, as tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential areas of economic development.
The contribution of the tourism industry to climate change has been hugely underestimated, and based on this flawed impact assessment many countries have chosen development based on large scale tourist projects.
Tourism’s carbon footprint makes up eight percent of all global carbon emissions - four times more than previously estimated - according to a group of scientists from the Australian University in Sydney and University of Queensland and National Cheng Kung University from Taiwan.
Development strategies based on tourism should therefore be reassessed according to the research paper published in the scientific magazine Nature Climate Change.
Addiction to transport
The new research has resulted in a significantly higher number because the scientists undertook the demanding task of assessing the whole supply chain in tourism for the first time.
They included transportation, accommodation, food, drinks, souvenirs, clothes, cosmetics and other commodities used or produced for the tourist industry. They identified carbon flows between 160 countries between 2009 and 2013.
Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney, one of the authors of the report, said: "Previous studies only looked at certain commodities and supply chains, however we used multi-regional input-output analysis to trace over a billion supply chains for a range of commodities."
The results show that increased demand for energy intensive travel far surpasses attempts so far to decarbonise the industry. Wealthy people travel more and so influence the rise of emissions much more than technological improvements, like energy efficiency, can reduce it.
Our wish to go to 'exotic' places, an increased addiction to air transport and to luxury goods has a much bigger influence on the planet than most travellers believe.
Malik said: "We find that, between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint increased from 3.9 to 4.5 GtCO2e. Continuing a business-as-usual scenario would increase carbon emissions from global tourism to about 6.5 Gt by 2025. The most important reason for the expected increase are rising incomes - affluence in other words. There is a strong relationship between affluence and footprint."
At the same time, at least 15 percent of global emissions from tourism have still not been included in any binding reduction targets as emissions of international aviation and ship bunkering are excluded from the Paris Agreement, the research states. "I think both travellers and tourist destinations need to work together to address emissions from tourism," Malik added.
Tourists from USA in other countries are the biggest source of emissions, but also tourists from other countries coming to USA generate the most pollution. They are followed by China, Germany and India.
But, as Malik states, when we look at the emissions per capita, the worst score goes to small island states. For an example, in the case of the Maldives 95 percent of tourism connected emissions come from international tourists, and this country is already one of the worst impacted by climate change as rising sea levels are already creating climate refugees.
On a per capita basis, Canadians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish and Norwegians produce a much higher carbon footprint elsewhere than others in their own country, while islanders and residents of popular tourist destinations such as Croatia, Greece and Thailand shoulder much higher footprints from their visitors than they exert elsewhere, the research stressed.
"Responsible tourists could help by being aware of their emissions from the activities they engage in, or the goods they buy, and then implementing measures, where possible, to reduce emissions," Malik advised.
"Ultimately real change will come from implementing regulations and incentives together to encourage low-carbon operations. One of the measures could possibly be eco-labelling of operations to promote sustainable low-carbon initiatives."
The popular - but inaccurate - assumption that tourism is a low-impact development option has its consequences as many countries have chosen to seek development through the rapid growth of the tourism industry, sometimes even doubling the number of visitors over a short time period.
"We have shown that such a pursuit of economic growth comes with a significant carbon burden, as tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential areas of economic development. Developing tourism has not therefore been—at least on average— instrumental in reducing national greenhouse inventories," the authors warn.
"This finding should be considered in future deliberations on national development strategies and policies."
Climate change also brings rising sea levels, possible flooding of parts of historical and tourist-oriented cities like Venice or Dubrovnik, extreme weather events, desertification of some parts of popular regions like the Mediterranean, which could all threaten the tourism industry itself.
If not human existence on the planet, the threat to industry itself should be an incentive for the sector to work and change these prospects.
"Our work could serve to inform the work of the World Tourism Organization UNWTO which advocates further tourism growth, even in already highly developed tourism economies and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) in creating awareness of the carbon burden faced by tourism-stressed areas," the authors of the research emphasised.
Marina Kelava, is an environmental journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia.