- The United States is the first in the world when it comes to GDP contribution from tourism.
- While tourism creates jobs and benefits states financially, there are also significant detriments, socially and environmentally.
- The negative side effects of tourism can be combatted on a state to state basis but in the end, a real solution requires much deeper change.
These days it seems like everything can and will be commodified, even experiences. From weddings to religious ceremonies, even a hike in the woods is dissected for its fiscal viability. Since price tags can be added even to intangible elements of experience, it’s no wonder that many cities across America have become tourist traps, selling certain artifacts, museums and experiences to families, couples and individuals. American families are saving carefully to afford these experiences, but many don’t realize that their choices have lasting effects.
While this may sound negative, tourism is an invaluable part of America’s economy. According to an economic impact report carried out by the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism directly contributed $503.7 billion dollars to the United States’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016. That was 2.7 percent of the total GDP that year and in 2017 the percentage is expected to rise by another 2.5 percent, though those numbers have not yet been released. The total contribution for 2016 was $1.5 trillion.
Direct contribution refers to GDP generated by industries that connect directly with tourists like hotels, airlines and travel agencies. Total contribution to GDP refers to GDP generated directly from travel and tourism plus indirect factors like capital investment spending and supply-chain effects. More information about how those numbers are determined can be found in the reported cited above.
The United States is number one in the world when it comes to the most direct and total contribution to GDP derived (in 2016) from travel and tourism, according to the economic impact report. With these numbers, it’s no surprise that among the 30 most visited cities in the world (in 2017) stand Los Angeles (22), Miami (21) and New York City (8).
Travel and tourism are great for the economy, especially generating jobs and breathing life into otherwise desolate states or cities, however, tourism isn’t a straightforward industry. For instance, information produced by the UN Environment Program points out the detriment to the environment when natural and man-made environments are destroyed due to increased population and tourism. This usually includes factors like building more roads and infrastructure to support more traffic into the area as well as the development of land for hotels, resorts, and shops.
There are not so discernable social impacts as well. For instance, Waikiki Beach in Hawaii is widely considered a tourist trap and has lost its natural appearance and ambiance. Today it’s another crowded beach full of expensive stores, luxury hotels and a poor representation of Hawaii’s actual natural beauty.
Many who live and work in these areas also often describe feeling overrun and ousted by large tourist crowds, overdevelopment, and rising housing prices. Unfortunately, however, for states like Nevada, Wyoming, Florida, and Alaska, the tourism industry is a huge contributor to job creation.
Lately, there has been a focus on how tourism can be done the "right" way. It’s obvious that the economic dependence of the United States on tourism and travel would detrimentally be affected by the reduction of tourism but residents and the environment deserve a more sustainable form of tourism. Sustainable tourism has become a bit of a buzzword and is still contested by some, however, its aim is a better overall quality of life, not solely income generation.
The best answer for how to solve the "problem" of tourism will likely be a trade-off between the economic incentives of tourism and how it affects the quality of life (which can also be related to income generation and job creation). Many solutions have been proposed, some with tangible positive outcomes, like marine cleanup initiatives in resort towns, however, what needs to be done will vary from town to town and state to state.
Not all threats are the same because not all of the industries are the same but in the end, there are several things these solutions have in common. The first is an investment in tourist agencies and organizations dedicated to more sustainable practices. This can be seen in the rise of "sustainable tourism" organizations. Secondly, tourist themselves can be held to a higher standard. For instance, laws have been enacted in Thailand to prevent poor behavior from tourists, like littering and smoking on their beaches.
Resorts and organizations can raise their standards as well. Captain Don Voss founded the Marine Cleanup Initiative to clean up marine debris in the Indian River Lagoon and surrounding areas- all popular tourist spots. So far, 350,000 pounds of trash have been removed. Some cities have even taken to banning holiday rental setups like Airbnb in their cities or the most tourist-heavy parts of their cities (a ban is coming soon for the most popular part of Amsterdam). This is expected to better housing prices and crowding in the area.
Overall, curbing the influx of tourism also has positive benefits, especially in places where rental and housing prices have been exacerbated by tourism. Despite these potential solutions, for cities that heavily depend on tourism, there seems to be an unstable future in sight. Without more robust economies, reducing tourism or combating the negative effects of their massive tourism industries may have little effect.