When tourists consume more than the locals
I had hung up my towel on the rack for reusing. The usual placard in the Delhi hotel bathroom said only towels on the floor would be replaced. But when I returned to my room at night, I found a new towel in place.
That was in 2013, the year when 35 five-star hotels were given notice by the Delhi government for using 15 million litres of water per day of municipal supplies. Half of these hotels did not have a dedicated sewage treatment plant. It was one of the hottest summers and Delhi residents were suffering disruptions in water supply.
Tourism-related water use is very small as a percentage of total water used in countries. And yet, the local picture is entirely different. This is because it competes for the same water used by the local population.
International tourist arrivals touched 1.18 billion in 2015. There were over 279 million international tourist arrivals to Asia and the Pacific, an increase of 6.0% over 2014. Usually, tourism brings prosperity to locals and helps the economy. But, worryingly the places with high tourist footfall are also the places where tourism is putting enormous pressure on water supplies and is competing with local users.
According to a report by Susanne Becken of Griffith University, tourism in Bali consumes 65% of local water resources which is leading to conflict between the hotel industry and local communities. Country-wise, the highest withdrawal is by Fiji’s tourism, which contributes 7.2% to municipal water withdrawal. The highest per guest night water use was found in the Philippines (981 litres), China (956 litres) and Malaysia (914 litres).
An interesting finding is that in high-income countries, water use of tourists is comparable with that of the local community or even lower. Thus, in the UK, Germany, France, Japan, New Zealand and France, the consumption of water by tourists is not much higher than that of the locals. On the contrary, the tourists׳ water use in Fiji and Sri Lanka exceeds that of locals by a factor of 8.5 and 8.3, respectively. China, India, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia are also characterised by water disparities between 7.0 and 4.9.
Dr Becken’s research also showed that European countries are characterised by high water use efficiencies (typically under 200 litres per guest night), whereas countries in Asia showed very high water usage rates (about 900 litres per guest night). She found that countries with high average efficiencies were less likely to show large variations, indicating broader-scale sustainability in water use. This might indicate the existence of common drivers in those countries, such as water management policies, best practice standards, positive impacts of awareness raising campaigns, and pricing mechanisms.
A positive example comes from Spain where a drought in 1978 led to losses in the tourism sector due to limited water availability. When changes were made to diversify water sources, reduce leakage and increase efficiency, there was an improvement in the situation.
Meanwhile, in Delhi too, the campaign against water guzzling by hotels has borne results. The five-star hotels, which were given notice, have reduced their consumption by five million litres. More wastewater is being treated and recycled in cooling towers, toilets and parks.
Thailand has just announced its plans to charge 50 Baht from every tourist and to increase tapwater charges. That’s a welcome measure but a little late in the day.
More tourists will be happy to do the right thing if they are given a chance to do so.