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Environmental Impact Of Tourism On Antarctica Essay, Research Paper


This essay discusses the environmental impact of tourism on Antarctica.

The subheading Description will give an overview of the continent, highlight the unique landscape, weather patterns and research stations making up some of the tourist attractions of this continent.

The subheading Tourism in Antarctica gives an account of the type of tourist Antarctica attracts and their primary motive identifying scientific research staff as tourists as well as highlighting the current trends and growth towards ecotourism.

The History of the Australian Antarctic Territory will be discussed highlighting past errors in environmental management and the current trend of educational theme tours retracing the route of past expeditions.

Legislation Pertaining to Antarctica will be listed and the Environmental Impact Process required prior to any Antarctic activity will be noted.

The Positive Impact of the multiplier effect of tourism on the country of origin will be discussed as well as the personal gratification and environmental awareness of an Antarctic visit. The Negative Impact of the effect an increase in visitors will be analysed under the subheadings of the human impact on Birds, Heritage Sites and the Terrestrial Environment.

Recommendations / Conclusions will highlight the need for continual monitoring and evolution of strategic management plans.

This essay concludes that for the good of environmental sustainability, scientific integrity should be paramount in the future management of the Antarctic having priority over tourism or development. A management plan considering the needs of all interested parties should be developed and implemented in conjunction with the development of monitoring protocols, and strictly adhered to.


According to the New Zealand Metrological Service, the continent of Antarctica lies almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle (at 66 33 S). It is covered by 90 per cent of the world’s ice which has an average thickness of about 2,000 metres. Scarcely five per cent of this land mass is without permanent ice or snow, and only the coastal rock outcrops and highest mountain peaks project through the ice sheet. The Antarctic climate varies with altitude, distance from the sea and sea level. In winter the coastal temperature is between -15 to -30 degrees C. and -40 to -70 degrees C in the interior. The warmest weather visitors can expect during the hight of summer is zero degrees C. ( Bromley, 1985 p. 37).

There are three permanent Australian stations on the coast of the Australian Antarctic Territory, Casey, Scott and Mawson, providing headquarters for the scientific exploration of Antarctica. The stations main research disciplines are biology, botany, earth and atmospheric sciences, meteorological and medical research (SCAR / COMNAP, 1992, introduction.).

Historic development

Eric Lars Lindbland (cited in Luyendyk, 1995, p. 1) Stated that people search for challenge and education as well as relaxation on their vacations. This motive can be seen as the driving force behind the first tourism expeditions to Antarctica in 1958 aboard a Argentinian Naval transport vessel the Les Ecaireurs. Paul Dudley Hart in his account of the growth of tourism in Antarctica recounts the use of this and other government ships bringing tourist to Antarctica until 1969 (cited in Oceanus, summer, 1998, p. 90). From these beginnings a thriving tourist industry has developed including theme based educational tourism lead by the Southern Heritage Expedition Group entitled, In The Footsteps of Scott and Shackleton, (cited in Oceanus, 1988, p. 96) in which tourists retrace a route from New Zealand to the Ross Sea region and selected places throughout Antarctica. There is also the Mawson Voyage (cited in Oceanus, 1988, p. 96) which visits several subantarctic islands as well as locations on Antarctica including the Mertz Glacier, McMurdo Sound and Capr Adare. In 1993/94 the ship Marco Polo circumnavigated the continent in a record time of twenty-two days, carrying four hundred tourists. This tour visited such places as Cape Adare and Cape Evans and McMurdo Station, showing the evidence of huts left by the early explorers. Along with site seeing, these tours offered informative lectures about the environment. As Hart states, this area is more for those who seek an informative vacation rather than relaxation and constant comfort (Oceanus, summer ‘88, p. 96).

This expansion of Antarctic tourism has not been without disaster. In November of 1979, an Air New Zealand flight crashed into Mt. Erebus, killing 257 passengers. This huge tragedy ended such airborne tours of the continent (Oceanus, summer ‘88, p. 97).

In order that the tourists “leave only footprints” (Oceanus, summer ‘88, p. 95) in an attempt to preserve Antarctica’s natural environment, the visitors were, and still are, given guidelines that encouraged environmental consideration (Appendix 1).

Today, the actual number of tourists that travel to Antarctica could be considered insignificant when compared to most other places in the world. The difference, however, is that other places have made a conscious decision to trade the possibilities of environmental damage in exchange for economic growth, with some sort of local authority assigned to making sure the environment is protected in some way. (Oceanus, summer ‘88, p. 93) The major concern with tourism in Antarctica is the fragility of the environment combined with the lack of local inhabitants, other than those transient inhabitants on the science stations, to take the advantage and benefits of tourism as well as to maintain the environment.

Tourism in Antarctica

Tourists to Antarctica are, according to Beck, fare-paying passengers aboard organised tours, private expedition members, or adventurers visiting the continent through privately organised travel with the majority being United States citizens (Beck, cited in Abbriano, Belrose, Valles, 1991, p. 1). However, the difficulty in defining tourist is highlighted by Parker and Holman, suggesting that Antarctic tourist are, in many incidences, made up of a majority of scientific research personnel and therefore should be considered as transient visitors with a high tourist interest. Parker and Holman (1978), observed that during the research program at Lake Bonney, of the 300 helicopter hours allocated to the transport of research staff to and from the site, less than half were directly related to the research program, the rest were there for a ?stop over? at Lake Vanda on route, a popular swimming location. During the life of the research station there were a total of 3768 ?stop overs? at Lake Vanda. Parker and Holman suggest that as a result of these statistics combined with the knowledge that in 1992 when Lake Vanda was closed, visitation to Lake Bonney dropped by 68 percent, indicates that most research staff ??came to swim rather than conduct science? (Parker, B. C. and Holliman, M. C. (eds), 1978).

The ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) population is transient, with periods of residence at any station varying from several weeks to no more than fifteen months (Casey Station Management Plan, 1998 p. 8) supporting the complexity of identifying tourism statistics.

Considering the remoteness and hostility of the environment, the attraction of Antarctica as a tourist destination is described by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) report for the New Zealand Antarctic Program (SCAR, 1980, p. 2), as the ?last continent to be explored and exploited, the continent about which still least is known, which has many unusual, interesting and beautiful places.? Further highlighting that ?Antarctica is the only continent where humans are not indigenous and where civilisation never evolved?. It is conceivable that the idea of having to be clothed from head to foot at all times due to extreme cold is anathema to the ?pleasure cruise? mentality, hence tourism in Antarctica is primarily expedition and educational cruises which were pioneered by Lars Lindbland in 1966 with the emphasis on educating the passengers through expert lecturers (cited in Luyendyk, 1995, p. 1).

Ecotourism is a growth industry throughout the Antarctic region. During the 1991-1992 summer season 6200 tourists visited Antarctica compared with fewer than 2000 a decade earlier, records indicate the current tourist focus is on ecotourism, whale watching, visiting scientific research stations and historical huts. (Carvallo, 1994, pp. 76-79).

Legislation Pertaining to Antarctica

Australian law lists offences and prescribes penalties for many activities which may be harmful to the Antarctic environment. It also sets out obligations such as those to plan appropriately with environmental impacts in mind, and to fully assess activities which may cause disturbance to plants and animals (Antarctic Treaty, summary, appendix 2).

In order to facilitate the pursuit of research in the Antarctic, and to ensure that it remained open to all nations to conduct scientific or peaceful activities there, the governments of the 12 nations who were [then] active in the Antarctic signed the Antarctic Treaty in Washington on 1 December 1959. It has since been acceded to by many other nations (Summary of the Antarctic Treaty, 1959, Appendix 2).

Australia’s major international obligations in relation to the Antarctic environment are adopted in the following legislation:

Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980

Antarctic Seals Conservation Regulations;

Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) (Environmental Impact assessment) Regulations;

Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) (Waste Management) Regulations;

Australian Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Regulations.

Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Act1981;

Antarctic Mining Prohibition Act 1991;

Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981; and

Protection of the Sea(Prevention of Pollution from Ships)Act 1983.

Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975;

Australian Antarctic Territory Criminal Procedure Ordinance 1993.

Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974;

Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act1982;

Whale Protection Act1980; and Quarantine Act1908.

National Parks and Wildlife Act1970 (Tasmania);

Heard and McDonald Islands Environment Protection and Management Ordinance1987;

Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands Criminal Procedures Ordinance 1993;

World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983.

(Australasian Legal Information Institute, 1997)

The most important advancement in environmental legislation for the protection of the Antarctic environment has been the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection. This was adopted by Treaty parties in Madrid in October 1991 and declares Antarctica to be a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. The Protocol places a total ban on mineral activities for 50 years and specifies requirements for impact assessments, environmental monitoring, decision-making procedures and dispute settlement (MPEP, 1991).

The Environmental Impact Process

Environmental Impact Assessment (AIE) is required under the Madrid Protocol and Australian domestic legislation. The Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection)Act 1980 [as amended to implement the requirements of the Protocol] requires all activities to undertake some form of assessment. The Act identifies three levels of assessment as follows;

For activities that will have less than a minor or transitory impact a Preliminary Assessment (PA) is required.

For activities that will have a minor or transitory impact an Initial Environmental Evaluation (IEE) is required.

For activities that will have greater than a minor or transitory impact a Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) is required.

(EIA Process, 1997, p. 1)

On average Australia assesses 80 ? 90 activities at the preliminary assessment (PA) level each year. Approximately 60 percent of these are scientific research activities, the balance are logistics related. Of the total only four percent involve non-government activities such as tourism.

Since 1989, 23 Initial Environmental Evaluations (IEE) have been undertaken, none involving tourist activities and to date Australia has not conducted any assessments at the Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) level ( Impact Assessment, 1997, p. 1).

Positive Impacts

The benefit of the multiplier effect of tourism spending (Mathieson and Wall, 1982) on the Antarctic continent that does not have a commercial base could be seen as minimal however, the country of tourist origin with the need to supply all inclusive comprehensive travel necessities could be seen as it own beneficiary. This can also be seen by the economic and employment benefits through the construction of specific Antarctic transportation ships such as the Marco Polo.

As result of exposure through tourism, the need for conservation in Antarctica is probably better understood today than ever before as can be seen by the implementation of specific legislation and guidelines for Antarctic visitors. The pressure of increasing human populations on the environment has produced a general awareness of the value of the unspoilt nature of this wilderness. Such visits also bring fulfilment to those seeking personal challenge and wilderness adventure. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggests that scientific activities may benefit from tourist visitation. (IUCN, 1994) Tourist visits can provide a useful link with the outside world and strengthen political support for Antarctic science. It is also conceivable that the educational motivation to visit Antarctica would attract an intellectual level of participant, small, independent (educational tourist) expeditions to remote areas often make valuable scientific observations (IUCN, 1994).

Negative Impacts

No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, – so helpless and so ridiculous (Emerson,1833, cited in Walton 1992 p. 56).

With such a fragile environment, the need to learn the ?language? of Antarctica is paramount.

Antarctic Birds and the Human Impact

The bird life in Antarctica is a feature of tourist interest. The numbers of birds breeding around the rocky coastline and the offshore islands are enormous, 100 million or more individuals including four species of penguins, several species of petrels, skua, gulls and terns. Each spring the coast of Antarctica awakens with the return of millions of seabirds to breed. Their arrival is a dramatic end to the long dark polar winter. First to arrive are the Adelie Penguins, who have walked, often up to 50km, across the sea ice to reach their nesting grounds. The petrels and skuas arrive soon after, flying in from the open sea. Most of the established breeding birds return to the same nest site and to the same mate. When necessary, the site is cleared of snow and the pair bond re-established before the new breeding season begins (Antarctic Birds, 1977).

Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands have been isolated for a long time, and those birds which colonised the areas have done so in the absence of terrestrial predators. Most exhibit a remarkable tameness which permits close observation and study. Communal nesting habits, and in the case of penguins and petrels, extreme adaptation to a pelagic life have left the birds highly vulnerable to the activities of man.

Nesting birds, even penguins in the dense rookeries, are easily disturbed and will desert their nest. This causes a disruption in the orderliness of the colony, fighting and exposing the eggs and chicks to increased predator attack from skuas and other natural enemies (Antarctic Birds, 1977).

The historical human activities of slaughtering penguins for their oil and other birds for their feathers has ceased however the legacy of the era, feral cats and rats, remain to prey on ground nesting birds.

The Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980 makes it an offence to “kill, take, injure or otherwise interfere with a native invertebrate or native mammal in the Antarctic” and to “gather, collect, injure or otherwise interfere with a native plant in the Antarctic”. It prohibits the significant modification to habitats of plants and animals.

The desire for close inspection and photographs by tourists has the potential to disrupt the lifecycle of bird life and is addressed in The Guidelines for Tourist Conduct stating ?Tourists can not harm any animal or bird?? ?damage the environment (ie., litter, harass, or disturb animals or plants? (Appendix 1).

The Terrestrial Environment and the Human Impact

Campbell, (1998, p. 368) identifies terrestrial life in the Antarctica as unlike that in all other major regions of the world: Some of the major problems associated with Antarctic tourism include the fragility of the fauna as highlighted by Hart (Oceanus, summer, 1988, p. 94). The vegetation is composed almost entirely of low lying mosses and lichens, and there are no vertebrate animals (besides birds and seals which depend on the marine environment for food). Even the climatically less severe sub-Antarctic islands possess a very limited tundra-like vegetation of short flowering plants and ferns with very few shrubby species and no trees; apart from a few land birds, only invertebrate animals are native to the region ( Cameron, 1972, p. 267).

The damage of a single footprint can destroy fragile grasses, mosses and lichens that will not recover. If carelessness were to prevail, the environment of Antarctica could suffer serious damage (Oceanus, summer, 1988, p. 95).

Walton gives an account of the human impact of land-based sealing and whaling activities through history, which ceased by 1965, resulted in settlements and processing stations on several islands which led to widespread destruction of the vegetation around these areas The introduction of domestic animals (sheep, goats, cattle, horses, pigs, poultry, cats, dogs) and the accidentally introduced rats and mice have caused significant changes to both the vegetation and the native wildlife. Many of the domestic animals were fed on imported fodder containing seeds of temperate climate plants. Thus, on most islands numerous introduced weed species occur around the existing and ruined settlements (Walton, 1994, p. 78). As a result of Antarctica?s fragile environment and the less than ideal historical human impact, measures providing for the protection of fauna and flora have been implemented in the Antarctic Territories Environmental Plan Act and the Antarctic Seals Conservation Regulations. Many activities require a permit before they can be undertaken, including the collection of animal and plant specimens (along with bones, eggs and dead specimens), and the disturbance of a concentration (more than 20) of birds or seals (ATE, Act, 1980).

Historical Sites and the Human Impact

The historic and heritage aspects of the Australian Antarctic Territory are managed in accordance with the Australia ICOMOS charter (”the Burra charter”), which is concerned with the identification of cultural significance and the development and implementation of a (cultural) conservation strategy. The Antarctic Treaty also provides for the recognition of “tombs, buildings, or objects of historic interest”.

Australia’s Antarctic heritage is of unquestioned intrinsic value to the nation, and is a fundamental element of pride to ANARE personnel. It’s recognition and development has the potential to engender a strong sense of ownership and responsibility in expedition personnel, and other visitors, and thus is a powerful means of developing and enforcing appropriate environmental attitudes and behaviours (Luyendyk, 1995, [on line]).

The significant risks facing potential or known heritage sites, outlined by Parker (1972, p. 44) include disturbance by expeditions and/or tourists, inappropriate assessment and conservation. The Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980, as amended to implement the requirements of the Madrid Protocol addresses these concerns. (EIA Process, 1997, p. 1)

Theoretical Considerations

Advancement in Antarctic tourism would not have been possible without an increase in the enabling conditions including transportation. Massive passenger carrying ships such as the Marco Polo have been especially constructed to facilitate journeys into Antarctica (bj-doc.htm [on line]). It is this writers opinion that Clawson?s model of the five stages of the tourism experience is accentuated as a result of the remoteness of the Antarctic destination,; The planning and anticipation stage, as a result of the need for activity permits and the infrequent visitation opportunities, requires extended preparation. Travel to the destination is primarily by ship and even at the closest port of call, Ushuaia in Argentina, requires a 48 hour sea journey, conceivably accentuating both these phases of the experience. The ?round trip? return via sub Antarctic Islands would add further enjoyment on the return phase of the journey.

The on site experiences and activities, described as ? ? all those who experience its magnificent scenery and wildlife gain a greatly enhanced appreciation of Antarctica?s global importance and of the requirements for its conservation (IUCN, 1994), would conceivably offer a unique experience that would be a highlight in the recollection phase that few people have participated in.

Conclusions /Recommendations / Summary

In the early phases of exploration of the Antarctic continent, scientists and explorers were little aware of the potential environmental effects of their activities. Their principal concern was to preserve human life in the conduct of nationalistic exploration and the gathering of scientific data in this new, unchartered landscape. These earlier visits were at a time when the fragility and sensitivity of parts of the environment were simply not understood. Growing awareness of the potential for environmental harm has been slow to mature, and only highlights the need for a balanced review of the types of activities that can be carried out, their potential short and long term effects, and the need for continued reassessment of the issues by those committed to the preservation of this unique heritage, and its intrinsic scientific and cultural value.

Considerable progress has been made over the last few decades in the development of environmental controls and management strategies for specific locations in Antarctica and for the Antarctic region as a whole. The most important of these within the Antarctic Treaty System has been the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection. The advent of the potential for conflict between the various scientific and cultural values and tourism has heightened the need to clearly define goals and priorities for the protection of the environment.

It is this writers opinion that in the case of mutually exclusive goals, priority should be given to the need to protect the scientific integrity of the region. Protection of the scientific values of this region will serve to protect many other values. The conservation of landscape integrity for ongoing geomorphological studies would protect the aesthetic qualities of that landscape; conservation measures applied to protect the fragile biological communities will also protect the wilderness characteristics and values as an aesthetic resource. Priorities need to be defined that recognise the mutual interests of all parties, yet still provide for the free and open conduct of scientific and cultural inquiry without fear of detrimental environmental impacts that would destroy the conditions that the scientific studies require.


Appendix 1.

Tourist Guidelines and Conduct

Tourists must inform their government of their expeditions to the continent.

Tourists need early permission to visit scientific sights, such as Antarctic stations.

Tourists can not enter specially protected areas (SPA) without a permit.

Tourists may not bring with them to the continent a non-indigenous species (plant or animal) unless they have a permit to do so.

Tourists can not harm any animal or bird except in an emergency.

Tourists must not damage the environment (ie., litter, harass, or disturb animals or plants).

Appendix 2.

Summary of the Antarctic Treaty (1959)

I – Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only; any military measures are prohibited.

II – Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation as applied during IGY shall continue.

III – Plans for scientific programs and the observations and results thereof shall be freely exchanged; scientists may be exchanged between expeditions.

IV – All national claims are frozen from the date of signature. No future activity of any country during the life of the Treaty can affect the status quo on any rights or claims to territorial sovereignty.

V – Nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive waste are prohibited in Antarctica.

VI – The provisions of the Treaty apply to the area south of 600S.


Any contracting party may appoint observers. They shall have complete freedom of access at any time to any area of Antarctica, with the right to inspect any other nation’s buildings, installations, equipment, ships or aircraft or to carry out aerial observations.

IX Regular consultative meetings of the active signatory nations shall be held.

X Contracting parties shall ensure that no activity contrary to the Treaty is carried out.

XI Any disputes between contracting parties shall be resolved by peaceful negotiation, in the last resort by the International Court of Justice.

XII The Treaty shall remain in force for a minimum of 30 years.


Provides the legal details of ratification and deposit.


Abbriano, B. N., Belrose, D. D., Valles, M. J., 1991, Antarctica Recreation & Tourism: What do people in Antarctica do for fun, http: ant.rec.bib.html [on line]

Australasian Legal Information Institute, 1997, http:antdiv.gov.au [on line].

Bromley, A. M., 1985, Weather observations in Wright Valley Antarctica. New Zealand Meteorological Service Information Publication 11: p. 37

Cameron, R. E., 1972, Pollution and conservation of the Antarctic terrestrial ecosystem. pp. 267-306 in Parker, B. C. (ed.) (1972). Conservation Problems in Antarctica. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, BlacksBurg, Virginia.

Campbell, I. B. and Claridge, G. G. C., 1989, Antarctica: soils, weathering processes and environment. Elsevier, Amsterdam, 368 p.

Carvallo, M. L., 1994, Antarctic tourism must be managed, not eliminated. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy 9: 76-79.

EIA Process, 1997, Commonwealth of Australia, GoPrint, Canberra.

Hart, P. D., 1988, The Growth of Antarctic Tourism, Oceanus, summer edition

Impact Assessment of Australian Activities in Antarctica ? 1989 to Present, 1997, Commonwealth of Australia, GoPrint, Canberra.

IUCN, 1994, A Strategy for Antarctic Conservation, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Luyendyk, B., 1995, Tourism in Antarctica, http:bj-doc.htm [on line]

Mathieson, A. & Wall, G., 1982, Tourism: Economic, physical and social impacts, Longman Scientific and Technical, Essex.

Parker, B. C. (ed.), 1972, Conservation Problems in Antarctica. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

Parker, B. C. and Holliman, M. C. (eds), 1978, Environmental Impact in Antarctica, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

SCAR, 1980, A Visitors Introduction to Antarctica and its Environs, New Zealand Antarctic Program, Christchurch.

SCAR / COMNAP, 1992, Environmental monitoring in Antarctica: A discussion document. 23 pp.

Walton, D. W. H. and J. Shears, 1994, The need for environmental monitoring in Antarctica: baselines, environmental impact assessments, accidents and footprints. International Journal of Environmental Analytical Chemistry 55: 77-90.

Waterhouse, E. J., 1995, Lake Vanda Environmental Operating Procedures. New Zealand Antarctic Research Program.

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