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European holidays are pushing wild plants towards extinction

Spain and the Mediterranean bear the brunt of tourism’s damage. Mark Ballantyne

Holidaying in Europe has never been more popular, with the increase in tourism driven by budget airline competition, rising incomes and relaxed visa requirements over the past 50 years. Last year Europe was the destination for more than half of all the world’s tourists. Tourism and recreation are big business, with Europe accounting for nearly 25% of the US$6.6 trillion that these industries contribute to global GDP.

Such success means many millions more people visiting the continent, more pollution and carbon emissions from air travel, transport, and construction, and more changing land use and habitat destruction. These are all threats to Europe’s biodiversity, which extends to more than 20,000 species of native plants, from dragon trees to carnivorous sundews, from bee orchids to wild kale.

Many are only found in Europe, and some are the original ancestors of today’s vital, staple crops. With the disappearance of traditional agriculture in many parts of the continent and rapid urbanisation, there has been a large decline in the populations of many native plant species, with 462 facing imminent extinction. The tourism industry in Europe, and everything that stems from it, is exacerbating the problem.

Tourism’s ecological footprint in Europe

In our latest study, Ballantyne and Pickering 2013, we systematically reviewed the IUCN Red List, the most comprehensive data on threatened species worldwide, and found that 194 (42%) of the 462 threatened plant species in Europe are at risk of extinction as a result of tourism and recreation. Some groups are more at risk than others, such as low-growing annual and perennial flowering plants like orchids, asters and sandworts.

The damage of tourism in Europe is not spread equally. Mark Ballantyne

Those species endangered by tourism and recreation are concentrated within just a few regions of Europe. Around 80% are found around the Mediterranean, with almost half in Spain and the Canary Islands alone. This is likely to reflect both the regions’ high biodiversity, but also its popularity as a holiday destination. Up to 246 million tourists visit the beautiful, affordable Mediterranean countries each year, most notably Greece, Spain and Portugal.

We also assessed which particular aspects of tourism and recreation threatened these species. Is it hotels and infrastructure built for tourists that causes the damage, or the activities tourists engage in at the destination? Well, the answer is both.

In the Mediterranean, vast stretches of delicate limestone cliff, beach and dune ecosystems such as in the Iberian Peninsula have been cleared for tourist accommodation. This was an environment once teaming with botanical richness. Hotels, resorts, theme parks, golf courses and scenic roads have all dramatically reduced and fragmented the habitat area of many plant species. The tourist activities that then takes place within these areas further degrades the environment and damages native plants: hiking, plant collecting, beach-going and off-road driving are the worst offenders. Those plants most sensitive to disturbance such as small brittle shrubs and slender herbs are the first to disappear, with aesthetic species such as orchids also declining rapidly due to collecting.

What about the rest of Europe?

In contrast to the sunny Med, the rest of the European countries accounted for only around 20% of plants threatened by tourism and recreation. At the continent’s peripheries, countries such as Ireland, Norway and Latvia had no affected species at all. Most of the remaining species affected were in the central European countries, near the Alps, which attract 120 million visitors a year. Here, summer hiking and rock-climbing were the biggest issues: trampling summer-flowering alpine meadows and disturbing isolated cliff communities. But winter skiing, the Alps’ most popular activity, was rarely reported as a threat to plants due to the protection of snow cover.

Still wild and undamaged, Albania maintains its natural beauty away from the tourist eye. Mark Ballantyne

Eastern Europe and the Balkans also accounted for a small proportion of threatened species, mostly the scenic countries of Croatia and Montenegro on the Adriatic coast. Despite political turmoil during the 1990s, these nations are now experiencing fast tourism development. They retain much of their rich biodiversity and so the effects here need to be closely watched and managed in order to avoid a repeat of what has happened in the Mediterranean over the last 50 years.

Being a better tourist

No one wants to give up their holiday. So for now, here are five tips that we as tourists in Europe can follow to reduce our impact on threatened plants and other species.

  1. Avoid using dirt bikes, quad bikes, beach buggies and other motorised vehicles on dunes and other sensitive ecosystems. Heavy, fast, motorised sports are the most damaging of all recreational activities.

  2. Avoid picking or uprooting plants on your holiday, even just leaves or flowers. Also avoid buying rare plants or parts of plants as souvenirs. Pictures can make for better memories and do less harm.

  3. Keep to designated walkways and don’t venture off-trail when walking in natural areas. In particular avoid easily-eroded ground such as cliff edges, dunes, bogs and river banks.

  4. Visit locally run, home-stay or eco-assured establishments that are more likely to have been there longer, know more about the region, and know how to reduce their impact on the environment. If you like a certain place, stay as a regular to avoid continual expansion of more and more hotels.

  5. Most of all, learn a little about what species are local and special to where you holiday, show an interest and respectfully enjoy them.

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