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Tour companies and destinations should restrict access to single-use plastic water bottles and encourage travelers to drink tap water when it is safe. | Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

Running Dry: Tourism’s Water Problem and Solutions to Address It


Published on December 22, 2020


About 70% of the Earth is covered with water. Everyone on the planet has a relationship with this valuable resource, and people must have access to water to survive. Yet its availability and cleanliness are questionable for billions of people around the world every single day.

There are a myriad of dire concerns related to water that every single person should be made aware of:

Living with water-related challenges goes far beyond water, however. Like many global environmental and social issues, water shortages, flooding, and lack of access to drinking water have a ripple effect: These things interrupt education for children, work opportunities for women, and agricultural lifestyles that have been sustainable for generations. 

Are you concerned yet? You should be.

Though you might have access to clean, safe drinking water and have the privilege to stay one step ahead of catastrophic water shortages and displacement, water-related challenges are a global and growing problem. 

The vast majority of people with privilege — and that includes travelers — have been shielded from the reality the world faces in regard to water. Travelers often maintain the habits they keep at home, liberally using water, such as by taking long and frequent showers, without consequences. With easy access to water and no indication of its value or availability to local residents, travelers will remain ignorant and further exacerbate this critical situation. 

The tourism industry has catered to travelers and trained them to expect certain amenities that inappropriately waste water such as swimming pools and lush golf courses and landscaping, especially in arid destinations. A study of luxury wildlife lodges across Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa found that the average guest consumption was a jaw-dropping 2,073 liters (548 gallons) per guest per night.

As an international industry penetrating even the furthest corners of the globe, those working in travel and tourism must start talking about and actively seek solutions for water-related problems in their everyday operations.

A few frontrunners are tackling water issues head on. Others in the industry can learn from and adapt these solutions to create a positive ripple effect of change.

(Take note that not many of these solutions directly involve travelers in their water conservation solutions. There is a huge opportunity to bridge that gap.)

Addressing Water Usage

For those who have easy access to water, it’s easy to take for granted how much we use. Every time we shower, wash dishes or clothes, brush our teeth, water our houseplants, and cook, we make use of precious water resources. Help travelers understand their water usage — and actively reduce it — so they become stewards of the environment rather than passive users of finite resources.

From desalination plants to rainwater catchment systems, accommodations are creatively making use of the water they have.

  • Amphiro products make water usage visibly obvious in the place where water is most often wasted: the shower. These products show how much water is being actively used with the visual of a polar bear standing on a melting iceberg as shower time drags on. The Student Hotel in Amsterdam, which uses Amphiro products, found that hot water usage has dropped 17% as a result.
  • Joali Maldives, a luxury resort, fails to share its many environmental accolades on its website. However, it is known for its initiatives and high standards of environmental care. The property has a composter specifically for wet waste, a desalination system to produce fresh water that is served in glass bottles, and a rain-harvesting system for its landscaping.
  • Peninsula Hotels intentionally uses low water temperatures for washing laundry.
  • Fiji’s Mantaray Island Resort has used a bio-gill waste water treatment system since 2010 to treat all waste water from the kitchen, laundry, and showers. Gray water and compost are used to fertilize the property’s garden. Additionally, its desalination system can produce up to 60,000 liters (15,850 gallons) of water per day.
  • Similarly, Aahana Resort in India uses a root-zone treatment to recycle wastewater. Additionally, its pathways were designed to allow rainwater to seep through to maintain the underground water table.
  • In addition to capturing and harvesting rainwater, Table Rock Jungle Lodge in Belize uses gravity pumps to manage water flow and on-demand water pressure-activated butane water heaters. Both of these require minimal energy usage when water is needed.
  • All buildings on Tanzania’s Chumbe Island have been designed to maximize water catchment during the rainy season. Each building also has vegetative grey water filtration. The property also desalinates and filters its own water, serving it to guests in reusable containers.
  • The swimming pool on Nikoi Island is filled with sea water and topped off with rejected desalinated water.

Clean Drinking Water Without the Plastic

One of the most horrific things I learned about a few years ago is the bottled water convention and trade show, which is a ridiculous PR stunt that attempts to minimize the negative environmental footprint of bottled water and justify its distribution around the world.

This PR stunt has worked wonders, as lots of people believe water contained in single-use plastic bottles is superior to tap water. Single-use plastic is its own environmental beast, but this combination of clean water access and single-use plastic is a two-headed monster that needs to be slain in the tourism industry. 

What can be done to turn travelers away from bottled water, even in those destinations where tap water isn’t safe?

  • New Zealand’s RefillNZ campaign makes it easy for people to identify businesses that are happy to refill a reusable water bottle for free.
  • The Kranavatn campaign in Iceland encourages travelers to drink tap water when visiting the country. Travelers are asked to pledge their commitment to drink from the tap, only use reusable bottles, and dispose of any waste created.
  • Remove the temptation to use single-use plastic water bottles in your operations. When planning trips, ask that accommodations remove water bottles from rooms and when dining. Instead, make travelers aware that tap water is safe to drink. Serve tap water in glass pitchers. When the default option is simply to drink tap water, people will do it.
  • When clean tap water isn’t available, Grayl steps up to the challenge. The company creates water bottles and purifiers for on-the-go use that kill all waterborne pathogens plus chemicals, heavy metals, and even microplastics. I am personally an advocate of Grayl and never travel without my Geopress if I’m going somewhere with a questionable water source. (Note: This is an affiliate link.)

The world’s water crisis is multi-faceted and acute. Those working in the tourism industry can no longer turn away from their responsibility to address these water-related challenges. Now, more than ever, it’s time to lean into solutions. 

Service providers need to re-evaluate operations and supply chains to ensure water conservation is built into our offerings and ecosystems. Destinations need to be transparent about water scarcity and access, and put locals’ needs before travelers. And we must go beyond awareness and education to engage travelers in water-saving solutions.

Have you encountered an innovative water-related solution in the tourism industry? Share it in the comments so we can all continue to learn and address this massive environmental challenge together!

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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