Over the past 18 months, the world cannot seem to stop talking about the coronavirus pandemic – and this is only natural, given how much of a global equalizer, at least in certain aspects, it has proven to become for humanity. Nevertheless, in the covid clout, it was relatively easy to forget about other menaces threatening the world as we know it – especially, when they are as uncomfortable and complex, as climate change. Meanwhile, this might easily become the next great challenge the tourism industry will have to stand up to.
This summer, the climate crisis has probably outdone itself and showed its ugly face through a variety of extreme weather events across the globe, and the safe heavens we would normally go to get away from it all have not been spared. Turkey, Greece, and Italy have suffered from fires on almost unprecedented scales, which forced dramatic evacuations from many resorts. Germany’s devastating floods have made Bavarian mountain trails unreachable. A historic drought in the western U.S. had inns in Mendocino stock up on portable toilets, while vacation operators in Arizona were forced to cancel houseboat bookings for dried-up Lake Powell. These events are certainly a kick in the teeth for local tourism industries that are just beginning to recover from COVID-19.
They are also a sign of the sector’s extreme vulnerability to climate change. The natural and cultural heritage that tourism destinations normally use to lure in visitors is being threatened by the expanding and evermore unpredictable nature of the climate disasters, which have already quadrupled between 1970 and 2016. Soon your favorite beach resorts may become unpleasantly hot during the lengthening summer period, while mountain retreats will struggle to fill their ski tracks with snow. Coastal communities are suffering from eroding beaches due to rising sea levels. Elsewhere, increasing water scarcity in warmer areas is sowing potential for conflict between locals and the resource-intensive tourism industry.
However, this does not mean that climate change will kill the tourism industry. The sector has proved to be resistant enough to weather the storms (in this case, quite literally), and will most probably be able to adapt to the changing conditions. For example, Canada’s Whistler ski resort has been so successful in expanding the snow-free activities that it now generates more revenue in the “green season”. Nevertheless, climate instability will disrupt the industry in painful ways. And unfortunately, as it often happens in our highly unequal world, the biggest losers might be those with the fewest resources. Since it opens up flows of foreign exchange and drives investment in local infrastructure, tourism is often considered one of the routes to prosperity and stability for struggling countries. According to the U.N., it is a principal export for 83% of developing countries and the biggest export in a third of them. Development experts often call the industry the largest voluntary transfer of wealth from rich to poor, with the sums moved dwarfing aid budgets.
How can the devastating impact be minimized? Solutions like coastal adaptation and better forest management are already at the state’s and businesses’ disposal, the question is, will they be used efficiently and on time? It also seems like the government will have a large role to play, as its financial support can help small businesses bounce back when disaster strikes. As to us, the usual consumers, putting a bit more effort into planning our trips leaving the smallest possible environmental footprint could be a great way to start.