Tourism and the Climate Crisis - A shifting landscape
With rising global temperatures and extreme weather conditions affecting many of the world's most popular tourism destinations, we examine what impact ongoing climate change may have on the industry...
“It was just terrifying...we were walking down the road at two o’clock in the morning and the fire was catching up with us.” – Amy Leyden
(British tourist caught in the Rhodes wildfires speaking to Sky News)
Fleeing your hotel in the middle of the night to escape oncoming wild fires is not something that many of us would associate with a relaxing vacation.
However, this was the experience of thousands of tourists on the popular Greek island of Rhodes this Summer, who were caught in terrifying conditions due to an ongoing heat wave that experts predict will become the island's longest on record.
Unfortunately, such extreme weather conditions are becoming increasingly common across the globe, and their impact on local populations can be devastating.
Drone footage showing the devastation caused by the Rhodes' wildfires.
From the wildfires ravaging large parts of Europe, to rising sea-levels affecting beaches and coastal resorts, it is clear that climate changes are having a significant impact on many tourism destinations.
This is presenting the industry with a multitude of challenges, with the risk that the pressures to provide short-term fixes will distract from the necessity of mapping our longer-term, sustainable solutions.
How individuals and businesses react, as well as steps taken at higher levels by governments and international bodies, will be a key factor in determining the future of our tourism experiences.
It's getting hot in here
According to data analysis from scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) the average global temperature on Earth has increased by at least 1.1° Celsius (1.9° Fahrenheit) since 1880.
This may not sound like much (over what seems like a relatively long time period) but, to put this in context, a one-two degree drop in global temperature was all it took to cause the most recent "little ice age".
What is more concerning is the ongoing trend of temperatures rising.
Global temperature anomaly fluctuations 1880-2022. Source: NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
As GISS point out, local and short-term fluctuations in temperatures are common, but a global change of even one-degree is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all of the oceans, land masses and atmosphere to such an extent.
The current impacts of this trend are being felt worldwide, with temperatures in Texas reaching 43.3°C in July 2023 and cities around China having to use bomb shelters to cool off during a 10-day streak of days above 35°C.
Such uncomfortable temperatures, alongside the associated extreme weather events, are not only affecting the way we travel but, on the current trajectory, will have a significant impact on how we live our daily lives.
Tourism - a changing landscape
Of seeming lesser importance when viewed alongside the more existential threats, the impact on tourism and the changes that the industry will need to make to adjust, can be viewed as a microcosm of the bigger adjustments humanity must make in the face of climate change.
These impacts are being felt in a variety of locations and on many different landscapes.
Here in Switzerland, a major effect of the rising temperatures has been a melting of the mountain glaciers.
According to Reuters, Swiss glaciers recorded their worst melt rate since records began in 2022, experiencing a 6% loss in volume.
Swiss glaciers are receding at an increasing rate year-on-year.
For a country that welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists each year looking to enjoy mountain activities such as skiing or snowboarding, this is a major concern.
Winter seasons are becoming shorter and shorter, meaning the revenue window for businesses such as ski hire companies or chalet rental agencies is also reducing.
In the short to mid-term, declining profits will make such businesses question whether it is worth remaining open, and this then has a knock-on effect on both full-time and seasonal employees.
To take a completely different, but similarly affected, form of tourism experience, we can look to the Maldive islands.
The climate.gov website reports that the global average sea level has risen 21-24 centimetres since 1880.
This is attributed to a combination of increased melt water run-off from glaciers and the thermal expansion of sea water as it warms.
For the series of atolls that make up the Maldives, this sea-level rise could have a potentially devastating effect.
The Maldives consist of a series of atolls (ring-shaped coral islands) lying just above sea level.
Lying at an average of just 1.3 metres above sea-level, it does not take particularly advanced mathematics to work out that, at the current rate of increase, these islands will soon be under threat of submersion.
For the many hotel and tourism resorts that operate on the Maldives, this will mean close of business and a write-off of all the investment placed into the tourism infrastructure on the islands.
Of course, these are just two examples from a wide array of tourism-reliant locations currently experiencing the effects of a warming world.
We could also look to forest fires in the Amazon, bleaching of coral reefs in Australia, and drought-related water shortages in the Caribbean, to name but a few.
What is clear is that the results of climate change are already being felt; what is less clear is whether it is too late to do anything about it...
A little less conversation, a little more action please
To return briefly to Rhodes, it was interesting to note that one of the first reactions of Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the wildfires was to offer affected tourists a free holiday on the island in 2024.
"Not a single human life was lost in Rhodes, and no injuries were reported... I am happy to tell you that Rhodes is more welcoming than ever. The island is back to normal." - Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotkis
While politicians obviously have to balance economic interests in their responses to such events, it is slightly alarming to hear Mr. Mitsotkis talk of a return to normality.
This, along with the attempt to ensure tourists return to the island as soon as possible, is indicative of the short-termism that all too often is part of the reaction to climate issues.
While politicians and businesses often make all the right noises about adopting greener policies, as soon as these start to impact on profits, they are quickly discarded and forgotten.
Other problematic areas come in the form of solutions which are presented as positive steps - such as carbon offsetting - but, in reality, merely provide a smokescreen that companies can virtue signal over while making little-to-no difference when it comes to the actual environmental impact.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a "business as usual" attitude is not going to provide the solutions needed to these challenges and a longer-term, globally-coordinated response is required.
So what steps can businesses within the tourism industry take to provide a platform for real and sustainable change?
The reality is that some climate changes are here with us for the foreseeable future and this may mean the annual timetable of tourism having to change.
With summer temperatures becoming too warm in many locations for enjoyable visits, spring and autumn travel may become more popular.
Summer beach holidays could become a thing of the past.
Operators, airlines and local service providers may need to adjust the range and quantity of their offerings during these times to reflect a shifting increase in demand.
Conversely, the Summer season could see inhabitants of warmer location seeking cooler airs in locations such as northern Europe - creating a new market for operators to tap into.
A key focus should be on a reduction in carbon emissions as a result of tourism activities.
The age of the budget airline flight may have to come to an end - a model in which the cost of the transport is in direct relation to its impact on the environment would ensure that certain flights are only made when really necessary and that travellers seek alternative and greener forms of transport.
Of course, the above would benefit greatly from governments and authorities increasing investment in rail networks and localised bus and coach services and making such services affordable, comfortable and safe.
An interesting case study is the city of Valencia on the east coast of Spain.
Under its Visit Valencia programme, the city is aiming to become a carbon neutral destination by 2025 using the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) model - a dashboard of indicators based on a broad international reference framework.
Valencia is aiming to become a carbon neutral destination by 2025.
What is interesting about this scheme is its use of big data to measure the city's carbon footprint based on three areas - travellers to and from the city, indirect emissions from energy consumption related to tourism, and all other indirect emissions: everything from accommodation and energy to cultural and sporting events.
Visit Valencia provides a model that will perhaps be the blueprint of future tourism infrastructure development.
It's combination of big data analysis and holistic outlook, alongside localised incentives and policies to co-opt businesses into playing their part, offers a platform that could deliver real change. (As ever with these things, time will tell...)
What is certain is that fresh-thinking, innovative ideas and the utilisation of new and sustainable technologies will all play a vital role in shaping tourism's future.
At IMI, we want our students to be the leaders and drivers of change in this new industry frontier.
Through study units such as Sustainable Tourism Planning and Development we prepare them for both current and anticipated industry challenges and encourage them to consider and develop their own innovative ideas and solutions.
Our study environment of free-thinking, dialogue and constant referral to real-world examples, produces students who are prepared to question received wisdoms and have the strength of conviction to offer their own fresh thinking.
Nothing would make us prouder than to see our graduates at the forefront of a new, sustainable and thriving tourism sector in balance and harmony with its global environment.
Interested in shaping the hospitality industry of the future? Contact us using the form below and let us guide you on your study options: