How Is Tourism Affected By Climate Change?

Tourists in Venice during a flood. Editorial credit: Ihor Serdyukov /
Tourists in Venice during a flood. Editorial credit: Ihor Serdyukov /

The tourism sector is one of the largest and fastest-growing economic areas across the world. In 2015, about 1,186 million international tourists traveled to various destinations representing a 4.6% increase over the previous year. In 2016, the tourism and travel industry accounted for 10.2% of the global GDP and 6.6% of the world’s total annual export. It is projected that travel and tourism will surpass retail and public services by contributing 2.5 to 4% of full employment by 2027. Climate is one of the main drivers of international tourism. The tourism sector has an essential place in the post-Kyoto Protocol roadmap due to its global economic and social value, because of its role in sustainable development and its strong relationship with climate. Compelling scientific evidence shows that the global climate has changed significantly compared to the pre-industrial era. The climate change phenomenon is expected to continue throughout the 21century and beyond with serious ramifications including, sea-level rise, increased occurrence and intensity of adverse weather events such as storms, ocean warming, droughts, and glacier melting. The regional manifestation of climate will be highly sensitive to tourists and tourist destinations alike, hence requiring adaptation from all tourism stakeholders. The effects of climate change are already becoming evident at various destinations across the world. Global climate change has also begun influencing decision-making in the tourism sector.

Implications For Tourism Demand Patterns

The natural environment, climate, and personal safety are among the key factors that influence destination choice. Experts believe that global climate change is expected to have a significant impact on all three elements at the regional level. Tourists have a more exceptional ability to adapt to the effects of climate change as they can avoid destinations suffering from the adverse impacts of climate change or change the timing of travel to avoid unfavorable climate conditions. The response of tourists to climate change impact on destinations and other attractions will, therefore, reshape demand patterns and the tourism industry as a whole. Understanding and anticipating the potential seasonal and geographic shifts in tourism demand will be critical for major stakeholders in the sector. Tourists from temperate countries, that currently dominate international travel are expected to adapt their travel plans to take advantage of new climatic conditions closer to home. The shift in travel patterns will have huge implications, including more spending in resident and neighboring nations and less spending in warmer countries currently frequented by tourists from temperate regions.

Coastal And Island Destinations

Coastal and beach ecosystems are among the most diverse and productive habitats on the planet. The coastal areas are comprised of barrier islands, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, and salt marshes. Beach tourism is one of the most dominant market segments that constitute a crucial part of small island nations and developing countries. For example, in the Caribbean, tourism is ranked 1stin the relative contribution of tourism to GDP out of 12 regions, making it one of the most tourism-dependent areas of the world. Coastal and Island destinations are vulnerable to the indirect and direct impacts of climate change such as coastal erosion, coastal boundary change, storms, and extreme climatic events, sea-level rise, and physical damage to infrastructure. 

The impact of climate change on coastal tourism is already being felt in some parts of the world. For example, the rising sea level is causing changes in coastal areas in Cua Dai, Vietnam, in one of the significant estuary regions that attract tourists. The vulnerability and risks to such areas are often coupled with a low adaptive capacity, particularly in coastal destinations of developing nations and small island nations. The seasonality of beach tourism could also be exacerbated by climate change. Going into the future, the impact of climate change on different coastal regions will vary significantly, and in some instances, it might be beneficial. For example, the shoulder season in traditional beach destinations such as the Mediterranean might lengthen and the winter season could become more appealing to tourists leading to an expansion in tourism in such areas. Northern coastal areas might also benefit from warmer summers, thus attracting more tourists and lengthening the summer season. 

Mountain And Winter Tourism Destinations

Mountainous regions are critical tourism destinations in several countries. Mountain tourism is most popular among the urban and busy city population as it offers peaceful locations, low-temperature conditions, and natural landscape. Climate change has severe impacts in mountain regions; for example, a rise in temperature could result in the melting of glaciers, changes in precipitation, increased pests, and a shift in seasons. Pristine mountain landscapes covered in snow, which are the main attractions in such areas, are the most vulnerable to climate change. In some areas, however, climate change might bring more opportunities. For example, shortening in the winter period and a lengthening of the summer period might provide opportunities for other outdoor opportunities such as hiking, trekking, and mountain biking. The effects of climate change in mountainous areas could be dealt with if stakeholders stimulate product and seasonal diversification. Diversification could involve creating spas, implementing snowmaking, grooming ski slopes to reduce snow depth requirements, improve insurance cover to deal with natural disasters like avalanches, and improve emergency preparedness.

Forest And Biodiversity Tourism

National parks are among the most popular destinations in the forest and biodiversity tourism subsector. In recent years, visits to forests as places for recreational activities such as hiking have been gaining popularity. Tourists visiting such areas select such destinations due to their unusual nature. Some of the most popular recreational activities in such areas include bird watching and hiking. Experts believe that regions such as the Amazon, which is a biodiversity hotspot, are likely to be adversely affected by climate change. Modeled predictions suggest that climate change will result in a 12% increase in forest fires by 2050 in the Amazon basin. Climate change is also likely to result in a shift in species range in various habitats. Climate change has also been blamed for the more frequent and intense forest fires that are displacing and killing animals in different parts of the world, leading to declining tourism activity.

Safari Destinations

The effects of climate change in safari destinations are already being felt in many countries. In mid-2012, flooding led to a three-day closure of the main road to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kenya, which severely affected tourism activities in the area.

Ocean And Sea Life Tourism

Oceans occupy 70% of the Earth’s surface and are home to a wide range of biodiversity, which makes them suitable for various leisure activities such as marine wildlife watching. Oceans and seas in hard to reach areas are increasingly getting more attention from researchers and holidaymakers. Ease of travel has led to increased interest in marine wildlife, including whales, sharks, dolphins, sea lions, and turtles. Sailing, cruising, and diving are some of the ways used to explore such regions. Experts estimate diving tourism has been increasing at a rate of 20% a year, four times faster than global tourism. Climate change is adversely affecting some of the ocean and sea life tourism destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef along the coast of Australia through processes such as ocean acidification (OA). OA results in acidic conditions within the marine environment, which makes such places inhabitable for various calcium producing organisms. Bleaching of coral reefs has also been observed in the Indian Ocean near Kenya, Tanzania, India, and Sri Lanka. Bleaching is not only threatening the coral reefs but also fish that depend on them for habitat.

Mitigating Climate Change In The Tourism Sector

An average tourist journey generates an estimated 0.25 t of CO2emissions. Emissions in the tourism sector can vary significantly per tourist trip; from a few kilograms of CO2to 9 t of C02in long-distance, cruise based journeys. Transportation alone contributes about 75% of CO2emissions generated by the sector, with aviation making up the bulk of it (40%). Stakeholders in the tourism sector need to develop measures to deal with emissions in transport to deal with climate change. Technological developments are likely to play a vital role in reducing C02emissions. For example, a shift to electric safari vehicles that have zero emissions has been observed in countries such as Kenya and South Africa. In addition to technological development, governments and other major players in the tourism sector should also implement regulatory and market-based measures as well as behavioral changes. While implementing market-based measures in developing countries, steps should be taken to ensure not to jeopardize poverty eradication objectives.

Reducing Emissions In The Accommodation Subsector

 The accommodations sub-sector accounts for 20% of the emissions generated in the tourism sector. The subsector is an intensive energy consumer. Experts, however, believe that there is significant potential in improving carbon efficiency. The use of existing low emission technologies and the implementation of best practices are likely to reduce emissions by 30% to 40%. Proper energy management could also mean business due to savings in the energy bill. An increasing number of hotel chains are improving energy efficiency, reducing energy use, and utilizing renewable sources of energy. Some hotels have also established a climate fund account that addresses issues related to climate change. Certification and eco-labeling programs are also encouraging hotels to take climate-friendly measures to promote their businesses.


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