Few industries are as complexly intertwined with the causes and effects of climate change as tourism. Tourism—from transportation to hospitality—is a resource-intensive industry and contributes to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which are driving climate change. In turn, the effects of climate change—both severe and gradual— are important factors behind the economic struggles faced by many tourist destinations. In the face of this cycle, the prospect of formulating policy to address these challenges seems daunting. However, there are a number of tactics that countries, regions, and municipalities can incorporate into their Climate Action Plans to strategize for the long term and help make local tourism more sustainable. 

Tourism’s Effects on Climate Change 

Recent studies have found that tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for about 8% of global GHG emissions, up from around 5% a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these emissions are exerted by and take place in high-income countries, such as the US, China, and Germany. Meanwhile, in smaller countries whose economies are more reliant on the industry, especially island nations like the Maldives and Mauritius, tourism is responsible for up to 80% of national GHG emissions

The factor that contributes most significantly to tourism-related emissions is transportation. Estimates suggest that GHG emissions from air travel account for between 2-5% of the global total, while in high-income countries transportation is generally one of the most GHG-intensive sectors (in the US it is the joint leader alongside electricity). Hospitality—including accommodations and food and beverage—also contributes to the carbon footprint of tourism, directly through electricity use and heating, and indirectly through the high demand for food and single-use goods. 

Climate Change’s Effects on Tourism 

Across the globe, many popular travel destinations have already felt the effects of severe weather events such as hurricanesfloods and wildfires, which are increasing in frequency as the climate changes. From typhoons threatening popular island destinations to rising ocean temperatures bleaching the Great Barrier Reef, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the tourism industry cannot avoid the extreme impacts of a shifting global climate. 

Climate change also impacts tourism in less extreme but still significant ways. Rising temperatures in mountain regions have led to unreliable weather and insufficient snowfall for winter sport resorts. Rising sea levels have begun to encroach on the landmass of smaller island destinations, such as Kiribati in the Central Pacific, while beach erosion continues to worsen. The distribution of wild populations and even the activity of pests change as temperatures rise and dry seasons expand. Some migratory birds, for instance, choose now to winter in Europe rather than make the long trip down to Africa. These gradual but serious changes have significant effects on travel destinations, particularly those reliant on surrounding natural environments. 

This damage is compounded by the economic fallout of climate-related disasters and climate change. When destinations are destroyed or heavily damaged, tourism rates inevitably drop. Local businesses lose out on expected income from tourist spending, and the local economy can suddenly find itself facing a crisis. These losses and the resulting economic instability in turn discourage investment, leading to underfunded recovery and rebuilding efforts, as well as long-term negative social and economic impacts. 

Through Climate Action Plans, communities around the world are taking action to address climate issues, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and deliver wider social, environmental, and economic benefits. There are a number of strategies that a municipality or state might incorporate into its plan to address both the impacts of tourism on the climate and the impacts of climate change on tourism in their area: 

  • Sustainable transportation: Implement sustainable transport strategies, such as bicycle rental schemes, in tourist-dense areas. Encourage local businesses to utilize sustainable transport options.
  • Carbon offsetting: Mandate locally-operating airlines to provide travelers with the option to offset their carbon emissions by investing in carbon-negative initiatives, such as the protection of carbon-sink ecosystems.
  • Carbon taxes and fees: Impose taxes or fees on the most carbon-intensive companies in the local travel industry, proportional to the amount of GHG emissions they are responsible for.
  • Clean energy programs: Develop ambitious local clean energy initiatives that involve businesses within the travel industry, such as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a partnership between the State and US Dept. of Energy to achieve 100% clean energy by 2045. 

Today, travel is easier and more affordable than ever, giving many the freedom to visit places thousands of miles away and closing the distance between families and friends separated by oceans or continents. The impacts of climate change, however, threaten to unseat the travel industry in many communities, and sustainability is increasingly becoming a key competitive advantage. The United Nations World Tourism Organization cites sustainability within tourism enterprises as a little-known but significant source of benefits, including increased profitability and improved customer and host community satisfaction. 

At the same time, financial and development cooperation between public and private entities has become vital for leveraging the resources needed to mitigate the countless risks and vulnerabilities exacerbated by climate change. For long-term success and the growth of the industry, tourism organizations will need to look to sustainable solutions to manage resources, invest wisely, and work with local communities for a sustainable future.

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