The changing climate of tourism

The changing climate of tourism

The tourism industry is a main contributor to and also a victim of climate change. Dr Jane Strachan tells us how and why travel patterns are likely to change in the coming years, and how the travel insurance market will have to adapt

First published in ITIJ 85, February 2008

The tourism industry is a main contributor to and also a victim of climate change. Dr Jane Strachan tells us how and why travel patterns are likely to change in the coming years, and how the travel insurance market will have to adapt

Climate is often a major consideration for tourists when choosing a holiday, along with economic and political conditions, fashion, media attention and environmental conditions. As tourists, we are sensitive to climate factors such as temperature, hours of sunshine, rainfall and humidity. Our decision-making is also sensitive to the likelihood and perceived risk of climate-related catastrophic events, such as floods, hurricanes and forest fires. Climate conditions influence where we chose to go on holiday, when we chose to go, how we chose to get there, and what activities we take part in once we reach our destination. But, the impact of fluctuations in weather and climate on the decision-making process of tourists will have consequential effects on other tourism stakeholders, such as tour operators, travel insurers and transport managers.

So, how will tourism be affected by climate change? The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal: eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest in the instrumental record of global surface temperatures. Global warming is altering the climate system, adding an extra dimension to the sensitivity of the tourism industry to weather and climate, and these differences in global temperatures and consequential climate changes are likely to cause shifts in tourism patterns. For example, there may be a poleward shift in conditions favourable to many forms of tourism, which will of course have a knock-on effect on the travel insurance market: travel insurance policies will have to be altered in order to take into account changes in travel habits and changes in the risks associated with a changing climate.

Risk models

Climate scientists use complex computational models of the global climate system to help them understand how and why the climate is changing. Scientific understanding and results from these model simulations reveal that observed global warming is inconsistent with how the climate should respond to natural factors, such as volcanic eruptions, solar variability and natural climate variability. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely a response to the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity – mainly through the release of carbon dioxide during the burning of fossil fuels used in industry, energy production and transport.

Global climate models are also used to project how the climate may change in the future under different atmospheric compositions, representative of differing economic scenarios which take into account factors such as energy usage and global development. The projections show that because of our past emissions and the reaction time of the global climate system, even if we were to stabilise our emissions now, the climate is very likely to continue to change for several decades. Therefore alongside the mitigation process – reduction of our emissions – we are also going to have to adapt to the impacts of inevitable climate change.

events like the 2003 European heat wave, which killed 35,000 people, are likely to occur more regularly

A small shift in the mean average of a climate parameter, such as temperature or precipitation, can translate into considerable changes in the extremes of that parameter. Thus, extreme events, such as heat waves, drought, flooding, torrential rainfall and storms, may become more intense and more frequent; while in 20-30 years time, holidaymakers are likely to be at considerably more risk than they are today to these extreme events. Additionally, more extreme weather events may lead to transport delays and cancellations, which would lead to increased losses to travel insurers, unless of course premium prices were adjusted accordingly.

Facing the future

Hot extremes and heat waves are very likely to become more frequent, meaning events like the 2003 European heat wave, which killed 35,000 people, are likely to occur more regularly and with more intensity. Mediterranean summers, meanwhile, are expected to become too hot for tourists after 2020 due to heat and a shortage of water available for tourist activities, such swimming pools and golf courses. Increasing, summer temperatures and incidence of heat waves are likely to cause a subsequent shift in tourism both in time and space. Tourism in southern Europe may shift to the spring and autumn seasons, when temperatures will be more comfortable; during the summer, tourism is likely to shift northward to the Baltic region and northwest Europe. At the same time, visits to Canadian national parks are projected to increase by nine to 25 per cent by 2050 as a result of a lengthening of the warm weather tourism season.

But it is not just the changes in temperature that will affect tourism. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which will lead to changes in global precipitation patterns: precipitation is very likely to decrease in subtropical land regions, such as in southern Europe and south-west US. Resultantly, drought and arid environments would lead to severe water restrictions, which would discourage tourism, especially since tourism itself puts a lot of stress on water resources. In fact, the impact of climate change on water resources is likely to be one of the biggest global impacts of climate change. An increase in the length of dry periods and high temperatures is also very likely to lead to an increase in the number of forest fires, such as those experienced during 2007 in Greece and California.

Increased precipitation, on the other hand, is very likely to occur at high latitudes, such as in northern Europe, which is likely to lead to increased flooding. The UK floods in the summer of 2007 led to losses of around $3 billion – and occurred during the peak British tourist season. Flash flooding is also likely to increase, especially after longer dry periods; and an increase in coastal flooding, due to storms and a rise in the sea level, will have a severe impact on coastal resorts.

Warm coastal destinations, such as Florida, and low-lying islands, such as those in the Caribbean and the Maldives, will be victims of sea-level-rise, salt water inundation, and increasingly frequent and intense weather extremes, such as tropical storms and storm surges. This will have a substantial effect on the tourist infrastructure and could severely threaten several major tourist destinations. Warmer sea surface temperatures may also lead to increased water-borne disease, reduced water quality and beach degradation.

Weathering the storm

Changes in tropical storm activity and associated storm surges may affect tourism in North and Central America, the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, Japan and Australia. Four land-falling hurricanes during the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season led to infrastructure damage and lost business for Florida’s tourism industry. When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, it caused US$16 billion in damages. EQECAT, one of the world’s leading risk management companies, has predicted that if a major hurricane hit Miami it could lead to a $50-billion loss event. In high-risk areas, such as hurricane-prone coasts, travel insurance premiums and insurance for the tourism industry could increase substantially or may become unavailable. This will exacerbate the economic impact of extreme events and lead to the reduction of tourism to high-risk regions.

Developing countries that rely heavily on tourism are particularly vulnerable to climate change, as their tourism is often brought in primarily by natural attractions, which are more vulnerable to climate change. Developing countries are also less likely to be prepared for the impact of extreme climate events. For example, in Grenada, following the passage of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, more than 90 per cent of hotel rooms were completely destroyed or damaged. Furthermore, developing countries are less able to recover from climate change impacts such as destruction from a hurricane.

Tourism based on natural environments may thus be significantly affected by climate change. As discussed, coastal resorts and tropical islands will suffer from eroded beaches and damaged coral reefs, which currently provide a habitat for around 25 per cent of marine species, among the most diverse array of marine ecosystems, and underpin shore protection, fisheries and tourism. The reefs also provide a breeding ground for sea birds and the humpback whale. The loss of coral reefs and marine life due to climate change will have a significant impact on the tourism industry in regions that are dependent on this incredible environment to attract tourists. The Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, contributes around US$5 billion to the nation’s economy due to the two  million tourists who visit the region each year. However, the Great Barrier Reef, along with the Caribbean reefs and reefs off the African coast, has experienced rapid destruction.

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is leading to a decrease in ocean pH and declining coral calcification. Additionally, warming of surface waters is leading to increased coral bleaching, and a 2ºC rise in temperature could kill 90 per cent of the world’s reefs. The 1997/98 El Nino coral bleaching episode led to a 30-per-cent loss of coral off the East African coast, and reduced tourism in Mombassa and Zanzibar led to financial losses of US$12-18 million.

Snow go

Snow dependent mountain resorts will be one of the tourism sectors most vulnerable to climate change, while general winter tourism, which builds on the expectations of snow and snow covered landscapes, will also suffer. Global warming is leading to rapid glacial retreat, the disappearance of snowfields and a reduction in snow falls. As a result, many ski resorts are experiencing a significant reduction in snow pack and length of ski season, which is ultimately leading to economic hardship for numerous ski dependent businesses. In Europe, a 1ºC temperature rise is likely to cause a four-week reduction of the winter season and a six-week reduction in spring. Resorts below 1500 metres, such as many in Austria, are the most likely to suffer. The ski season in Banff, Canada, meanwhile, is likely to shorten by up to 14 weeks by 2050. Reduction in snow cover will also lead to striking changes in the landscape of many mountain regions, diminishing their visual appeal.

Artificial snow making is already common practice to cope with snow pack variability, but this is an expensive, short term solution, which puts a lot of pressure on already sensitive water resources. The solution may be to encourage alternative recreational pursuits, such as grass skiing and hiking, which could compensate for loss in the ski industry. Additionally, conditions for tourism in northern Europe during summer months are expected to improve, which is likely lead to a change in recreational preferences.

Friend and foe

A gradual shift in tourism activities both temporally and spatially, may help to even out demand and pressure on infrastructure. A poleward shift in tourism and summer temperatures may lead to more domestic tourism in north-west Europe and North America, while climate change may also have a positive impact on the British tourism industry. It has been found that the number of tourists leaving the UK for the Mediterranean is related to the level of precipitation in the previous summer – however, after the 2007 UK summer flooding this does not bode well for UK domestic tourism this summer!

A gradual shift in tourism activities ... may help to even out demand and pressure on infrastructure

It is important to remember that tourism itself is a big contributor to climate change. Transport, accommodation and other tourism activities are estimated to contribute between four and six per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, with three-quarters of these emissions coming from transport alone. If no measures are taken, tourism’s impact on climate change is set to more than double in the next 30 years. However, increased awareness of climate change, improved domestic tourism, and the potential for increased aviation taxes, green levies and high oil prices may reverse the trend for tourists taking cheap flights abroad.

So, tourism is both a contributor to, and a victim of climate change. The impact of climate change on tourism will create both losses and opportunities, but if managed correctly, the tourist industry has the potential to adapt well to climate change. Being aware of changing climate impacts and potential alterations in tourist patterns in terms of destination, season and activity, will allow businesses to adapt and evolve. Involvement in water management, maintenance of sea defences and conservation of natural environments, such as planting schemes to slow desertification, will help reduce the impacts of climate change. Improved building standards, hazard warning systems and disaster management plans will help to reduce the impact of extreme weather events. And through mitigation activities, for example encouragement of low carbon travel, tourism could actually help to reduce climate change.