How Climate Change Is Threatening Coastal Tourism and Recreation

Skift Take

A 1 meter sea level rise would result in the loss or damage of 21 airports, inundation of land surrounding 35 ports and at least 149 multi-million dollar tourism resorts damaged or lost in the Caribbean nations. This is all very real.

— Rafat Ali

The much anticipated hulk-of-a-report from United Nations scientific panel Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just been released, and it presents a dire picture on the state of our global climate and says the worst is yet to come.

Buried in various sections of this deep report are chapters and sections on how tourism is being affected worldwide due to climate change, and the consequences for various regions and habitats in the coming years. We will be extracting these findings of the IPCC in a series of stories this week, most of them verbatim from the report.

The first extract is about coastal and low lying areas. Some of the language is the dense officialese of these reports, so we will edit for clarity as needed.

Coastal systems are particularly sensitive to three key drivers related to climate change: sea level, ocean temperature and ocean acidity, the report says. Coastal systems and low-lying areas will increasingly experience adverse impacts such as submergence, coastal flooding and coastal erosion due to relative sea level rise. Beaches, sand dunes and cliffs currently eroding will continue to do so under increasing sea level, it says.

Coastal tourism is the largest component of the global tourism industry. More than 60% of Europeans opt for beach holidays and beach tourism provides more than 80% of US tourism receipts. More than 100 countries benefit from the recreational value provided by their coral reefs, which contributed US$11.5 billion to global tourism.

Observed impacts so far

Observed significant impacts on coastal tourism have occurred from direct impacts of extreme events on tourist infrastructure (e.g. beach resorts, roads), indirect impacts of extreme events (e.g. coastal erosion, coral bleaching) and short-term tourist-adverse perception after the occurrence of extreme events (e.g. flooding, tropical storms, storm surges). Recent observed climate change impacts on the Great Barrier Reef include coral bleaching in the summers of 1997-98, 2001-02 and 2005-06 and extreme events including floods and cyclones (Tropical cyclones Larry in 2006, Hamish in 2009 and Yasi in 2011).

The stakeholders show a high level of concern for climate change and various resilience initiatives have been proposed and developed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Projected impacts in the future

In order to provide some idea of climate change impacts on coastal destinations, many studies have been carried out on projecting tourism demand, for example, in Europe, the Baltic region and beach tourism in the Mediterranean  and in 51 countries worldwide. The studies provide varying details although it is difficult to draw overarching conclusions on tourism demand for coastal destinations. With increased temperature in mid-latitude countries and coupled with increased storms in tropical areas, tourist flows could decrease from mid-latitude countries to tropical coastal regions with large developing countries and small islands most affected.

The Mediterranean would likewise be affected in summer. In contrast, less is known about the relationship between the impacts of climate change and specific tourist behavior, activities or flows to coastal destinations. Usually tourists do not consider climate variability or climate change in their holidays although there are a few studies to show the contrary.

As for future impacts on coastal tourism, there is high confidence in the impacts of extreme events and sea level rise aggravating coastal erosion. A scenario of 1 m sea level rise by 2100 would be a potential risk to Caribbean tourism. The presence of coastal tourism infrastructure will continue to exacerbate beach reduction and coastal ecosystems squeeze under rising sea levels, as exemplified in Martinique.

Carbonate reef structures would degrade under a scenario of at least 2oC by 2050 to 2100 with serious consequences for tourism destinations in Australia, the Caribbean and other small island nations

The costs of future climate change impacts on coastal tourism are enormous. For example, in the Caribbean community countries, rebuilding costs of tourist resorts are estimated US$10-US$23.3 billion in 2050. A hypothetical 1-m sea level rise would result in the loss or damage of 21 airports, inundation of land surrounding 35 ports and at least 149 multi-million dollar tourism resorts damaged or lost from erosion to the coastal beach areas.

In summary, while coastal tourism can be related to climate change impacts, it is more difficult to relate tourism demand directly to climate change. Coastal tourism continues to be highly vulnerable to weather, climate extremes and rising sea levels with the additional sensitivity to ocean temperature and acidity for the sectors that rely on reef tourism (high confidence).

Developing countries and small island states within the tropics relying on coastal tourism, are most vulnerable to present and future weather and climate extremes, future sea level rise and the added impacts of coral bleaching and ocean acidification.

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