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With recent climate change data pointing to violent storms and warmer temperatures becoming more regular, airlines, hotels, and especially tourism boards must reconsider both their short- and long-term planning.
It’s no secret that millions of tourists traveling each year often do more harm than good for the planet. Consider water waste, the garbage tourists leave behind, and the greenhouse gas emissions generated by traveling to destinations — especially by air.
In the U.S. and Caribbean, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the loudest climate wake-up calls the travel industry has had in years, especially following a 12-year stretch without a major hurricane making landfall in the United States.
Recent storms like Irma and Maria brought entire islands including Barbuda and Puerto Rico to their knees, and for many western travel companies, the harsh realities of climate change suddenly felt much closer to home and brought new lessons on how to communicate with travelers during a storm.
Researchers have been sounding the alarm on climate change for more than 20 years, but in general, tourism planning has yet to acknowledge its reality, according to Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health.
“We have only recently reconceived how tourism should be measured and planned,” she said.
Wood said many destinations are still in the early stages of planning for climate change.
“The climate change challenge really has to be brought up when you ask about infrastructure,” she said. “Most of the things you’ve seen happening in places like Miami Beach, where they’ve had huge overbuilding right on the coast in major tourism areas, has not really been arrested.”
The high-rise buildings and coastal development that have sprung up in cities like Miami in the past 10 years highlight how waterfront city planning is accounting for more frequent flood-prone weather patterns, but neglecting to address what happens when sea levels in Miami, for example, will be nearly a foot higher in 2030 compared to 1992 levels.
Rising ocean waters are also top of mind for largely waterfront New York City, which changed building codes after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to require core electrical equipment and generators to be installed on upper floors rather than the ground level in case of floods, for example.
The world’s oceans are heating up as sea levels rise. Perhaps one of the greatest casualties from warmer ocean temperatures is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a major tourist attraction, where some 50 percent of coral reefs have died because of warmer waters. There’s still time to prevent the rest of the reef from deteriorating, as Netflix’s “Chasing Coral” documentary argues, and many researchers studying the area suggest that revenue from tourism visits are integral to finding solutions. That’s ironic, considering that the act of traveling to the reefs contributes to their decline.
Peru offers another spotlight on the issue of climate change. The country’s Pacific coast, which typically does not see much rain, suffered damaging rainstorms due to an El Niño pattern in early 2017. The deadly flooding that resulted prompted government and tourism officials to implement plans to be proactive rather than reactive to future extreme weather events.
Even before Hurricane Harvey spiraled over Houston in August, that city’s tourism board had a plan in place to deal with extreme weather. Within hours of the storm moving away from Houston, the mayor told the press that the city was open for business and that only certain neighborhoods had been severely impacted.
After learning from Hurricane Katrina and acting as host to thousands of Katrina evacuees, Visit Houston was also on the front lines of helping storm evacuees find temporary shelter at the city’s convention center while continuing to market parts of the city that weren’t impacted by the storm.
California has also been feeling the wrath of a warmer planet. The state expects wildfires every year, especially after five years of drought, but the 2017 wildfires were the most expensive and some of the deadliest on record in the U.S.
Recent wildfires near California’s wine country highlighted the travel industry’s vulnerabilities to climate change even when much of the fire damage didn’t impact tourist attractions. Other wine-growing areas such as those in France and Italy have also reported that grapes have been impacted by climate change and regions as improbable as the UK are trying to take their place as a wine destination.
There were plenty of signs that the planet was suffering before Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria — some of the largest and deadliest Atlantic storms on record — disrupted travel and wreaked havoc throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast and Caribbean.
Melting glaciers have been a concern for years, but two of Antarctica’s largest glaciers received media attention in 2017 after they started to crumble. If these glaciers and others in Greenland collapse — which is increasingly likely given average global temperatures are projected to rise as much as four degrees Celsius by 2100 — enough water would be unleashed to eventually submerge nearly every coastal city on Earth. Nearly 300 major cities like New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Sydney would be early victims.
By 2100, much of Southern Europe including Spain, Italy, and Greece will be too warm to visit during the summer months and the sea levels will be too high in many tourist resort areas, according to data from the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change. That’s an inconvenient truth for the travel industry, given 51 percent of European hotel bed capacity is concentrated in coastal areas and nearly half of all overnight stays in Europe are in coastal areas.
More tourists could soon be booking their summer holidays in Central and Northern Europe, data show, if countries don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions. The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement was one crucial step in that direction, and although U.S. President Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement, many U.S. cities have pledged to commit to emissions reductions set forth in the agreement regardless of the federal government’s position.
The global travel industry has started to rally around these issues and understands that many of the attractions and destinations travelers flock to are at risk because of climate change. Expect more travel brands to enter the climate change fray in 2018 and make a greater point to let their customers know that they want to be on the right side of history — and the planet.