The dirt on tourism and climate change

The dirt on tourism and climate change


More than many other industries, tourism relies on a stable climate, whether attracting customers to lavish lakes, bountiful beaches or majestic mountains. But as myriad scientific studies show, climate change is causing more extreme and unpredictable variations in weather that only will worsen as carbon continues to spew into the atmosphere.

Even if the world follows through on its landmark commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement, we’ve already reached a point of no return. We still may avoid the worst impacts if we get our act together, but significant damage already has been done enough to forecast unpredictable weather into the foreseeable future.

The tourism industry is both a victim of and contributor to global warming. A warming planet actually might help some tourism businesses — at least for a while.

Feeling the effects of unpredictable weather

To see how climate change directly and indirectly affects a region almost entirely economically dependent on tourism, look no further than Lake Tahoe’s $1.3 billion sports and recreation industry. A lack of snowfall tied to California’s climate change-perpetuated drought led to several years of record-low attendance at ski resorts, which in turn harmed restaurants, hotels and other businesses accustomed to servicing customers drawn by snow sports.


While a strong El Niño season earlier in 2016 generated abundant snowfall that provided a respite from the drought, the long-term sustainability of the ski industry in the Sierras remains unclear as these unpredictable weather patterns continue. This uncertainty makes it harder for the industry to plan in advance.

Even tourism businesses that benefit from warm weather could suffer from a warming planet. While businesses in the tropics might enjoy longer beach seasons warmer temperatures in the mid-latitudes could reduce tourists’ motivation to travel there, opting instead for nearby destinations, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

And then there’s that whole matter of rising sea levels. It’s going to be difficult to take that vacation to Bali if it’s been swallowed up by the sea. Many of these at-risk islands also happen to be developing states, which causes them to be overlooked during climate discussions. These small island developing states, which include places such as Fiji, the Philippines and the Bahamas, face an existential crisis from climate change far more important than your vacation.

In the United States, beaches contribute more than $320 billion annually to the national economy, according to a 2008 study (PDF). And one of of every 10 Americans is employed in the travel and tourism industry. With rising sea levels threatening to redraw our coastlines, this is a serious threat to the U.S. tourism industry and the economy overall.

The dirty business of tourism

Tourism is responsible for about 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a United Nations report (PDF) on climate change and tourism. A vast majority of these emissions come from getting tourists to and from their destinations. Air, car and rail travel generate 75 percent of all emissions connected to the tourism industry.


Twenty percent more comes from the accommodation sector, which involves heating, air conditioning and maintaining bars, restaurants and pools. Of course, this varies according to the location and size of the accommodation, as well as the type of establishments — hotels having greater energy consumption than camping sites.

While it should be noted that the aviation industry is working on cleaning up its act — Boeing, for example, is investing heavily in biofuels and fuel efficiency technologies — air travel still contributes a significant 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

On the accommodation side, the rise of digital services such as Airbnb could reduce the need for building and maintaining massive hotel resorts. Airbnb guests use 63 percent less energy than hotel guests, said an Airbnb-commissioned study.

Tourism and the poverty-climate nexus

All of this might make you wonder if the only sustainable vacation is a "staycation." But eliminating travel could do more damage in the long run by stopping the cash flow into economically disadvantaged regions including Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Many mega-resorts in such areas employ locals, but many dollars spent there fail to reach local communities.


Poverty is one of the largest indirect drivers of climate change, and directing travel dollars toward local communities, can shift some of the inequity that fuels social and environmental degradation. Some tourism-reliant economies may perpetuate a cycle of poverty; however, organizations such as Sustainable Travel International are emerging to help guide the tourism industry along a more sustainable path.

Another benefit to travel done right is that it can help to develop a larger sense of community necessary to address global threats such as climate change. Seeing the world first person and meeting people who are different on the surface can shake tourists out of trivial day-to-day concerns. It can build the recognition that climate change doesn’t care about man-made borders — we all sink or swim together.