For the tourism industry, there’s no vacation from climate change
Vacations are supposed to be spent in paradise — on sun-kissed beaches with palm trees gently swaying overhead and clear blue waters that extend to the horizon. This is a narrative (PDF) that many tourists have come to believe — and that industry marketers have nurtured in their advertising.
But climate change is making it harder for resort owners and tour operators to make good on this promise. Climate change is having more of an impact on tourist destinations by eroding beaches and bleaching coral reefs. Mountain destinations are not immune either, as a warming climate melts glaciers and snow pack.
The latest bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has again brought to the forefront the growing impact of climate change on tourist destinations. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, warmer than usual waters have caused bleaching (PDF) along much of the reef, and have killed nearly a quarter of its coral.
Such an extreme event not only degrades the reef, but can lead to the collapse of the ecosystem as fish and other aquatic life forms move on to find other sources of food and shelter. Making matters worse, these events are expected to occur more frequently going forward, which will leave less time for the reef to recover between events.
This type of climate impact can be devastating for the local economy, too. The Great Barrier Reef directly supports 69,000 jobs in reef tourism and fishing, and contributes more than AUS $6 billion to the Australian economy each year. The reef is also a national treasure of Australia and the reason that many tourists travel to this far-off continent in the first place.
Over the last 40 years there have been eight significant coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef caused by higher than normal water temperatures. Historically, the Australian tourism industry has tiptoed lightly around the issue of climate change. While many tour operators have borne witness to past bleaching events, they have hesitated to raise their concerns with sympathetic politicians or the press, fearing that any negative publicity would scare away tourists — and profits — in the near term.
It is not surprising then that with the latest bleaching event, the local tourism industry association in Queensland immediately sought to downplay the impact. The Australian government went one step further and had the United Nations actually remove a chapter from the U.N.’s latest climate change report that discussed impact to the reef.
Faced with the worst bleaching on record, tour operators found themselves with few viable options. They could simply ignore it and continue to market to tourists as if nothing had happened. In fact, studies suggest that some tourists would not even notice that conditions materially had changed because they do not have the context to know otherwise. For them, diving on a less-than-pristine reef would be fine as long as conditions exceeded a minimum threshold for seeing fish and other aquatic life.
Alternatively, tour operators could try to adapt to their new reality. For example, they could shift dives to deeper waters that tend to remain cooler and less susceptible to bleaching. But, adaption may be only a temporary solution at best, as bleaching is expected to become an annual occurrence by 2030 without a significant global reduction in carbon emissions.
Organize to fight an existential threat
This time, with the bleaching too devastating and the industry outlook too grim, tour operators were compelled to take a stand. Climate change had become an "existential threat" to the reef and to their livelihood. Instead of remaining silent as they had done in the past, 175 tour operators banded together to urge governmental action to address the underlying cause of the bleaching: greenhouse gases emissions warming the planet.
Tour operators did not just go public with their concerns; they took an aggressive stance against one of Australia’s other leading industries, big coal. They demanded that the government withhold financing and investment support for the proposed Carmichael coal mine, which, if opened, would be the largest coal mine in Australia. They also demanded that new coal mines be disallowed. As Australia is the third largest coal producing country in the world, these demands provide a direct challenge to the status quo and a competing vision for the future.
While it is too early to know how successful these tour operators will be in halting new coal mines from opening, such collective action marks an important step forward in the fight for the long-term survival of the reef.
Reframe the prevailing narrative
While tour operators feel embolden to take on big coal, there is little to suggest that they are ready to challenge the status quo with tourists. Today, many tourists favor vacation destinations that are picture perfect (PDF). Climate change, however, makes it increasingly difficult for tour operators to meet such lofty expectations.
The recent bleaching is a great example. In response, local tourism officials have sought to downplay negative news about the reef. But press coverage already has been so widespread that this would be nearly impossible to do.
Moreover, returning travelers are sharing stories with prospective travelers on social media and travel sites such as Trip Advisor. The upcoming premiere of Disney’s "Finding Dory," the long-awaited sequel to "Finding Nemo," inevitably will invite the press to draw comparison between the vibrant Great Barrier Reef portrayed in these movies and the existing state of the reef today.
Given all of this, the best response by the tourist industry may be to have a direct and open conversation with prospective tourists about the conditions on the reef, while stressing the importance and excitement of seeing it even if it is still recovering from the bleaching. As part of this exchange, the industry also can start to change the prevailing narrative about what makes a perfect vacation. Conditions may not be pristine on the reef, but seeing an adaptive environment — recovering from the effects of a climate change event — is still worth the experience.
Tour operators may be concerned that such an honest conversation simply will motivate tourists to book a dive vacation elsewhere. Sadly, the bleaching of this reef is not an isolated phenomenon. Coral bleaching and mortality is expected to be widespread across the globe this year, leaving fewer pristine reefs to choose from.
An honest dialogue may be the best way to attract tourists to the reef, while at the same time start to unwind the prevailing narrative that the best vacation destinations have to be picture perfect.