One of the terrible ironies of the climate crisis is that some of the most beautiful – and popular – places in the world are also the most vulnerable. These places are at great risk from being destroyed by tourists, as extreme weather events and temperature rises, water supplies dry up, and natural habitats disappear.
Tourism significantly contributes to the climate crisis – about 8% of global emissions – and hordes of visitors cause many more problems, including overdevelopment and degradation of natural areas. However, the revenue generated by tourists can bring enormous economic benefits to these destinations, many of which don’t have other forms of industry or would otherwise rely on extractive industries like mining or logging. Tourism can raise awareness of environmental problems such as coral reef bleaching, or the threat to extinction of certain animal species. It can also fund conservation efforts.
This complex relationship was made evident during Covid-19, when tourism was at a halt. Carbon emissions plummeted. Wildlife flourished. Thailand has leatherback turtles laid the largest number of eggs in two decades. All of this came at a price. Global tourism suffered a huge loss. emergency in developing countries.Families struggled for food. Illegal loggingAs did the number of people who moved to certain areas. poaching.
As tourism begins to recover, it is becoming more difficult to ignore that the industry’s future is tied to the climate crisis. The Guardian spoke to people in tourist destinations all over the world to learn how the climate crisis has affected their industries and what their hopes for the future are.
Denali National Park
North of Anchorage Alaska, US
Every year, thousands of tourists visit Denali national Park, home to North America’s highest peak. The park covers approximately 6m acres in central Alaska. It has one access point: a single winding road which stretches over 90 miles.
The road has seen rapid decline in recent years due to rising temperatures melting the permafrost beneath certain sections. August saw landslide movement. the National Park Service to close the roadat the halfway point and evacuate those trapped on the opposite side.
“The road closed abruptly in late August, on a Tuesday,” said Simon Hamm, the president of Camp Denali, a wilderness lodge on the far side of the closure. “We were given until Friday to evacuate guests, and a few additional days to evacuate staff.”
The business lost $250,000 in revenue and seasonal employees lost their wages. A closure like this doesn’t just affect the lodge and the staff, said Hamm, but also the wider community. “We source a majority of our provisions from local fishers and farmers so we were unable to continue to support them.” In addition, the local education system gets funded partially through overnight accommodation taxes.
The National Park Service recently announced that the closure would continue until 2022 as they work to find a long-term solution.
The climate crisis isn’t just causing landslides in Denali national park, but also tundra shrubificationIncreased wildfires and subsequent smoke conditions, drying of tundra lakes, electrical storm activity, and the advancement of non-native insects such as the spruce bark beetleTrees can become ill-equipped to handle the stress, and this can lead to devastating tree deaths. “All of these degrade the natural environment,” Hamm explained.
He predicted the tourism industry across Alaska will see declines in response to tourists’ awareness of climate change: “I can imagine that our clientele will become increasingly self-aware about carbon-intensive travel destinations such as ours.”
North of Athens
Marina Valli is the owner of Eleonas hotel, on the Greek island Evia. She says that her husband and she have been witnessing climate change every day for years as they are both hotel owners and olive farmer. “The beach is now very narrow as water is coming higher every year. The road that once ran alongside the beach is disappearing rapidly. The olive trees no longer produce as many fruits a decade earlier. The flowers bloom earlier or later than we knew.”
As Greece struggled with this summer, severe heatwavesthousands of tourists had to flee the area due to the devastating fires. A video clipThe viral video of tourists leaving Evia by ferry in August when flames swept the island became popular.
Valli’s hotel and olive grove on the northern end of Evia was damaged not once, but twice, by wildfire, forcing the couple to cancel weeks of guest bookings in August. In September and October, guests continued to cancel. “People were hesitant to visit us, fearing that the environmental disaster would prevent them from relaxing.” The cancelled bookings combined with the destruction of their olive groves, which they harvest and sell, resulted in a loss of €42,000 ($48,700).
Valli and her husband, moved to Evia 20 years ago from Athens to transform an inherited piece of land into an organic olive tree. “We wanted to protect the landscape,” she says. “We live by nature and not at the expense of nature.” To prepare for a future of increasing heat, Valli and her husband are searching for olive varieties that can survive higher temperatures. “We do not know the extent of the changes the climate will bring.”
East of Papua New Guinea
The Solomon Islands is not only one of the most beautiful countries in the world, it’s also one of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. It is made up of almost 1,000 islands. The majority of its population lives less than one mile from the ocean. They are experiencing dramatic sea level rises, more than twice the global average. In recent years, there have been at least five islandsThey have been submerged with six other severely eroded.
Andrickson Trahair was born in the Solomons. She now runs a small dive shop and guesthouse together with her husband Andrew. She sees the effects of climate change every day: trees being washed away by the tides, the shoreline creeping closer every year – and when Andrew takes tourists out diving, he often comes home with stories of bleached and dead corals. Trahair says that even the winds are unpredictable and different from when she was a child: “The weather system in the Solomons has changed.”
She is concerned that the climate crisis could have a significant impact on her business. “If there isn’t any coral, there won’t be any fish, then there’ll be less tourists to come to the Solomons as well,” she said. The Solomon Islands’ main source of industry has been historically the coral. logging; tourism has made up a fairly small part of the country’s GDP. Trahair believes that over-logging is a major reason people have to find other income streams, such as tourism. “Now we rely too much on tourism because there are no trees.”
The Trahairs are trying to preserve their natural habitat. In order to combat overfishing, they don’t allow spearfishing around the boundaries of their land. Andrew started transplanting healthy corals to areas where the coral has died or been bleached. Divers have volunteered to help with the replanting. The Trahairs also reach out to neighbors and villager who live nearby and encourage them to plant coral. “The coral replanting is doing really well,” Trahair says. “We try our best.”
The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia
Victoria Falls is one among the most spectacular waterfalls in the entire world. The Victoria Falls is more than a mile long and over 350ft (107m) high. Its massive cascades of water tumble over a ledge made of volcanic rock. It’s one of the main tourist attractions in southern Africa, bringing about 1 million visitors a year The area.
But increasingly severe droughts caused by the climate crisis – and visitor concerns about climate impacts – have seen those numbers dwindle, leaving the local tourism sector worried about the future. Sydney Ncube, who works in the food and beverage department of the A’Zambezi River Lodge, says that drought causes food shortages that affect his industry. “Local farms couldn’t produce enough [fruits and vegetables] due to drought,” he said.
Two things are frightening to local tourism businesses: the drought itself and how it is reported in the media. This further discourages tourists from visiting the area and deprives the region of tourism dollars at a time when they most need them.
Sky News reporter for 2019 filmed a segmentTalking about climate change at Victoria Falls, showing only a small amount of water. John McMillan (owner of Where To Africa), a tour company, said that this segment had a significant impact on the local tourist industry, even though the falls started flowing again months later. “Everyone was saying that the falls had dried up, which resulted in a spate of cancellations severely affecting [tour] operators.”
The tourism industry can have a profound impact on conservation efforts in countries like Zimbabwe, which is home to endangered animals like rhinos, cheetahs, and elephants.
“Conservation organizations rely on tourists to raise the necessary money to fund conservation and community development programs, and if tourism dries up, to a large extent so does the funding for this,” McMillan said. “On the other side of the coin, when the food sources of the local population disappear, it results in an increase of poaching incidents as the population struggles to find food and survive.”
Great Barrier Reef
North-east Australia, off the coast
The Great Barrier Reef is one the most complex natural ecosystems on the planet. It runs 1,500 miles (2.400 km) along Australia’s northern coast. It contains nearly a thousand islands, and 3,000 individual coral reefs. They range from shallow estuaries, to deep seawater, and it covers 1,500 mile (2,400 km). The warming ocean waters have resulted in a significant increase in sea level over the past five years. three major bleaching events.
Tony Fontes has been diving on the Great Barrier Reef for 40 years and has also worked as a Padi scuba instructor. He believes that the health and well-being of the reef is essential to the survival of the local tourism industry. “A dead reef is not conducive to long term tourism.” Even though he says much of the reef is still in pristine condition, Tony points out that as long as coral bleaching is decreasing the number of healthy reefs, it will eventually end the local industry. “That would be a very sad day indeed. We would not only have lost the largest reef in the world, but Australia also would lose its most valuable natural resource. The economic, social, and icon asset value that the reef holds is immense. A$56bn. It supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4bn to the Australian economy.”
Fontes states that tourism operators must first admit that there is a climate crisis and be open to conservation efforts. “Many tourism operators don’t want to draw attention to the fact that the reef is less than pristine. It is almost like they believe that if they don’t talk about climate change, it will go away.”
This attitude is changing as the dire situation of coral reefs becomes more widely known. “More tourism operators are running reef restoration programs, getting their guests involved in repairing damaged reefs and raising their awareness of the serious impact of climate change.” Fontes says he’s also seen operators switch to electric-powered boats, and even knows one operator who is building a boat that can run on hydrogen.
Taking care of the reef isn’t just an altruistic act; for many of these dive boat operators, it’s fighting for their livelihoods. “There is no doubt that the health of the reef and the health of the dive industry on the reef are joined at the hip,” Fontes explains. “The reef dies, diving dies.”