Tourism’s Impact on Climate Change

Taking a trip somewhere new can be many things: a rite of passage; a celebration of a milestone; a realized dream; or a returning to your roots.

Our travel destinations can change with the times. But the tourism industry has a massive change looming on the horizon, one it may not be able to fully adapt to: the threat of climate change.

While travel is a contributor to a changing climate, it’s also very vulnerable to it. So, how is tourism intertwined with a changing climate? And what does it mean for you as you plan your next getaway?

How Does Tourism Contribute to Climate Change?

tourist walking in busy city

The tourism industry is in an age of expansion. It’s easier than ever to search online for the best deals on airfare, hotels, and activities. Costs for air travel are also declining, making travel more affordable. And, the global middle class is growing, meaning more people can take time off and travel to more exotic destinations.

New research has found that tourism accounts for 8% of global greenhouse emissions. Air travel is a large contributor. While specific numbers vary, one figure from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) determined that per person emissions from a single economy flight traveling from London to New York are equivalent to 11% of the emissions generated annually by the average UK resident. Even one flight can have significant impact on our global emissions. And air travel is increasing year after year.

While transportation is the largest contributing factor, tourism is also affected by changing tastes. At many destinations, tourists are looking for more upscale goods and services. This means increasing options for private travel and luxury hotels, shops, and restaurants. And an increased demand means an increase in energy consumed in regular imports and exports of high-end goods, food, and materials.

How Will Climate Change Impact Tourism?

An Unstable Climate

palm trees in tropical storm climate change
The frequency and intensity of storm systems is set to increase, especially problematic for tropical and coastal regions and tourist hotspots.

As a savvy traveler, you may have looked into booking a trip during your destination’s off season, when prices are lower and crowds smaller. Tourism sites tend to have both a busy season and a slower season. And quite often, those seasons are dictated by weather patterns.

For example, consider the Caribbean. The peak season for traveling to the Caribbean is mid-December to mid-April. While we’re experiencing chills and sudden snow squalls in North America, Winter brings stable weather conditions to the Caribbean islands. And peak season avoids hurricane season, which generally runs from June through November.

Tourism cycles rely on stable weather patterns. With climate change causing more frequent and intense storm systems, long-standing tourist seasons will be disrupted. Storms may pop up during times of the year they were never seen, forcing you to cancel a trip. Or, rising temperatures may make seasonally comfortable weather into heat waves that make outdoor treks unsafe.

Changing Landscape

We can’t talk about climate change without mentioning rising sea levels. Consider all the popular tourist destinations that are islands or located in coastal areas. Even a rise of a few feet would require massive infrastructure changes for those destinations, likely forcing some out of business entirely.

Rising sea levels are due to melting snowpack and glaciers. Regions that rely on snowfall to attract visitors, such as ski resorts, will start to feel the heat if regular snowfall and cold temperatures can’t be relied upon.

boat of tourists at glacier

As the global landscape changes, tourists will begin seeking out different destinations based on the most attractive climate for their activity. This would mean a dramatic shift in where tourists are heading. Businesses that rely on tourism to survive would have to consider moving location or adapting their offerings to reflect the changing climate in their area. A favorite spot you’ve visited year after year may no longer be the haven you remember.

Loss of Biodiversity

One of the reasons we enjoy traveling to different areas of the world is to get a glimpse of a region’s unique flora and fauna. While estimates as to how many species we’ve lost differ, many scientists agree that we’re in the middle of the 6th mass extinction.

Tiger in water

Many tourism destinations are popular because of their biodiversity. Should those destinations lose a significant number of species, the number of visitors to those locations is likely to decline. It’s a triple loss: for our environment, tourism businesses and organizations, and humanity.

Employment Loss

Here’s a fast fact: 1 in 10 Americans is employed in the tourism and travel industry. Those jobs are dependent upon visitors traveling to those destinations. And the money coming into those communities is often vital for their survival. Should the demand for these services and accommodations decline, it would significantly affect the economic status of these regions. And it’s certainly not an isolated issue. An economic downturn for 10% of our workforce would ripple out and have greater consequences for our national and global economy, too.

What Tourism Decisions Can Be Made to Offset Climate Change?

Since so many tourist destinations are dependent upon a consistent climate, it’s a major reason for those destinations to limit their environmental impacts. And if we want to ensure the existence of the destinations we love, we as tourists should be making certain decisions, too.

Transportation

Girl with bicycle in California
An increasing number of cities are becoming more friendly to explore by bike. Some even offer bike and scooter sharing.

When possible, consider taking a bus or train to your destination. If you’re flying, research airlines for those with higher environmental standards, or that offer a carbon offset program. Also look into public transportation options at your destination rather than renting a car. You’ll likely save some money, too—paying for parking in many cities can be pricey! Some cities also offer bike and scooter sharing, so you can avoid carbon-emitting vehicles entirely.

Accommodations

Some hotel chains are making changes to limit their environmental impact. Even so, the numbers show that staying in an Airbnb location is a greener choice. Airbnb stays use less energy and water and produce less waste than a typical hotel stay. And, many Airbnb hosts actively look to reduce their impact further though practices like eco-friendly cleaning products, solar panels, and providing guests with bicycles to use during their stay.

Food Choices

Whether at home or away, eating a diet high in plants and low in meat has a lower impact on the climate. When traveling, look for menu items that mention locally and sustainably produced ingredients—the impact of transporting those ingredients is far less.

group eating local sushi

Another food factor for travel—it’s often easier to pick up take out. Fast food creates a lot of waste, with plastic utensils and straws, disposable cups, and nonbiodegradable packaging. For your next trip, consider bringing along reusable items, like metal or bamboo utensils, a stainless-steel straw, and an insulated water bottle.

Conserve Energy at Home

Your home continues to consume energy, even though you may be on vacation. There are several steps you can take before leaving for a trip that will conserve energy and reduce your energy bills.

Your options here will depend somewhat on how long you plan to be away. For a short trip, consider lowering the thermostat, closing curtains to keep heat in or out, and setting your lights on timers or motion sensors, so they won’t be on all day. For longer trips, try unplugging electronics and turning off your water heater and refrigerator.

Do Your Research

Young woman researching on laptop

If you’re concerned about the impact your visit may have, take the time to learn the environmental conditions of your destination. What information can you find about environmental safeguards? Does the destination have the ability and desire to sustainably manage tourism? Learn all you can about transportation, accommodations, and circumstances at your destination, to ensure you’re making the greenest choices possible.

Considering the environmental impact your next trip may have, you may wonder, should I travel at all? As mentioned above, there are several choices you can make to ensure more eco-friendly travel. But beyond that, there’s something to be said for travel, the way it opens our minds to new ideas and understandings, and a greater appreciation for the world around us.

When each of us grow our awareness of climate change, and make incremental changes to lower our impact, it makes a difference. Even small changes, made by many, can lead to significant improvement. In an age of rapid environmental change, it’s more important than ever that we all learn to love and care for the wonders of our planet, before it’s too late.

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