Thursday, November 1, 2007

Climate change and tourism: saving our global destinations

Bad weather can ruin a holiday. Global climate change can ruin a holiday destination. This is one of the urgent messages that delegates heard at an international conference on climate change, co-sponsored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and other international bodies, in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

Tourism has been both a victim and a vector of global climate change. Iconic tourist destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef, the countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, the European Alps, the island states of the Seychelles, the Maldives and Mauritius, and the majestic glaciated mountain landscapes from the Rockies to the Andes have all become victims of the rise in global mean temperature of the past 150 years.

But the tourism sector has also become a non-negligible contributor to climate change through greenhouse-gas emissions largely from the transport and accommodation of tourists — as much as 5 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, according to the conference's foundational paper, Climate Change and Tourism: Responding to Global Challenges. Under a "business as usual" scenario, emissions from the rapidly growing global tourism sector were projected to more than double in the next 30 years.

Tourism is highly dependant on climate, with weather affecting a wide range of the environmental resources that are critical attractions for tourism, such as snow conditions, wildlife productivity and biodiversity, water levels and quality. Tourists themselves have a high adaptive capacity to avoid destinations affected by climate change or to shift the timing of travel to avoid unfavourable climate conditions.

Suppliers of tourism services and tourism operators at specific destinations have less adaptive capacity. Large tour operators, who do not own the infrastructure, are in a better position to adapt to changes at destinations because they can respond to clients' demands and provide information to influence clients' travel choices. Destination communities and tourism operators with large investments in immobile capital assets (e.g. a hotel, resort complex, marine or casino) have the least adaptive capacity, but all will be forced to adapt to minimize the risks posed by climate change.

So what did the delegates in Davos hear about the health of the world's tourist destinations?

Venice is increasingly susceptible to sea-level rises as are other iconic coastal cities such as Cairo.

The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by coral bleaching and mortality, while 50 per cent of the world's coral reefs are now significantly bleached.

Small island states such as the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius will, under business-as-usual emissions growth, experience partial, if not catastrophic, flooding due to rising sea levels and increasing frequency of storms, along with salt water contamination of their natural water supplies and farmland.

The summer temperatures of the countries along the Mediterranean, especially the islands of the Greek Archipelago in the Aegean Sea, may eventually render that destination untenable in July and August.

The years 1994, 2000, 2002 and particularly 2003 have been the warmest on record in the Swiss Alps in the past 500 years; Swiss investment banks will no longer loan capital to ski resorts below certain altitudes.

Mountain destinations, including the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park in Canada and the U.S., are experiencing significant glacier retreat.

The shorter ice-cover season in Canada's Churchill and Hudson Bay region is threatening the habitat and well-being of charismatic species such as the polar bear, a significant attraction of ecotourism.

The pine beetle infestation in B.C. forests, due to warmer winters, is beginning to devalue the aesthetic beauty of the natural landscape in this part of the world.

The UNWTO report calls for the tourism sector to take a strong leadership role in climate-change mitigation: reducing energy use; improving energy efficiency; increasing the use of renewable energy; and sequestering carbon through sinks.

In our view, the tourism industry in Canada must become an exemplar for innovative approaches to reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions through pioneering technologies and management expertise that will have value in the global tourism marketplace. We must not demonize travel, as tourism is the critical economic engine in many small island developing states and least developed countries.

But, by the same token, the tourism industry must strive to break with business-as-usual consumption of energy and decouple future tourism growth from ever higher greenhouse-gas emissions. The aviation industry must be encouraged to increase the fuel efficiency of its aircraft by working with the airframe and engine manufacturers on an urgent basis. Boeing's new wide body 787 Dreamliner shows significant promise in this regard.

Furthermore, the UNWTO notes that rail and coach have become increasingly popular modes in many non-North American countries where, for example, high-speed rail has captured the imagination of tourists. Perhaps the Canadian government could give greater policy support to the concept of multi-modal journeys in which visitors to certain parts of the country are given an incentive to buy air-rail or air-coach trips in view of the emissions savings that result.

Flying, given the sheer size of Canada, will not disappear. Carbon offsetting, while in its formative stages, should be seriously canvassed as a mitigation measure, particularly for air travel, where there are fewer technological options to reduce emissions. The lodging sector must begin to incorporate "green builds" more widely. Retrofitting existing buildings and construction of new hotels ought to conform with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system. Integrated resorts can look to Whistler, which has quietly become a tourism leader in energy efficiency and the development and use of renewable energy sources.

This is a critical moment for the tourism sector to show leadership in the development of a coherent policy agenda to address what must be considered the greatest challenge to the sustainability of tourism in the 21st century.

Christopher Jones is vice-president of government and public affairs at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. Daniel Scott holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo and was lead author of the team that drafted the UNWTO report Climate Change and Tourism: Responding to Global Challenges.

Source: Globe and Mail

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