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Global climate change: is time running out?

The tourist map is being redrawn by climate change, with rising sea levels and eroding reefs having led to a rise in last-chance tourism. In destinations with fragile ecosystems, is systemic change on a global scale the solution?

By Simon Usborne
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:59 BST, Updated 19 Jul 2021, 14:40 BST
When it comes to climate change, the clock's ticking...
When it comes to climate change, the clock's ticking...

It takes guts to start a travel agency on an island with a death sentence. That’s how Romina Tello views the fate of her new home on the global tourism map. The Mexican entrepreneur has lived and worked in Mauritius since 2014, when she landed on the island with her Mauritian partner and now husband, Gerald Ami.

The couple had met in Abu Dhabi, while working for an international hotel chain (being chilled by air conditioning every day in this desert metropolis was to prove a lesson in unsustainability, of sorts). Romina had studied sustainable tourism as part of a hospitality degree. In Gerald, she found love but also a means to make a change, as manager of Mauritius Conscious, the African island’s first sustainable tour operator.

Romina has witnessed dramatic changes on Mauritius, even in the past few years. The coral reefs that have historically supported diving and snorkelling have suffered from repeated bleaching. Hotels are piling up potato sacks filled with sand in a doomed attempt to rescue their beaches from erosion, and yet coastal forests are felled to make way for wave after wave of developments.

“If we’re looking 20 or 30 years ahead, I think the natural offer here will be depleted,” says Romina. “I think the exploitation of the reef will not leave anything, even five years from now,” Romina says. Does she see a business for the couple 10 years from now? “Probably not,” she replies.

Mauritius is one of many Indian Ocean tourist destinations with a paradox at their heart: the kerosene-guzzling jets — with their huge carbon footprints — that disgorge passengers by the thousand at their airports each day are threatening the very same destinations they serve.

How do you square that circle? It’s a question that’s troubling not just small island states where the threat is so tangible, but places all over the world where the evidence of climate change is rapidly becoming impossible to ignore.

A report in October 2018 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a stark picture of the near future, warning that we only have a decade or so in which to stop global temperatures rising by more than 1.5C. Should warming go even half a degree beyond this — a rise of 2C above pre-industrial levels — we risk placing a potentially catastrophic strain on water and food supplies, a greater incidence of forest fires and extreme weather, and large-scale destruction of marine life.

The report also examines the role of tourism, focusing mainly on the effects of climate change rather than the industry’s contribution to it. Tourism is responsible for around 8% of global emissions, the study concludes. Yet those impacts have not been well analysed, it admits. “Tourism sometimes falls between the gaps and I think that creates problems in thinking of better ways to tackle the problem,” says Michael Hall, a professor in the Department of Management at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Hall, whose work the IPCC report cites, likens elements of the tourism industry to oil companies that keep drilling despite warnings from environmentalists. And yet despite widespread head-in-the sand thinking, the industry is starting to respond to the sort of ‘freak’ conditions we can expect to become more common as temperatures rise: hurricanes, coastal erosion and dying coral reefs among them. But what happens when these exceptions become the rule?

The report looked at the direct effect of hotter summers on travellers. Spain could expect an 8% drop in overnight stays if global temperatures rise by 1.5C, it warns, as visitors from Northern Europe take their factor 30 to more tolerable climes. A 2C rise would reduce overall European tourism by 5% at a cost of €15bn (£13.5bn) a year. Meanwhile, ski resorts across Europe would be hit hard as seasons become shorter and more variable.

In a separate report, in May 2018, the UN identified 31 cultural and natural sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list as being at risk from climate change. They include Stonehenge, which it said would be vulnerable to flooding as extreme weather events become more common, and the Statue of Liberty, potentially at risk from more frequent storms.

“I think the map will be redrawn,” says Justin Francis, founder and head of online travel agency Responsible Travel. “The Maldives will be completely gone, and more and more of the Caribbean will be off limits. Many destinations that had strong tourism economies will disappear.”

Environmentalists warn that the IPCC is, if anything, optimistic in forecasting a potential global temperature rise of between 1.5 and 2C. “But very few of us think we’ll achieve it,” says Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Canada, where he heads up the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change, which specialises in tourism. “But how do you build climate change into tourism master planning, so destinations can adapt? We’re not getting those guidelines or processes done.”

Without strategic thinking, individual destinations are left to do their bit — or not. Mountainous Mauritius isn’t sinking, but its tourism economy is coastal, and beach erosion and reef destruction are an immediate threat. Yet the island’s economy, to which tourism contributes almost a quarter of the GDP, depends on large resorts and long-haul flights.

Positive action

Romina Tello wants to do something, even at a local level, to nudge the tourism market in a more positive direction while also shaking off complacency. “People here are isolated from what’s happening in the outside world,” she says. “If there are no pests or war, they think they’ll be OK.”

Romina and her husband began by touring the island in search of smaller businesses — guesthouses, eco-lodges and guiding outfits — that shared their vision but were struggling to attract international tourists. “Everything was a tourist trap or a luxury trap,” Romina recalls. “But there’s this whole new millennial population who don’t want to go somewhere that’s overcrowded or overpriced and that has no positive impact.” It’s still early days, but Mauritius Conscious is now sending its clients to areas often overlooked by resort-goers. There are electric bike tours and nights in vegetarian eco tents. Moreover, each itinerary comes with a ‘how conscious is this trip?’ tally showing how much money goes to Mauritian companies (generally 100%). Romina’s trips also include carbon offsetting for all emissions they create, usually involving an additional fee of around $10 (£7.80) or so. Romina uses Aera, a French climate finance group that invests carbon credits in projects across Africa, including a burgeoning solar farm on Mauritius itself.

Professor Scott supports all such initiatives, including carbon offsetting, adding that consumers should also seek out green hotels and tour operators. But he also stresses that for change to be effective in the long term, big business needs to get on board. Scott points to growing calls in the financial sector for companies, including airlines, to take part in compulsory ‘climate risk disclosure’ — that is, being honest with investors about the sustainability of their businesses should there be significant change to key issues such as emissions laws, oil supply and consumer demand.

“This won’t be voluntary for much longer,” Scott says. “Companies will have to make a case to investors and show they understand these risks, and are going to do something about it.”

Until then, much of what the industry does to mitigate the effects of climate change can feel like window dressing. I once attended a symposium on environmentalism at a luxury Maldives resort, to which all the speakers had flown thousands of miles. In a break between conversations about saving the planet, I stepped into an air-con-chilled room. where glass doors opened onto the beach. Meanwhile, the resort boasted about its green credentials because it grew some of its own vegetables on-site.

Professor Hall says some actions undertaken in the name of corporate social responsibility are little more than box-ticking, getting in the way of more meaningful change. But, at the same time, small contributions should be encouraged if they help to raise awareness. “I think they show that things can be done,” he says. But, he adds, pointing at the elephant in the sky, “The harsh reality is that aviation makes money by shipping as many bums around the world as possible.”

It’s hard to overstate the contribution flying makes to tourism’s global carbon footprint. Hall has researched the subject and says that, on a long-haul trip, regardless of how green you are at your destination, the flights contribute up to 90% of your holiday emissions. Above all, the choice of whether to fly — and where — shows how much power lies in the hands of travellers. The trouble is, not flying long-haul cuts us off from most of the world. This is a particular problem in larger destinations like North America and China. “It’s simple for someone to switch their home’s energy supply to a renewable source, but there are no planes that fly with renewable energy, so it’s fly or don’t,” Responsible Travel’s Justin Francis says. “There aren’t that many consumer sectors where the choice is that stark.”

Not flying, flying short-haul, avoiding stopover flights (take-off and landing are the most damaging parts of a flight, environmentally), and going on fewer, longer holidays rather than regular mini breaks, are all ways to reduce our flight emissions. Some airlines have ‘cleaner’ fleets of more efficient aircraft, and some are better at offering offsetting services. But until we crack the clean fuel problem in the air, it’s never going to be a clean option. Francis also believes airlines should pay more in fuel tax but is aware this would raise the cost of travel. “The democratisation of travel has been wonderful, but we also have to respect the environmental right we all have to live on a healthy planet,” he says.

As the planet continues to warm, the future of travel looks uncertain. The flip side of the long-term doom-mongering is the short-term marketing potential in ‘last-chance tourism’. Tourists are reportedly being drawn in greater numbers to vanishing destinations, including the retreating mangroves of Florida, coral reefs and receding glaciers all over the world. Other destinations stand to gain as, for example, Europeans take summer holidays further north. “The tourism industry itself will be fine,” Francis says. “We just reroute flights according to demand, but it’s the locals who have got used to a tourism economy that I worry about when they are left high and dry.”

Romina Tello and her husband are running a last-chance business of sorts. Gerald is Creole (Mauritius’ poorest ethnic group) and always dreamed of a bigger life. Returning to his home island to make a positive impact became part of that dream. “Gerald wants to show the Mauritius he knew. We both feel very sad and frustrated. The island is promoted for luxury resorts, mostly foreign-owned,” says Romina. She hopes eventually to spread her eco-conscious business model to other destinations even if, as she predicts, Mauritius falls off the tourism map. 

Global hotspots at risk from climate change

The Maldives is the most threatened of the SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and also the most dependent on tourism — as well as being among the worst carbon emitters, thanks to long-haul flights to its luxury resorts.

The Statue of Liberty
Liberty Island shut down for nine months after flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Rising sea levels and more frequent storms could see this repeated in the future.

Southern Europe
The latest UN climate change report predicts that a 1.5C global rise would be too hot for many travellers, and cause an 8% drop in overnight stays in Spain. A 2C rise could cut overall European tourism by 5% at a cost of €15bn (£13.5bn) a year.

Great Barrier Reef
The reef has endured repeated bleaching due to a warmer ocean and pollution, but with the UN warning that a 2C rise could cause terminal reef decline, ‘last-chance’ tourists are overwhelming the site, boosting the region’s tourist economy. But for how long?

The tiny village of Kaktovik has recently been inundated with visitors, who come to catch sight of the increasing numbers of polar bears stranded due to retreating Arctic sea ice.

Follow @susborne

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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