Travel and Tourism

Rising global temperatures are already affecting the tourism industry - here's how

From rising heat to rising seas, holiday hotspots the world over are at risk from climate change. Image: Gaddafi Rusli on Unsplash

Ian Shine
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Travel and Tourism

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  • Tourism is crucial to many economies, but rising global temperatures are putting parts of the industry at risk.
  • The climate crisis is changing the face of many tourist destinations and is already making some holidaymakers rethink their plans.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Sustainable Tourism is working to help the tourism sector build towards a more sustainable future.

Hot weather is what many people go on holiday for. But record global temperatures have been sending people home early from their vacations this July, raising questions about what kind of impact the climate crisis could have on the tourism sector – and on tourism-dependent economies.

Greece – where travel and tourism make up 15% of GDP – has had to evacuate over 2,000 holidaymakers after wildfires broke out on the island of Rhodes. Athens took the unprecedented step of closing its top tourist attraction, the Acropolis, after temperatures reached 45°C.

"The climate crisis is already here,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “It will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters."

Map illustrating the economic impact on the travel and tourism sectors.
The travel and tourism sectors made up 7.6% of global GDP in 2022. Image: World Travel & Tourism Council

Over in Italy, visitors to Rome have been returning home early because of the heatwave, while hospitals have faced a rise in the number of medical emergencies. Admissions at one hospital reached their highest since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soaring temperatures have not just been ending holidays – they’ve even stopped some from getting started. This is because aircraft find it harder to get off the ground in hotter conditions, as it makes the air less dense.

US airlines flying out of Las Vegas – where temperatures hit 46°C – have consequently had to reduce passenger numbers, remove baggage, reduce the level of fuel they are carrying or delay flights until temperatures fall.

The impact of the climate crisis on tourism

The climate crisis has played an "absolutely overwhelming" part in the northern hemisphere heatwave, according to World Weather Attribution. And heatwaves will become hotter and longer unless the world quickly halts its use of fossil fuels, they say.

The tourism sector creates around a tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Practically half of all transport emissions stem from global tourism, other studies say. And total emissions from tourism are forecast to rise by a quarter between 2016 and 2030, says the UN World Tourism Organization.

Graph illustrating the different activities that contribute to tourism’s total carbon footprint.
Tourism is a large driver of aviation, which creates 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Image: Sustainable Travel International

But the tourism industry and tourism-dependent economies are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of rising temperatures.

Yet these low-lying states are seeing sea levels rise almost 10% faster than the global average, according to the World Meteorological Association. The vast majority of holiday resorts in the Caribbean are coastal, leaving 60% of them at risk from sea level rise, according to the University of Cambridge.

Biodiversity damage

Coral bleaching and increasing droughts are already impacting the Caribbean’s tourism potential, the UK government notes.

Meanwhile, South-East Asia’s most popular costal destinations are suffering environmental damage from factors including pollution and overtourism. Thailand’s Maya Bay, Malaysia’s Sipadan Island and the Philippines’ Boraca Island are all being impacted, and some countries in the region are now closing tourist spots to give the most damaged areas time to recover, the Harvard School of Public Health notes.

“As the prime motivation for visitors to come to the region hinges on local landscapes, biodiversity, heritage and cultures, the sector’s survival depends on the ability to retain and preserve as much of these natural resources as possible,” The ASEAN Post reports.

The prospects of African safaris could also be hit by the climate crisis, which is forecast to lead to the loss of over half of the continent’s bird and mammal species by 2100 and trigger huge losses of plant species.

Measures are being taken to protect the continent’s natural bounties. The Seychelles islands off East Africa have added conservation guidlines to the national constitution – the first time a country has done so.

Sustainable, nature-based tourism is a potentially huge economic driver for Africa, and could create 40% more full-time jobs than agricutlure, the UN Environment Programme says.

High temperatures will change tourism patterns

Rising temperatures are likely to result in tourists travelling in spring and autumn rather than the summer, as well as opting for cooler destinations, Italy’s environment ministry says.

There has already been a 10% drop in the number of people planning to visit the Mediterranean in June-November this year following last year’s high temperatures, according to the European Travel Commission. It says tourists are considering trips to the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland and Bulgaria instead.

On top of this, “large-scale land loss” is already eating into the Mediterranean’s beaches, according to Germany’s federal environment agency. One beach in Mallorca now has space for half the amount of huts it used to have, as well as fewer sun loungers, DW News reports.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

The spike in temperatures is also worrying the organizers of the 2024 Olympics Games in Paris. They are closely monitoring long-term weather models, with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach saying the climate crisis is affecting how sporting events – a major driver of tourism – will be organized around the globe.

Colder climates are suffering, too

The Alps region attracts around 120 million tourists a year, and tourism is critical to the economies of many local towns. Skiing and snowboarding are top of many visitor lists, but rising global temperatures have reduced seasonal snow cover in the Alps by 8.4% per decade in the past 50 years.

Canada’s Whistler ski resort has responded to this by offering more snow-free activities – so much so that it now makes more money in summer, according to TIME magazine.

Figure illustrating the international tourist arrivals by region.
Emissions from tourism are forecast to rise by a quarter between 2016 and 2030. Image: UN World Tourism Organization

But adapting in this way is not an option for all tourism destinations, such as coastal resorts. With coastal tourism accounting for more than 60% of European holidays and more than 80% of US tourism revenues, the tourism industry and the countries that rely on it may need to urgently rethink the way they operate.

“In the coming years, the success of travel and tourism businesses and destinations will be increasingly tied to their ability to manage and operate under ever greater ecological and environmental threats,” says the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Development Index.

Have you read?

How tourism can change

The UN World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities".

This could include limiting tourist numbers (as is being done in Southern France to help protect ecosystems), banning polluting forms of transports (as the Dutch capital Amsterdam is doing with cruise ships and the Spanish city of Barcelona is trying to do).

Infographic illustrating statistics on sustainable tourism.
Sustainable tourism takes account of its environmental impacts. Image: International Union for Conservation of Nature

Staying only in environmentally friendly resorts is another option. Some are ensuring they run on renewable power, harvest rainwater and cut waste.

Avoiding flying is another option. British eco-charity Possible is promoting this through its Climate Perks initiative. UK companies who sign up agree to give staff increased paid leave to cover the time needed for slower, greener modes of transport such as trains or coaches when they go on holiday.

Ditching planes is also part of the “slow travel” trend. It advocates dropping the “bucket list” approach of ticking off as many destinations as possible, with travellers instead staying in one place and experiencing a local culture more fully.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Sustainable Tourism is working to help the tourism sector create pathways towards net-zero, nature-positive tourism that benefits local communities.

“Diversifying tourism strategies and activities is essential for countries to build resilience against economic fluctuations, mitigate overreliance on a single industry, and foster sustainable development that benefits both the local communities and the environment,” says Topaz Smith, Community Lead for Aviation, Travel and Tourism at the World Economic Forum.

“Long-term planning is crucial for a more risk-resilient travel and tourism sector that anticipates and plans for future headwinds while maximizing development potential.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Travel and TourismClimate CrisisNature and BiodiversitySustainable Development
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