Climate change poses an existential threat to the sector that accounts for close to 8% of global GDP. Governments and businesses should act with urgency to mitigate climate change while also bolstering resilience as extreme weather events rage onward, Gloria Guevara writes.
The summer of 2023 is set to be a memorable one — smashing records for the hottest day and hottest month in history, and now on track to be the hottest year.
Extreme weather events such as heatwaves and wildfires across the Mediterranean and in the US and China are unfortunately becoming more common.
Recent studies show that climate change has made extreme weather events 50% more likely.
As a result, the travel and tourism industry is facing cancellations and dream vacations are cut short. According to one analysis, holiday refund requests are already up nearly 18%.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a €4 trillion hit to global travel and tourism GDP and 62 million job losses — and exposed the travel and tourism industry’s vulnerability.
Today, while international arrivals are on the rise, the industry is still in post-pandemic recovery, with global arrivals below 2019 levels in some parts of the world.
Climate change not only threatens to undo these gains. It also poses an existential threat to the industry, which itself accounts for roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
As the sector also accounts for close to 8% of global GDP — and as much as 70% in some countries — there are enormous risks if we continue on a business-as-usual path.
Extreme weather events will rage onward
In both Greece and Italy, countries feeling the brunt of extreme weather, tourism accounted for almost 19% and 10% of GDP in 2022, respectively.
Recent data from the European Travel Commission shows tourism in the Mediterranean has already dropped by 10% this summer compared to last year.
Across Europe, the tourism industry includes more than 2 million businesses, primarily small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), employing an estimated 12.3 million people.
With millions of people dependent on the industry for their livelihoods, governments and businesses should act with urgency to mitigate climate change while also bolstering resilience as extreme weather events rage onward.
The two should focus on parallel tracks: work toward net-zero emissions while bolstering its resilience to climate shocks, to minimize loss and support local communities.
Examples of climate-resilient tourism exist
Some countries have already identified this as a priority area, by building up a climate-resilient tourism industry.
Costa Rica is a shining example, which sees over 3 million visitors per year and 9% of its workforce employed in the industry.
Among its successes, the country generates 99.78% of its energy from renewable resources and has plans for the electrification of transport and sustainable waste management.
Saudi Arabia has placed a similar impetus on sustainable tourism as part of its Vision 2030 strategy. The Red Sea Project, for example, is a regenerative sustainability which aims to achieve a 30% net positive conservation impact by 2040 through measurable improvements in biodiversity.
Set to be the largest no-take marine protected area in the country covering 5,373 square km, the goal is a 30% increase in fish biomass, a 30% increase in mangroves, sea grasses and native land vegetation, and a 30% increase in the abundance of coral reefs.
It's not about halting travel — it's about doing things differently
But these responses are not consistent across the whole industry, and we cannot just wait for the extreme events that lie ahead.
The industry needs a shared effort for coordinated, high-impact action to achieve net-zero emissions, protect biodiversity and natural resources, and the many communities economically dependent on travel and tourism.
Governments play a significant role by creating an enabling environment to boost the industry’s transition through diverse incentives, innovative partnerships, and policy mechanisms.
Collaboration across the private and public sectors is crucial, most notably to drive down emissions and introduce regulation where needed.
Similarly, a concerted effort is needed to protect the most vulnerable communities and destinations.
Resilience should be prioritised in climate-vulnerable tourism destinations and could include initiatives to impact and restore nature positively, such as Thailand’s Maya Bay, which has seen up to 80% of local coral reefs destroyed by litter, boat pollution and sunscreen.
This does not mean halting travel, it means doing so differently, both on the supply and the demand sides.
It requires unprecedented collaboration and innovation; only then will tourism have the resilience required for the industry – and the planet – to thrive long into the future.
Gloria Guevara is the Chief Special Advisor to the Minister of Tourism of Saudi Arabia and Head of the Sustainable Tourism Global Center (STGC). She is the former President of the World Travel and Tourism Council and the former Minister of Tourism of Mexico.
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