Establishing A Climate-Friendly Tourism System
Art by Kida
The innate human need to seek out adventure, mystery, the wonders of mother nature, and the rich cultures and societies created by our fellow humans have encouraged individuals to explore what the world has to offer–to the detriment of the Earth’s climate.
Tourism encompasses the social and economic phenomenon established by the tourism industry. Government, private, academic, environmental, labor organizations, local and foreign residents create an intricate system that many state economies rely on. The tourism system is responsible for approximately 8% of the world’s carbon emissions and is arguably one of the most damaging systems to the planet’s climate due to its foundation in catering to anthropogenic overconsumption. However, it is also very intertwined with the state of the planet’s climate, depending on it almost entirely to keep the system profitable. Yet the tourism system has made few eco-friendly changes and lobbying efforts towards the world’s government to protect the natural spaces needed for tourism to thrive—and to a lesser extent, their economies. The unfortunate reality is that many low GDP states, like island nations, are heavily reliant on their tourism sector to sustain their economies. However, many struggle to invest enough resources to adjust to the climate crisis. More than ever, tourists have to plan their vacations to avoid heightened climate disasters.
During this decade, it is vital and urgent that the tourism system changes its behaviors, attitudes, and spending habits to mitigate and adapt to the consequences of the climate crisis. It is also critical that individuals, as a tourist, educate themselves to become more sustainable in their travel, to protect the invaluable wonders we still have.
The Occidental Tourist
Humans have migrated for centuries to settle in and conquer foreign lands, creating new lives for themselves, but the idea of traveling for adventure and curiosity has been afforded only to a select few of the world's population—often in recent centuries by those who reside in the West. From the rulers who visit the lands that they rule beneath their feet, to the conquistadors who colonized the non-white world, humans have found more reasons than not to see other people and cultures that seem foreign to our own. However, most travelers do not ponder the negative environmental and social impact they have on the foreign and global environment when they decide to take a journey. The lack of foresight for the consequences they help to establish and grow has led to the creation of a fearful climate aggressor: the Occidental Tourist.
Tourists often come from Western countries, where households have more disposable income. In order to understand how to combat their climate-destructive behaviors, we must establish the attitudes and demographics of such tourists. When determining where they will vacation, tourists often consult on the climatic state of a region to plan trips:
Current and updated weather information (i.e. hours of sunshine, wind speed, wave advisories).
Health warnings (i.e. heat and UV indices, air and water quality)
However, according to research done on the weather preferences of tourists, they tend to have a higher threshold for heat when going to regions that are experiencing hotter weather conditions, like the Mediterranean.
There is a demographic trend in the kinds of tourists from the West: high-income Western family units with older parents, senior individuals, and higher-educated women who have more disposable income. These specific groups of tourists often expect the highest levels of convenience and security, especially in coastal resorts, which leads to increased overconsumption of resources, and the personal decision to value comfort over the cost of climate change. Despite the growing guilt over the impact of airline travel and one’s ecological footprint, tourists have developed a mindset where they are in denial of their personal impact on the Earth’s systems. They detach themselves and their actions from the looming devastating consequences of the climate crisis because everyone wants to pursue their happiness. Yet no one is asking people to stop traveling for the sake of the planet, climate advocates demand that they adjust their actions and spending habits to mitigate future damage that is caused by tourism.
The Consequences of Tourism
As weather conditions get worse in one’s home country, high-income individuals will travel abroad more often to seek out ideal weather conditions, likely in higher latitude and altitude regions and away from those along the equator. An exception can be seen in the Mediterranean region, where the increased weather temperatures have not deterred tourists from visiting.
In its current state, the tourism system has created a social environment where ignoring the individual impact on the climate crisis is a “necessary” transaction to explore the world and take some personal time outside people’s everyday life. The economic power wielded by the tourism system makes it difficult to properly educate travelers to learn and comprehend their role in exacerbating climate change. Their consumption habits and prioritization of luxury and comfort have led to the pollution of the earth's systems and ecosystems, abuse of wildlife, and the introduction of invasive species and harmful illnesses to local populations. While the financial benefits of tourism can help alleviate poverty for local low-income families, it also stresses their transportation and water system. For instance, the western United States struggles to supply and allocate enough water to citizens and farms (especially those in rural regions), let alone the tens of millions of tourists that visit the region each year. To complete the transaction and make it eco-friendly, travelers are misled into thinking that buying carbon credits will reduce their ecological footprint. Carbon credits are donations to climate initiatives that seek to reduce carbon emissions, often collected at check out by travel companies, making tourists feel less guilty about their carbon footprint. However, those credits often do not make up for the harm visitors’ individual choices have on the Earth's systems. Carbon credits cannot make up for the indirect contribution to air and ocean pollution, stress to ecosystems, mishandling of wildlife, and decreasing water supplies. In fact, it takes all the responsibility away from the traveler who should be adjusting their behaviors and actions due to the climate crisis. It is easy to shy away when you get to leave those problems, and head home to countries that have the resources to mitigate and adapt to the crisis.
The Climate Crisis Impact on Tourism
On the other side of the coin, the climate crisis will kill the tourism industry in many regions of the world, most depressingly in coastal and island communities where ecological conditions are degrading with each passing day. In Europe, people are choosing domestic travel (major mountainous cities within their country) over international travel, like in the Mediterranean. Tourists will have to continue to move away from resorts and backpacking to cruise ships, shifting their impact from land to sea. This is the reality of our future:
Routine wildfires in the western United States will continue to affect campground rehabilitation.
Dwindling freshwater supply is slowly killing wildlife tourism in Africa and water activities in the world’s lakes and rivers.
The unknown other viruses in the melting Arctic will kill travel for the next few decades in large population countries like China and India (similar to how COVID has done).
The deadly heat waves and lack of resources in the Arabian Peninsula will make tourists wary of visiting the ultra-rich cities that Dubai and Saudi Arabia are trying to sustain with the most common tourism bandaid for the climate crisis: the air conditioning unit.
Overfishing, acidification, and warming of the oceans will hurt the Australian tourism economy which depends on the rich and diverse Great Barrier Reef.
As natural disasters and weather conditions get more extreme, tourism businesses that rely on pristine coastal and island conditions, as well as specific winter climates, will struggle to sustain their business models; and tourists will have to rethink their vacation plans.
Coastal and Island Tourism
One of the most common forms of travel is for exploring the variety of natural environments created by the world. The climate crisis has spawned a collection of climate-anxiety tourism, also known as last-chance tourism, climate disaster tourism, climate change voyeurism, due to the disappearance of premiere nature destinations. While this kind of travel can help create surface-level environmental advocates, it can also increase greenhouse gas emissions and cause additional pressure on already-stressed systems. The far-reaching consequences of the climate crisis are slowly making their way onto the beaches of coastal communities that are dealing with rising sea levels, erosion, coastal squeeze, and weakening beach cliffs. Beaches and ocean ecosystems sustain the cultural heritage and nature sites, as well as the thousands of resorts around the world. However, subtropical and tropical countries are developing into less competitive agents in the tourism system as travelers become more aware of the climate dangers they are facing. Most at risk are low GDP and developed island nations, and coastal countries in Africa and Asia.
In the Great Barrier Reef and many other coral reefs, many fish have died or migrated away due to the increasing amount of bleached coral. People will miss out on the opportunity to dive, snorkel, fish, and reside in the reefs, as well as learn about one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, if we do not change our lifestyles and demand more responsibility out of the world’s worst climate aggregators. The features of the world’s coastal environments will continue to disappear, but the cultures and land itself will remain, leaving the local populations at a disadvantage from the decreased financial capital and lack of interest to help them.
The winter holiday season brings in billions of dollars a year internationally, a large portion of which is due to the travel that families take around the world. In the last few years, higher-latitude countries around the world have seen fewer amounts of snow and winter tourism, and an increased strain on their water systems. There has been more reliance on energy-intensive snow-making machines due to a decrease in reliable snow cover, all in the service to satisfy high-income travelers on winter slopes. Ski resorts are facing increasing operation costs as the amount of usable land and length of snow seasons shrink. Those winter-based operations (especially those in lower elevation areas) are also facing financial restrictions from insurance companies and banks who have become aware of the fleeting financial security of those businesses. As international winter tourism becomes expensive, and the weather harder to ensure for ideal conditions, tourism will shift in favor of countries, like Canada, which are more likely to have sustained snow conditions. Yet despite worsening global conditions, some countries are experiencing stable tourism levels, because the worst has yet to occur.
Journeys to Mecca
The pilgrimage to the holy Islamic city of Mecca, known as the Hajj, brings millions of people to Saudi Arabia each year. However, Saudi Arabia is becoming one of the most climate-unstable regions to live and visit due to the country being located in some of the driest and hottest environments on the planet. The Hajj, being essential to complete by many Muslims worldwide, is actively being threatened by a dangerous increase in temperature and humidity in the Saudi desert. Individuals completing the journey are outside for an average of 20-30 hours during the pilgrimage, and the overcrowded conditions of Mecca mixed with the dangerous weather have made individuals ill. Some of the main dangers that visitors will have to battle are insufficient water supply, heat stress, difficulty to perspire properly, and heat strokes that could lead to damaging organs and muscles.
As Saudi Arabia looks to technology and ultra-modern infrastructure to battle the climate crisis, other countries hosting large tourism events are looking to offset their responsibilities through ineffective carbon credits.
The World Cup
The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world, uniting countries from the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and other regions of the world. This event naturally ushers large amounts of tourism to any nation that hosts the World Cup, increasing global carbon emissions due to airplane travel, the use of natural resources to build the necessary infrastructure, and food consumption to make tourists comfortable. For the 2022 World Cup, Qatar established the ultimate greenwash over the entire event by claiming to be fully carbon neutral, through the investment of carbon credits. Carbon credits often do not offset the necessary amount of immediate carbon created by producers and have led to the subtle establishment of carbon colonialism, especially within the tourism industry. Most carbon offset projects are executed in the Global South, but the benefits of those projects are often only seen in the Global North. So while travelers can spend a few cents or dollars more to make their travel less carbon-intensive, in the long term it will not help those in climate destitute regions that require a behavioral change from all of humanity to heal their environments. The carbon credits absolutely do not make up for the white-elephant stadiums built by Qatar (and many countries around the world), which often go unused after the World Cup. Those stadiums unnecessarily disturb ecosystems and waste natural resources. Qatar used 10k liters of energy-intensive desalinated water just to water the grass in the winter and five times more in the summer.
Qatar’s substandard attempts at seeming environmentally friendly or “green” fooled no one, yet it didn’t stop or seem to matter for many tourists of the event (who also ignored human rights abuses just to attend the event). Sports and climate altruism do not go hand in hand, in fact, they often oppose one another due to the financial benefits economies stand to gain from hosting major sporting events.
California’s Tourism Industry
California receives more tourism than any other state in America, and yet it does not have enough resources to sustain the population and its visitors throughout the next decade. The lack of commitment to address car pollution combined with the increase in wildfire smoke is making the air in parts of the state unbreathable throughout some parts of the year. The heat island effect, when infrastructure (especially concrete) attracts and retains heat, is becoming an unavoidable issue for Los Angeles. With heatwaves becoming longer and hotter, the city is starting to paint certain streets a reflective white color to reduce the temperature in the summer. The Pacific Surfliner, which connects Los Angeles and San Diego by train and rides along the California coast, had to be shut down for half a year in 2022 because erosion was encroaching on the tracks. The climate crisis is threatening California’s most valuable resource for tourism, its diverse and ideal environment.
Despite the state’s wishy-washy commitment to building carbon-neutral and climate-friendly projects–which often get defunded after they are established–the state has and will continue to host some of the largest sporting events in the world, such as the Super Bowl, even when it does not have the resources to do so. One of the most used resources in the region, and necessary for tourism, is fresh water, however, in the last five years, Los Angeles has built two stadiums (for football and basketball), bringing more tourism to an already resource-stressed region. As water becomes less available in the Southwest, tourists may want to reconsider traveling to Los Angeles for the 2028 Olympics, as there may not be enough water to support their travel and the water sports (possibly forcing them to become virtual).
People travel to fulfill their daredevil ambitions on winter slopes and get their share of beautiful sunshine, not battle climate disasters. Property values, employment rates, and foreign earnings will decrease if the tourism system does not adopt measures to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.
Combating Climate-Destructive Tourism
When combating the effects of the climate crisis, humanity has two methods it needs to heavily invest in: mitigating the causes of climate change to prevent further consequences on the planet, and adapting society to live in our planet’s new normal. Both methods are necessary, but governments often prefer adaptation projects because they prioritize the economy and maximizing natural resources. Grass-roots activists and communities often advocate for mitigation methods to protect their neighborhoods from further damage. Each region must come up with their own climate action plan that uses both methods to varying degrees, to prevent social and economic collapse due to a lack of resources and difficult natural disasters.
Types of Climate-Friendly Tourism
There are plenty of ways that tourists can make their travel and vacations climate-friendly, the most popular option is through the purchase of carbon credits from their travel companies. However, travelers have been exploring alternative ways of vacationing, while investing their time in combating the effects of climate change while abroad. In the modern age, it's the combination of humanitarian work, climate activism, and traveling. If tourists rethink their purpose for traveling, while broadening those reasons to include helping environments and communities who cannot advocate for themselves, they could reduce their environmental impact while enjoying themselves abroad. Through the different types of tourism services available, people can travel with a purpose and goal other than comfort and relaxation; travelers can ensure that ecosystems (and their cultures) get the protection they need, understand how their habits can change for the better, and help with wildlife conservation.
In the past, individuals from western countries who traveled abroad to help those in extreme poverty were participating in humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid has had a controversial history and reputation, due to a lack of proper management and creating the attitude of a “white savior.” Humanitarians are not usually paid for their time abroad, but often receive a stipend for living costs in the foreign country. With justice tourism, focused on the climate crisis, individuals are paying to go to low-income regions to assist with development and conservation work. The premise is similar to humanitarian aid except they are giving their time and financial resources to the cause they are volunteering for. While the social attitude can still be prevalent, with proper education before and during the trip, travelers can leave feeling more fulfilled rather than as a Western hero to the world’s poor. Justice tourism encompasses climate and social justice, creating communities that are more resilient to the climate crisis and giving tourism a new purpose.
Ecotourism is the most common form of climate justice tourism, but it is also the broadest and most vague. There is no clear guideline for properly doing ecotourism, so without the proper research travelers may inadvertently cause more environmental damage on their vacation than they meant to. It's not just about making sustainable and climate-friendly choices–although that is a large part of it–it is also about creating a deeper understanding and relationship with the environment through involvement in climate initiatives. The UN outlined specific points that tourists should consider when planning sustainable vacations:
Maximizing the use of natural resources while reducing consumption.
Reducing the number of disturbances caused to an ecosystem.
Building intercultural tolerance and understanding.
Carefully choosing how to spend financial resources to help alleviate poverty and benefit climate initiatives.
To give better guidance to tourists who want to contribute to environmental causes while abroad, nonprofit organizations have built voluntourism programs to change social attitudes and provide the necessary labor needed for climate projects.
As with other kinds of climate-friendly tourism, volunteering is an essential aspect when traveling abroad. Organizations dedicated to combating the climate crisis have invested in bringing volunteers who are interested in using their holidays to help restore environments and alleviate the burdens in low-income communities due to the climate crisis. Those organizations are trying to shift from the days of humanitarian aid which solidified the narrative of young and ignorant (often white) western individuals going to Africa to change the world and civilize their societies. Since most volunteers are unskilled, especially in the expertise necessary to help alleviate poverty abroad, many organizations have shifted to virtual volunteer opportunities to better serve the communities they are helping, and educate volunteers on the community and local ecosystems. Voluntourism fundraises for local communities that are struggling from the consequences of the climate crisis, breakdown the white savior narrative through proper education and cultural understanding, and most of all emphasize the importance of local volunteers in climate initiatives abroad. In order for it to be successful, it requires planning with the locals, something necessary for wildlife tourism as well.
Wildlife tourism is the most developed and popular kind of climate-related tourism, bringing in millions of dollars a year to conservation projects and small economies with diverse wildlife. Typical wildlife attractions include zoological gardens, animal-themed parks (like birds, reptiles, and insects), public aquariums, biological parks, and safari parks which tend to be the best and most well-rounded experience. Those facilities, depending on how committed they are to animal welfare, often serve as education hubs, scientific research spaces, public exhibitions, and conservation centers.
On average, four million tourists visit zoo attractions around the world each year–most of whom are not aware of their active role in abuse and mistreatment towards animals–and the decline in the standard of living and conservation efforts. This concept has been explored in the 2017 Netflix film, “Okja”, where corporate greed exploits animal welfare, although, in the case of tourism, animals are either hunted or caged for the rest of their life. While those two terms hold a negative connotation, in recent years those methods have been used to aid conservation efforts and protect threatened species. Unregulated hunting (poaching) is done for sport and money, while approved hunting (regulated trophy hunting) is done for conservation and to help manage species' populations. In order to be climate-friendly, wildlife tourist services have to be centered on the welfare of all animals, and their overall conservation. Unfortunately, most are not.
When ill-managed, zoological attractions can enforce a specific mindset in tourists that animals outside of their habitat are normal and okay. Species that are hunted through unregulated methods tend to be male, altering species population dynamics, species birth rate, and ecosystem food chains. In lion packs, it can disturb territory distribution, decrease lifespans and increase infanticide in cubs. Uneducated wildlife attractions, especially those without a research department, will prioritize visitor experience, creating an environment where animals are under-stimulated, stressed, antisocial, and unable to be reintroduced back into the wild. These conditions create an immense need for tourists to research the zoos they visit, donate to ones with strong captive breeding programs, and volunteer their vacation time to conservation projects while abroad.
Benefits and Appropriate Methods
While seeing wildlife from foreign regions of the world can be very interesting to travelers, it needs to be an educational experience where visitors can understand how they can contribute positively to conservation efforts. When zoological attractions are designed with animal welfare in mind, with adequate research as the organization’s anchor for their business practices, it can create safer environments where tourists can learn and experience the presence of wildlife. Visitors need to see wildlife centers that prioritize appropriate social interactions between animals and have animal ethics standards (displayed publicly). Outside of that, tourists need to adjust their attitudes and behaviors towards animals to create a better environment for them at zoos.
Because of the almost universal belief that we are meant to conquer the animal kingdom, interacting with animals can bring out the worst in humans, travelers being some of the worst. Typically, wildlife tourism encompasses hunting and safari explorations, and each can be established in a more climate-friendly manner. Regulated hunting of abundant native species by high-income trophy hunters can help reduce the impact of the local community on the damaged ecosystem, who often hunt species themselves for food, trade, and to protect livestock. Safari explorations, often experienced by high-income families, can disturb environments and fail to impact tourists enough to contribute to conservation efforts. The best experience for animals is through the creation of spacious miniaturized ecosystems that have aspects of their natural environment; they should also serve to educate tourists on how much space they need to have and the different facets of that ecological community. Another positive aspect that should be incorporated are well-researched and developed captive breeding programs for threatened species, with opportunities for tourists to volunteer in local conservation initiatives to help reintroduce the species back into the wild. Tourists themselves need to adjust their behaviors within zoological attractions to reduce food begging, psychological stress and aggression, and fear. The most effective methods include the reduction of taunts and flash photography, limiting crowd size and pacing, and appropriately placing viewing platforms that are not too close to animals. If these actions are taken collectively, the likelihood of long-term behavior that is rooted in responsibility to the environment will increase, as well as climate change awareness, and tourists' relationships with the ecosystems they visit.
Read more information on avoiding climate-unfriendly zoological attractions.
With CO2 emissions projected to increase significantly, and the warming of the Earth not slowing down for a second, we have to change how we conduct our lives, which includes the way we travel. I don’t think anyone should stop traveling, as it provides necessary intercultural experiences between individuals, and allows a greater appreciation for foreign ecosystems.. However, we threaten those ecosystems through our greed for comfortability and lack of initiative to force the tourism industry to become sustainable. The UN has adopted the Glasglow Declaration: A Commitment to a Decade of Climate Action in Tourism, which outlines how the tourism system needs to shift in the wake of a changing planet. They outline benchmarks, created by research in recreation climatology, to measure the input and output of greenhouse gas emissions, decarbonize the system, regenerate ecological spaces, establish more collaboration between communities and services, and finance the technology needed to fully adjust the system.
Tourism-resilient communities will correlate to stronger communities that respond better to social inequities, climate crisis escalation, and economies less dependent on climate-aggressive tourism. Our unique and wonderful planet is succumbing to human greed. Its beauty is fading while most of the human race has yet to see the glimmer of the cerulean and sapphire seas, the savory dishes of the various cultures of the world, or the Earthly constellation of marvels that have been cultivated by our extraordinary connection with our terrestrial Mother. If we do not change the way we travel, we will lose what makes adventures worth having.