By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 9, 2001
Sit back, close your eyes and imagine your favorite vacation spot. That secluded cabin on the Chesapeake. That five-star beach resort in Martinique. The powdery slopes of Aspen in winter. The narrow streets of Paris in summer.
Now imagine your Chesapeake cabin flooded up to the bunk pillows by rising bay water. The Martinique hotel boarded up and forever closed due to record hurricanes. Those Aspen slopes snow-free and downright balmy. And Paris so hot and smoggy that you venture out for baguettes only between Jerry Lewis reruns in your air-conditioned Left Bank hotel room.
Why entertain such dreadful thoughts? Because a growing body of scientific evidence points to a trend that could spell heartbreak for future tourists and catastrophe for many sectors of the tourism industry. Global warming, driven mostly by carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases spewed skyward by the world's bustling fossil-fuel economy, could negatively affect many of the world's most-visited tourist destinations within the next few decades.
And tourists themselves, ironically, are contributing mightily to the problem, traveling in ever-higher numbers on a planet where virtually every new snowmobile, jumbo jet, cruise liner, Winnebago, hot tub and air-conditioned hotel ballroom draws power ultimately from oil, gas or coal. These fuels, once burned, add directly to the CO2 load threatening the very destinations people love to visit.
If you have trouble picturing your own favorite getaway spot despoiled by global warming and its seemingly science-fictionlike consequences, consider the physical evidence already on display:
Spawned by just one degree of planetary warming in the 20th century, glaciers worldwide are retreating at breathtaking speed. Spots like Africa's fabled Mount Kilimanjaro will be ice-free in just 15 years and Montana's Glacier National Park will be devoid of glaciers in 70 years if current trends hold, according to recent studies.
Coral reefs, which attract multitudes of flipper-footed tourists to tropical playgrounds worldwide, are likewise in free-fall decline. Twenty-seven percent of the world's reefs have been destroyed in the past 50 years due to rising sea surface temperatures and other factors, and another 32 percent are at risk of dying by 2050, again with water temperature a factor, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, an international clearinghouse for coral reef studies in Townsville, Australia.
Far-flung travel guides and outfitters report strange and suddenly unpredictable rainfall patterns worldwide that frustrate tourist activities, and warmer temperatures that could widen the range of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, affecting potentially millions of travelers.
Perhaps the most surreal indication of what might be in store comes from the idyllic, tourist-friendly island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, in the South Pacific. Tuvalu is developing concrete emigration plans to evacuate its islands perhaps entirely in this century, migrating en masse to "host countries" like New Zealand. This is because scientists say sea-level rise could inundate Tuvalu and other low-lying island countries almost entirely as polar ice melts and ocean water expands. Rising ocean water in Kiribati is already destroying coastal roads and crops.
Beyond the obvious hardships on local populations, these and other climate-related changes could have a huge impact on many sectors of the travel and tourism business. That industry is now the world's largest, accounting for 11 percent of the world's gross economic product in 1999, with $3.5 billion in direct and indirect receipts, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry trade association based in London.
"Tourism is an industry harmed by any harm to the environment. Period," says Bill Maloney, executive vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria. "Global warming is definitely on our radar screen of concerns."
Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society, an international trade association in Salida, Colo., dials up the concern level much higher.
"Given the growing scientific data, my fear is we're all going to wake up soon and find the places we love totally gone even in our lifetime," says Mallett. "Global warming is a train wreck about to hit the world tourism business, and I think we've all been asleep at the switch."
In June, at the request of President Bush, a panel of top American scientists including previous skeptics about global warming reviewed the IPCC report under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences and confirmed its fundamental findings that global warming is a real phenomenon and is getting worse.
Ralph J. Cicerone, the chancellor of the University of California at Irvine who led the NAS panel, said in an interview that the IPCC report is "admirable science." While acknowledging that uncertainty exists over the exact nature of some impacts from warming, Cicerone said he hoped the NAS review would dispel unwarranted, lingering doubts about the reality of human-induced global warming.
As for tourism, the IPCC report projects warming scenarios with negative implications for everything from bird-watching to urban walking tours.
A few regions might actually benefit. Canada, for example, could have a longer season for golf and other outdoor recreation, according to the IPCC. But on the whole, the forecast is not good, with potentially major injuries to ecosystems and wildlife worldwide (and the ecotourism companies they sustain); less snow and ice for winter recreation; and adverse impacts on fishing, white-water rafting and many other recreational pursuits, as interior continental regions get hotter and drier.
The most alarming impact could come from sea-level rise, which the IPCC projects could reach as high as three feet by 2100. A rise of only half that much would wreak havoc on seaside resorts and ports of call worldwide as seawater erodes beaches, inundates coastal property and intrudes into drinking water. America's coastlines alone, according to the IPCC, attract as many as 180 million recreational visitors each year.
"And all U.S. coastlines are vulnerable, absolutely," says Virginia Burkett, an American wetlands scientist and lead author of the IPCC report section on coastal areas. "Given even middle-range sea-level rise associated with climate change, shorelines will tend to peel back and transgress inland. Whatever beach tourists tend to visit, they'll likely see some significant level of degradation."
The IPCC report cites a diverse array of evidence suggesting the planet is undergoing an unprecedented transition away from the relatively stable climate of the past 10,000 years. "Recent regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases, have already affected many physical and biological systems," according to the report. In addition to glacier retreat and declining coral reefs, these effects include "thawing of permafrost, later freezing and earlier break-up of ice on rivers and lakes . . . poleward and altitudinal shifts of plant and animal ranges, declines of some plant and animal populations, and earlier flowering of trees, emergence of insects, and egg-laying in birds."
Many tourism outfitters report equally strange weather phenomena and consequences. Will Weber, founder and director of Journeys International in Ann Arbor, Mich., believes his adventure travel company is being affected by global warming. Weber has spent the past 23 years organizing thousands of trips on every continent, from rafting the Zambezi River to ice camping on the Antarctic Peninsula to horseback riding across Patagonia. But in the past 10 years, he says, he's become increasingly unable to answer two questions most commonly asked by his clients: What's the weather going to be like where I'm going, and how do I prepare for it?
"The weather's just turned really wacky almost everywhere we do business," says Weber. "Fifteen years ago, if you were going to the Serengeti in April, you'd be guaranteed to see rain. Now? Who knows? Around the planet, we see dryness in wet seasons and rain in dry seasons, weird temperatures and weird storms. We're just not sure what to tell people anymore."
While it's possible Weber is simply observing natural weather variations in the regions where he operates, the retreat of glaciers worldwide is beyond dispute. That retreat is creating headaches for companies like Weber's. Base camp facilities constructed at the foot of a glacier are a mile from the ice 10 years later. Just now, Weber has a group of Boy Scouts scheduled to climb Credner Glacier on Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, but he's afraid the glacier will be diminished beyond recreational use by the time the scouts arrive later this year.
Travelers devoted to ecotourism perhaps the industry's fastest-growing sector with a 20 percent annual growth rate and $154 billion in receipts in 2000, according to the International Ecotourism Society in Burlington, Vt. could face the greatest disappointment of all. Rising temperatures will almost certainly inflict significant harm on fragile ecosystems worldwide, according to the IPCC, increasing existing risks of species extinction and loss of biodiversity. Ecosystem collapse would be likely in many regions.
Areas of particular vulnerability include:
Polar ecosystems, where Antarctic penguins have already declined by half over the past 50 years due to warming sea-surface temperatures, and where Hudson Bay polar bears are having smaller litters, apparently due to ice depletion.
Africa, where any significant disruption of historic rainfall patterns could seriously affect big-game safaris, throwing into chaos the fragile fabric of plant and animal life linked to the age-old migration of species like the wildebeest in the Serengeti. These complex ecosystems, once lost, might never be restored.
Seaside resorts and beaches worldwide, where rising sea levels could result in beach erosion, flooding and drinking-water contamination.
Large European and North American cities, which may become undesirable in summer because of heat and worsened urban air quality. Low-lying coastal cities like Venice, New Orleans and Miami would have the added challenge of sea-level rise.
The tropics, where the IPCC projects storms will likely grow more powerful in a rapidly warming world. Storms could usher in the ultimate poison pill for tourism-dependent businesses: the inability to get insurance. Geoffrey Wall, a tourism expert and geographer at Ontario's University of Waterloo who helped author the IPCC section on tourism. and others say if storms become more fierce, insurance rates will almost certainly rise in many coastal areas, with uninsurability a potentially widespread scenario. Insurance rates are already climbing in the Caribbean region, according to Wall, due largely to increased storm damage.
To illustrate the danger, analysts point to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the costliest natural disaster in American history. Andrew bankrupted nine insurance companies, throwing the Florida insurance industry into crisis at the same time IPCC scientists began forecasting more intense storms as the globe warms.
"Clearly, global warming is an issue the tourism industry must and I think will pay more and more attention to in the near future," says Wall.
But given the IPCC's finding that planetary warming is already happening, and given the prospect of at least moderate warming and sea-level rise in the near future even under the most optimistic mitigation scenarios, Wall says that at-risk tourism sectors have no choice but to prepare for and adapt to climate-related impacts already in the pipeline.
Ski resorts, for example, may need to counteract warmer temperatures by pushing slopes farther up mountainsides, if possible. They might also want to "diversify" their services by offering ski-lift access to summer hikers. And investors eyeing construction of new beach resorts should build facilities significantly farther back from the surf in anticipation of sea-level rise, according to Wall a process the IPCC report calls "managed retreat."
Beyond adaptation, many industry observers say any strategy aimed at slowing global warming and restabilizing the world's climate must include a close look at the travel and tourism industry's own contribution to greenhouse gases.
Air travel and transport alone, for example, add more than 500 million tons of CO2 to the Earth's atmosphere each year, according to the IPCC. And as people travel more, courtesy of ever-rising Western affluence, the problem only gets worse. By 2050, a full 15 percent of the world's CO2 could come from travel and tourism, according to Green Globe 21, a Bournemouth, England, trade association.
"We're loving the planet to death," says John Berger, author of "Beating the Heat: Why and How We Must Combat Global Warming." "You look at the IPCC findings and you realize tourists and travel businesses just like all people and all businesses in the developed nations have to reduce their contribution to the problem or perhaps say goodbye to places and things they've always considered eternal."
How that can be done is a hot-button political issue in the United States, given the current era of SUV mania and a conservative White House firmly opposed due to economic fears to the internationally negotiated Kyoto protocol, which is aimed at cutting global emissions of greenhouse gases. But the IPCC report makes clear that the goal of stopping global warming can only be achieved by cutting such gases, especially CO2, well below current levels.
Hence, travelers should consider reducing their use of fossil fuels at home and away while supporting the development and use of nonpolluting renewable energies (solar, wind, fuel made from plants), according to Wall and others. Already, a few pioneering companies have begun marketing "low-impact" recreation to tourists, and others are setting company CO2-reduction goals with environmentally conscious travelers in mind.
The Aspen Skiing Co. (ASC) certainly thinks so. Two years ago, in direct response to global warming and other environmental concerns, the nation's fifth-largest ski-resort company designed and constructed its own "green" restaurant and ski lodge. The 24,000-square-foot facility features recycled building materials, passive solar heating and 30 percent wind-generated electricity, representing an industry model of eco-friendliness. One entire ski lift is also powered by renewable energy. And last April the same company adopted the ski industry's first-ever corporate policy on climate change, pledging a 10 percent reduction in total company CO2 emissions by 2010.
Today, upon arrival, guests of the Aspen Skiing Co. are given suggestions on how they can lessen their own impacts during their stay (don't wash hotel linens daily; take free shuttles from hotels to the slopes) and things they can do upon returning home, including using energy-saving fluorescent bulbs and turning water heaters down to 120 degrees.
To lessen industry impact further, the nonprofit trade association Pacific Asia Travel recently proposed recommendations ranging from increased emphasis on rail travel to lowering the ceilings of hotel ballrooms (saves on heating and cooling) to developing standard environmental "audits" to help companies voluntarily measure their CO2
Meanwhile, the British environmental trade association Green Globe 21 has established a Web site for tourists interested in learning more about global warming and what can be done (see box). Starting later this month, tourists can even use a "CO2 calculator" on the site to assess the impact of their own trips on global warming. And in 1999, in the only comprehensive, worldwide program of its kind, Green Globe 21 began officially certifying "green" tourism companies with an emphasis on CO2 reduction and providing a directory for interested tourists (see box).
Educating government policymakers about climate change impacts should be an additional strategy of the tourism industry, according to Eugenio Yunis of the World Tourism Organization (WTO) in Madrid. The WTO, an intergovernmental research and support group whose members include 135 national governments from five continents, has recently commissioned a $70,000, first-of-its-kind study to estimate global warming's potential impact in dollars on winter recreation destinations and small-island nations worldwide.
"Our hope is that more concrete monetary figures will help clarify the gravity for both the industry and for world leaders," says Yunis, who heads the WTO office for sustainable tourism development.
"Just as tourists need to realize the possible loss of destinations they cherish," says Yunis, "governments need to see the loss to the world economy." Still, some observers see risks for the industry in fighting global warming. Any international protocol, for example, mandating sharp cuts in CO2 emissions could seriously dampen air travel to distant destinations, bringing near-term losses to many businesses. Additional fears exist over suggestions that tourists be encouraged to voluntarily travel closer to home.
Despite all the recent and fast-blooming attention paid to global warming and various concrete steps toward a solution, the tourism business as a whole is still only just now waking up to the issue, industry experts agree.
"To be honest," says Maloney of the American Society of Travel Agents, "we still tend to be more focused on short-term issues like dead animals in Europe and Seattle earthquakes than what might happen to the weather 50 years from now."
Still, Yunis, Wall and others predict that climate change will climb toward the top of the industry's list of concerns as impacts rise with temperatures.
"Global warming means there are challenges ahead for this industry," says Yunis. "No doubt about it. The question is whether we can change fast enough and prepare well enough to limit the adverse effects."
Mike Tidwell's most recent book is "In the Mountains of Heaven: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents" (Lyons Press).
Consider taking the train. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, rail travel emits about half the planet-warming carbon dioxide per passenger mile as car and plane travel.
Once at your destination, take public transportation, walk, bike or rent fuel-efficient cars.
Avoid energy-guzzling activities such as snowmobiling, jet skiing, hot-tubbing and other "high impact" recreation.
Patronize "green" companies. Some hotels, resorts, outfitters and other tourism-related businesses have adopted ecologically sound practices in recent years. For a list of environmentally friendly companies certified worldwide by Green Globe 21 a trade association in Bournemouth, England, that promotes green travel visit www.greenglobe21.com and click on "membership list," or call 011-44-1-202-312-001.
Another guide to eco-friendly tour operators, lodges and trip-planning consultants can be found at the International Ecotourism Society's Web site, www.ecotourism.org, or call 802-651-9818.
Practice conservation measures in your hotel room: Turn off unnecessary lights and request that linens and towels not be washed every day.
INFORMATION: To learn more about global climate change, what's causing it and what can be done, visit the following Web sites:
U.S Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/globalwarming.
U.N.'s "Climate Change Information Kit," www.unfccc.de/resource/iuckit/index.htm.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) "Third Assessment Report," www.ipcc.ch.
Two of the best books on the subject are John J. Berger's "Beating the Heat" (Berkley Hills Books) and Ross Gelbspan's "The Heat Is On" (Addison-Wesley).