How climate change will change tourism and how to prepare

tl:dr – If you work in travel and tourism, and are younger than 50, these issues are going to affect you sooner or later. You’re going to want to be proactive, not reactive, if you want any hope of your business/destination surviving and maintaining a career in this industry until retirement.

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“The contribution of tourism to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is rising, and are projected to grow 130% between 2005 and 2035.”

“If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.” From the New Yorker article “What If We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped?”

Caveats:

I’ll happily admit that I could be wrong about any or all of this. Honestly, if the past three years has taught me anything, it’s that I have no goddamn clue about human nature and human nature is the only thing that can save us. One thing has become painfully clear: approximately 90 percent of all humans are idiots, with a large sub-section also being assholes. I shall henceforth call them “idiotholes.”

My arguments below are based on extrapolations from existing predictions about when and how the actions of idiotholes will cause the planet and our quality of life to degrade. They also assume that, eventually, a tipping point of increasing hardship and a belated sense of self-preservation will finally prevail over denial, laziness and unbridled greed. But we all know how much stubborn agony the average uncle idiothole can endure before admitting fault, so buckle up. I give it a 50-50 chance the horde will choose chaos over survival.

Now that we’re on the same page, it seems to me there will be a number of factors that affect tourism simultaneously in the next 30-odd years.

  1. Worsening economy, financial security and spending power
  2. Actual climate/weather ramifications
  3. Transportation limitations

Worsening economy

The climate crisis will start affecting formerly robust industries, leading to people losing jobs and business closures. New jobs will replace some of these lost jobs, of course, but most of them won’t pay as well. Even so, competition for these jobs will get more and more fierce as the years drag on and everyone realizes that being kind of fucked is preferable to being extravagantly fucked. Things like employment incentives, perks, bonuses and even onsite safety will be affected as belts tighten.

As I’ve argued previously, insurance companies will stop covering (or charge ruinous sums for) the most common and destructive weather-related events for each respective region. When one’s home or property are inevitably affected by one of these uninsured weather events, repairs will have to be paid for out-of-pocket. Since most people can’t afford extra four- and five-digit hits to their budgets, recovering from these weather events will wipe out whatever disposable income and savings people may have – and then some.

When that happens, the first sacrifices people will make are going to be leisure spending, i.e. traveling vacations. Minutes later, the tourism and hospitality sectors will join the global economic free-fall, with plummeting revenue and job losses.

Climate and weather ramifications

As the climate crisis progresses, weather patterns will be more unpredictable and severe weather events more common. Even if I’m wrong about the economy and the state of transportation 25 years from now, weather alone is going to change the way people consider travel and tourism.

While some measures can be taken, at great cost, to forestall climate crisis effects on one’s destination, eventually any hope of slowing down or stopping the degradation of the key elements that drive tourism will be exhausted.

The entire concept of high season will cease to exist in some places, like my own Minnesota when it can reach almost 70 degrees in the dead of winter, dip into the low-60s for weeks in August and experience significant snowfall in April and October. All of those freak, once a decade events happened in 2019, incidentally.

Tourism enticements like coral reefs, forests, lakes and savannah, including the tourist-bait unusual or exotic fauna it supports, will fade fast and eventually disappear.

Winter sports destinations will have shorter and more unpredictable seasons as global temperatures rise. Only a few destinations will have the necessary geography and resources to move their infrastructure to higher elevations in a bid to salvage their industry.

Rising and more acidic seas and the increased risk of hurricanes and typhoons will make traveling to islands and coastal regions a gamble. Many beaches will either be submerged, eroded or just too disgusting to be considered a leisure option.

Wild fires will be a year-round phenomenon, which, in addition to being a prohibitively terrifying vacation deal-breaker, will make leisure-souring power outages commonplace.

The declining availability of clean water in some areas will end tourism all together.

Eventually, you can totally kiss eco-tourism goodbye.

While they are already feverishly working to diminish the effects, wine, coffee, chocolate, avocados and other beloved food and beverages that drive tourism will diminish and perhaps even disappear in our lifetimes.

Civil disorder and decreased personal safety will be byproducts of the climate crisis virtually everywhere to some degree and those who can still afford to travel aren’t going to pay good money to immerse themselves in that.

And this just in, some of the most important cities in Southeast Asia and South Asia, including Shanghai, Bangkok, Mumbai and pretty much all of south Vietnam will be completely under water by 2050.

Transportation limitations

“Emissions reductions from improvements in fuel efficiency and technological fixes are expected to be offset by growth in tourism. Strong policy measures are likely to be necessary, especially to change passenger transport behaviour, where a ‘large price signal is needed’. Changes in lifestyle are therefore likely to be an important component of any effort to drive emissions reductions from tourism. Such changes might include, for example, a reduction in the demand for long-haul tourism in favour of holidaying more locally.” – From “Climate Change: Implications for Tourism” by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and the Cambridge Judge Business School

Sooner or later (read, later), the world is going to have no choice but to address the gargantuan effect transportation has on climate change. Despite being laugh-cry beyond the point-of-no-return, desperate governments will eventually start limiting fossil fuel transportation options in the next decade (or two, if we’re really stupid) either by placing strict limits on carbon emissions for each player in each sector and/or by pricing most people and businesses out of flying, cruising and even ground transport for those still clinging to gas-driven vehicles in 20 years. The United States’ Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 will almost certainly be repealed, while other countries will likely impose heavy regulations of their own.

Under these measures, it won’t take long for many airlines to either fail or be absorbed by the few surviving players, creating near or total monopolies in some regions, followed by even more price increases in an attempt to salvage profits from the reduced passenger and freight load.

Ground public transportation, meaning buses and trains (where available), will be the only option for most people. Since buses and trains are particularly slow in the U.S., and with the miserly vacation allotments in this country being what they are, even people who can afford to take vacations won’t be able to travel far due to prohibitively long in-transit times.

The One Percenters will be the only group still vacationing as we now know it, because they’ll be the last people with enough cash to do so. But there aren’t many one percenters to go around, so competition for their attention will be fierce. The luxury sector will become even more exclusive than it already is and most destinations won’t be able to stay competitive.

Meanwhile, places like Siberia and Greenland will finally have their tourism heyday as the planet warms, however limited and short-lived.

What can we do?

The answer to this query breaks down into three categories: now, later and really later.

Now (like, right now):

Take a look around your destination and figure out what tourism enticements are likely to be affected first and start planning immediately to adapt or replace them. Never mind the actual work. That comes later. Lobbying for and sourcing the vast amounts of money needed to counteract climate change effects at your destination is going take years. If you wait till climate change effects are painfully apparent before making financial preparations for the necessary adjustments, you’re done for.

Destinations everywhere need to start tightening the screws for legislation to improve and expand inter-city ground-based transportation, so the 99 Percenters can still travel more than a few hundred miles per day 30 years from now. The U.S. has a century of car-focused, long haul transportation infrastructure to undo. The northeast and west coast already have the infrastructure to make (relatively) easy improvements to their rail service, but the rest of the country will be reduced to early 20th century travel limitations, as we’re limited to buses and infrequent train service that shares and gives priority to whatever’s left of the freight train industry.

Of course, if it happens at all, those improvements will take decades—maybe half a century. In the meantime, once their fleet is fully electric, Greyhound and other bus companies will likely be among the biggest players in U.S. transportation by 2050, so stock up on Valium, Ambien and donut travel pillows.

But it’s not all bad news. By the time we arrive at the bus travel Renaissance, buses will be relatively swanky. As the industry enjoys a spike in passengers, competition for those butts will result in some pretty sweet onboard amenities. And as the tanking economy results in a steady decline of single-occupancy vehicles, bus journeys will get faster and more reliable, due to less traffic congestion.

State and federal lobbying for climate change action should begin immediately. For an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually, the U.S. tourism sector hasn’t done nearly enough legislative flexing, at least certainly not to a degree comparable with the economic weight that it carries. I realize they’re still somewhat new and reliant on federal funding approval, but Brand USA needs to stop churning out impotent press releases and opinion pieces about why tourism is absolutely critical to the economy and start actively harassing unfriendly lawmakers.

I’m not saying carefully coordinated travel delays and service interruptions affecting top tier politicians on their way home from D.C. is the right path to this goal, but I’m also not not saying that.

In a world driven by common sense [bursts into tears], that kind of sabotage shouldn’t be necessary, because this lobbying should be a slam dunk, even for idiotholes. The entire transportation sector depends on the survival of travel and tourism, even while parts are still fighting like mad to keep as many gas-driven vehicles on the road as possible. They’ll come around eventually, or gasp to a miserable end, and we need to starting building the pressure to make that happen.

The entire debate can be distilled down to one sentence: do you want billions of dollars in tourism revenue, and all the jobs that revenue supports, or not? Anyone that doesn’t reply with a prompt and forceful ‘yes’ needs to be sent home.

Later:

We need to find long term solutions to the looming, innumerable transportation crises.

In 2005, leisure flights were responsible for 43% of the tourism sector’s carbon emissions. However, those flights only accounted for 17% of all leisure trips. So, that bodes ill for the near and medium future of commercial flying in ways I’ve already illustrated. Cruise ships, in a surprise to no one, also have extraordinary carbon footprints per passenger mile.

While improved fuel efficiency and design have made great strides in recent years, there’s zero chance these measures alone will slow, never mind stop, the damage these two forms of travel cause. Long haul flights for tourism will either have to be priced out of most travelers’ budgets or simply made unavailable. And there’s probably nothing that can save the cruise ship industry.

It’s going to take superhuman advancements in a very short period to forestall just some of the inevitable transportation limitations on the horizon. Dogged work continues on developing biofuels powerful enough to make a passenger plane take flight. And the long fantasized transition to electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles seems attainable, but realistically this will only help ground transportation and (maybe) some sea vessels.

Again, we can either choose to prioritize solutions now or have extremely unpleasant (or expensive) solutions forced upon us in 20 years. If we don’t get this done, almost every vacation is going to be a staycation.

Really later:

Maybe, MAYBE, in three to five decades, the U.S. will have made the transition to a cross-country high speed rail network stout and comprehensive enough to be a legitimate replacement for air travel. But for that to be possible, we would have to start working on it, like, yesterday. So, don’t start counting those decades until a comprehensive plan has been created and, more importantly, approved by several powerful lobbying interests that will lose a crippling amount of money as a result.

While we wait for that miracle to happen, regional tourism will be pretty much the only option most people have for vacationing. Many destinations will have to adjust or completely reinvent what their new appeal will be and then focus nearly all of their marketing efforts on people that can travel to their destinations on the ground in under 8-10 hours.

Destinations that are particularly vulnerable to a complete obliteration of tourism revenue are ones that currently count outdoor activities and natural attractions as their top enticements. Additionally, many forms of adventure travel, sports and, obviously, anything that depends on fossil fuels will be extremely expensive to partake in or just plain gone. Your grandchildren will only have your old GoPro videos to get a sense of what it used to be like to tandem parachute.

The life-or-death challenge destinations face boils down to satisfying two criteria in our new climate reality: providing new/adapted leisure options worth traveling for and making their destinations affordable for people with somewhat or drastically reduced spending power.

Indulgences and wretched excess like idle shopping (the death of the shopping mall that people have been predicting for more than a decade will finally come true!), imported food, most wines, exotic spas, and thrill-seeking, just to name a few, will be out of reach for the majority of people. So, what will replace them? Physical activities? Personal improvement? Simple, off-the-grid, peace and quiet retreats? Days-long, drug-fueled virtual reality trips that you do while seated in a La-Z-Boy with a retractile hatch toilet and butt sprayer under the seat?

The ever so thin silver lining is that these new, simpler and cheaper enticements will likely not be especially elaborate or require major infrastructure changes, so the cost of transition won’t be prohibitive.

The end

So their readers don’t lose the will to live, when most people write super negative, we’re-all-fucked posts like this they tend to end on a positive note, but I don’t have one. A handful of destinations and leisure activities may thrive, but the bulk of the travel and tourism industry isn’t going to be around as we know it in 50 years.

I’ll give you this: tourism may start to recover by, oh, let’s say 2120 (we should have solar-powered jets by then right?), but that will depend entirely on what happens in the next two decades, combined with a few timely, as yet unimaginable technological breakthroughs being developed. Even so, I’d advise future generations to look to other industries, like recycling garbage into extreme weather-resistant construction materials.

Oh wait, there is one good thing that will come from the climate crisis. As large countries become fractured and eventually split into tiny nations and city-states, getting into the Travelers’ Century Club will be a whole lot easier.