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Can tourist meccas beat the heat?

Why We Wrote This

A heat wave in Europe this summer has given vacationers pause for thought about whether they want to broil while traveling. How can the world's tourist destinations stay attractive in the face of global warming?

Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
Beachgoers packed Timmendorfer Strand at the edge of the Baltic Sea in Germany last month. Soaring temperatures – including in some unlikely places – are prompting many around the world to rethink how and where they want to spend their leisure time.

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It has been an extraordinarily hot summer in Europe, with temperatures surpassing 114 degrees in Portugal, and scientists predict that global warming means this is just a taste of summers to come. That means that in the future, tourists may think twice about heading for popular hot spots such as the Mediterranean – especially if the weather is just fine closer to home. And it’s not just the heat giving vacationers pause for thought. Climate change is intensifying extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes that are making many traditional tourist meccas less attractive. Wildfires have ravaged northern California, Greece, and even woods inside the Arctic Circle this summer. Winter resorts are finding it harder to make snow and maintain skiable slopes as average temperatures rise. But Australian rural resort owner Christopher Warren, coping with a 30-month drought, says his visitors are happy to deal with its effects; they save their used shower water to keep the garden alive, for example. “We appeal to people’s sense of the right and responsible action to take,” he says. “That can be enriching.”

For Christopher Warren, global warming has gotten uncomfortably up close and personal.

Dr. Warren and his wife run Crystal Creek Meadows, a rural get-away tourist resort a couple of hours outside Sydney, Australia. They are now entering their 30th month of the worst drought in living memory. And would-be tourists are noticing. 

“Whenever there’s media coverage about the drought, the phone stops ringing” and bookings drop off, says Warren. “If there’s not a blade of grass and animals are dying, that hardly encourages you to come to us,” he adds. “Things could get very difficult.”

Weird weather in Europe this summer – temperatures topped 114 in Portugal and British beaches rivaled the Mediterranean Riviera – has made theoretical climate-change models a stifling reality for tourists from around the world. It is making some of them think twice about what they want from a vacation. And the more they wonder, experts say, the more their decisions will disrupt the global tourism business, the world’s largest service-sector industry.

“Climate change is already affecting the attractiveness of destinations” around the world, says Marcelo Risi, spokesman for the United Nations World Tourism Organization. “It is a clear and present threat.”

From Cape Town in South Africa to the islands of the Caribbean, from the European Alps to the Great Barrier Reef, hotel managers, tour guides, ski-lift operators, and deck chair attendants have seen visitor numbers falling off, eroded by the higher temperatures and extreme weather events that scientists say are brought on by global warming.

Basking on a Baltic beach?

This year’s blistering summer heat in southern Europe has made it uncomfortable just to lie in the sun, let alone drag children around Athens or Venice. The economic effects, however, may not be felt until next year. Since northern Europe has enjoyed a delightful season, “there will be a lag effect next summer,” suggests Daniel Scott, a research professor of climate and society at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “More Brits and Scandinavians will stay at home” in hopes of a repeat performance, he predicts.

Alternatively, they might just alter their travel dates, sticking to favorite destinations but visiting in the spring or autumn, when the weather is likely to be more clement. Of course, many factors beyond the weather influence tourists’ decisions about where to go on vacation. School calendars, for instance, determine many people’s holiday plans – as do costs, previous vacation experiences, time availability, and what they like to do. But climate change is narrowing tourists’ choices.

In Australia, warmer waters have led to the bleaching of corals on the Great Barrier Reef; fewer Australians are bothering to go there. Many Caribbean resorts are struggling to welcome American tourists again after the devastating hurricanes that blew through the region last September; it will take five years before the region returns to previously forecast visitor levels, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry lobby group. Rising temperatures in the Alps mean that the number of viable ski areas there could shrink from 666 to just 202 by the end of this century, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“Mountains are very susceptible to climate change,” explains Carlo Buontempo, who works with Copernicus, Europe’s earth observation program, to make its climate-change data accessible and useful to businesses.

Ski seasons in the Alps and Pyrenees are shortening, he says, not only because it snows less than it once did, but because the number of days suitable for making artificial snow, when the temperature is at or below freezing, has been dropping at a rate of one day a year for the past several decades. 

Many ski resorts in Europe and North America are broadening their appeal so as to attract tourists in the summer. They adapt their ski lifts to take mountain bikes instead of skis and tempt walkers into high-altitude meadows with the bucolic promise of cowbells and herds grazing in summer pastures.

In Canada, the mountain town of Whistler, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, now attracts as many summer visitors as winter sports enthusiasts. “That’s a good strategy to deal with global warming and many destinations will follow that path,” says Professor Scott.

Ben Nelms/Reuters
People walk down a street in the village of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, June 2, 2018.

Global warming: good for the soul?

Fewer adaptation options are open to small islands – traditional tourist paradises that are now at the top of the list when it comes to climate-change vulnerabilities. They are low lying, so rising sea levels pose a threat; many of them lie in the habitual paths of cyclones; they are often short of fresh water; they are generally far from their tourist markets and rely on CO2-heavy air connections; and they are short of new attractions that might help them branch out.

And while the Mexican resort of Cancun is wealthy enough – and critical enough to Mexico’s tourism industry – to be able to spend nearly 100 million dollars to restore its storm-ravaged beach, that is beyond most Caribbean islands’ possibilities.

Back in Australia, though Crystal Creek might have run dry, Warren, who researches sustainable tourism, finds that the clients at his high-end rural retreat are showing their mettle in the face of global warming’s effects.

The resort’s four cottages are entirely dependent on rain for their water; the area has seen only 25 percent of normal rainfall for the last 2-1/2 years. “So we’ve put a clock in each shower, and that makes guests laugh,” says Warren. “And there’s a bucket in there too, so they can pour waste water into the garden.”

“We need to change the way we consume to cope with extreme weather events, and it’s possible if you approach people in the right way,” he believes. “We appeal to people’s sense of the right and responsible action to take, to their ethics. We find people draw on the positive side of life when they need to, and that can be enriching.”

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