Contributor to climate change! Holiday ‘hot’ spots | The Financial Express

Contributor to climate change! Holiday ‘hot’ spots

Over 1.9 million Indians travelled to Thailand in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, according to figures from the country’s tourism ministry.

Contributor to climate change! Holiday ‘hot’ spots
Flames rise as firefighters and volunteers try to extinguish a fire burning in the village of Schinos, near Corinth, Greece, May 19, 2021. REUTERS/Vassilis Psomas

From the Biblical floods in Pakistan and fiery wildfires in the Mediterranean to unprecedented heatwaves, followed by intense flooding, in several parts across India, climate catastrophe is knocking at our doors more frequently than ever. The tourism sector, which makes up 10% of the global GDP, is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, making it a contributor to climate change. But is it a victim too?

“Definitely. Tourism is not immune to the impacts of climate change. In fact, it is one of the most threatened sectors,” says Dr Tirthankar Banerjee, assistant professor at the Institute of Environment & Sustainable Development at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). Dr PK Joshi, professor, the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), adds that “while earlier, climate change was known to have immense impacts on the coastal area (including small islands) and mountainous landscapes, which are primarily the tourist destinations; now, we are witnessing on other geographical regions”.

“Thus, the challenge is that some of the most beautiful landscapes and popular destinations have started facing the loss of tourism and this stress is accelerating with time. These would also include national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, archaeological sites, and many other landscapes and seascapes,” he adds. Let’s look at the impact of climate change on tourism with a focus on six tourist hotspots.

Beaches swept by climate change

Over 1.9 million Indians travelled to Thailand in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, according to figures from the country’s tourism ministry. Southeast Asia remains a major tourist hotspot, with a large number of Indians travelling to Thailand, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. However, given its long coastline, the region finds itself in the throes of climate change.

Termed one of the fastest sinking cities, Jakarta is set to be replaced by Nusantara as Indonesia’s new capital. Such vulnerability to climate change tends to have an impact on the tourism sector, which makes up over 4% of its GDP and is among the major sources of foreign currency earnings, too. In fact, studies indicate that every 1% increase in temperature there is associated with a decrease in the number of international tourists by 1.37%. Similarly, a 1% rise in relative humidity shrinks the number of international tourists by 0.59%.

Also Read: A road trip to the two extremes of Uttarakhand

In fact, at least three UNESCO world heritage sites in the region have been assessed as highly vulnerable to future storms and floods, as per Fulcrum published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, formerly Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, a Singapore-based research institute. These include the risk of vegetation change in Komodo National Park in Indonesia, soil erosion at the Cordilleras rice terraces in the Philippines, and landslides in Hoi An, an ancient Vietnamese city.

Hoi An is known both for its ancient riches and its pristine beaches. However, these have not remained untouched by climate change. According to Easia Travel, a tour operator which focuses on southeast Asia, over 20 hectares of the city’s Cua Dai was washed away between 2009 and 2014 due to climate change and rapid erosion. Not just that, nearly 70% of the protective forest of the beach has been washed away by towering waves, intense rainfall, and sea level rise since 2018.

However, it seems nothing could dent the zeal of Indians to travel. “We have not observed any major impact of fragile climatic conditions on travel plans of people, and Maldives, Indonesia, and Bangkok remain the top-selling destinations,” says Aditya Gupta, senior vice president, hotels and holidays at Yatra.com.

The internal data of SOTC Travel, too, indicates the same. “Given the current visa challenges for Europe, our internal data indicates current interest for visa on arrival/easy and quick visa destinations like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia; also Nepal in the Indian subcontinent along with island destinations like Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles,” says Daniel D’Souza, president and country head—holidays, SOTC Travel. “Preferred long and mid haul destinations are USA (for visa-holding customers), New Zealand, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Europe, and the UK,” he adds.

Corals determine tourism
The world’s largest coral reef, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a major crowd puller and one of the top sites for marine tourism, attracting approximately two million visitors each year. However, the decline in reef health through climate change impacts, such as marine heatwave, has “significantly impacted tourism visitation”, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia’s reef management agency.

According to reports, domestic travel dropped since 2016, when widespread coral bleaching on Australian coral reefs, due to record ocean temperatures, was recorded. In fact, the Great Barrier Reef had five mass bleaching events, in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017, and 2020, all due to high ocean temperature. Not just that, climate change has caused a 54% rise in the number of marine heatwave days each year, making it difficult for the damaged corals to recover sufficiently, according to Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s 2020 article. Along with the Reef, climate change is also threatening the $6-billion tourism industry, and over 60,000 people are employed in reef tourism, it adds.

“Climate change-induced disasters like heat stress, drought, floods, erratic rainfall, landslides and slips, and many more such situations are definitely going to be the detrimental factors for the entire tourism industry,” says Prof Joshi. “It will undeniably affect the local community involved in tourism and undoubtedly, the tourists will be discouraged to visit places that might be facing the brunt of climate change,” he adds.

On our doorsteps

The Maldives remains among the top destinations for international travel for Indians. “International travel has once again gained momentum after the reopening of international borders and people are looking to spend their holidays in various exotic places,” says Gupta, the Yatra.com executive. “We, at Yatra.com, have witnessed a spike in interest amongst people for destinations like Turkey, UAE, Maldives, Mauritius, and Thailand due to the easy visa policy and the option of a visa on arrival,” he adds.

In fact, some reports suggest that Indians accounted for the highest number of international travellers to the island nation last year.

The archipelago country rakes in most of its revenue through tourism, which makes up 70% of its GDP, according to the World Bank. However, being the most low-lying country in the world makes it among the most ecologically fragile so much so that its environment minister Aminath Shauna has termed it an “existential threat”. “Over 90% of the islands report flooding annually; 97% are reporting shoreline erosion, and 64% of the islands experience severe erosion,” she told Finance & Development Magazine (F&D) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“There are big challenges that come with the advantages of the islands’ tourist assets,” comments Richard Damania, World Bank’s lead environmental economist. “The country’s coral reefs, which protect it from storm surges and serve as the main attraction for the tourism-driven economy, are in danger of being damaged or destroyed by poorly handled waste disposal methods,” he adds.

Sea-level rise due to melting polar ice caps is a major threat to the Maldives. According to the World Bank, the sea level is projected to rise within the range of 10 to 100 cm by 2100. This could mean that the entire country could be submerged in the worst-case scenario, it adds.

Given its scenic appeal, the Lakshadweep islands, too, wield tourism potential. In the budget for 2022-23, it was allocated Rs 9.5 crore for tourism development. But just like the Maldives, it too faces the threat of sea level rise. A 2021 study undertaken by various government departments and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, estimated a sea-level rise of 0.4 mm/year to 0.9 mm/year around the Lakshadweep Islands. Smaller islands Chetlat and Amini, part of the Aminidivi group of islands, are expected to have a major land loss. Even larger islands Minicoy and Kavaratti, the capital of the union territory, are vulnerable to sea-level rise. They are estimated to experience land loss along 60% of the present shoreline, the study found. Also, Agatti Island, home to the only airport in the archipelago, is vulnerable to damage due to inundation from the rise of sea level.

India’s pristine Andaman & Nicobar Islands, too, attract a large number of domestic and international tourists. Over 400,000 people visited the islands in 2018, as per the home ministry data. However, coral bleaching is a major issue there too. In fact, 23.58% of the live cover was lost due to widespread bleaching in 2016, as per studies.

The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared between West Bengal and Bangladesh, too, is facing the wrath of climate change in the form of increased salinity, higher tidal surges, and permanent submergence of land mass, posing a loss of habitat for flora and fauna.

This summer, India found itself in the throes of an intense heatwave with the daily temperature topping 50°C at several places. However, this didn’t deter Indians from travelling. “Owing to the scorching summer heat waves that were observed in many parts of India, people were seen planning trips to hill stations and mountains for a quick respite,” says Gupta of Yatra.com. “We, at Yatra.com, witnessed a spike in booking inquiries for destinations like Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal, and Uttarakhand with the demand for Himachal being comparatively lower than Kashmir. Moreover, places like Rajasthan and Goa were seen following the same trend of being the least preferred destinations during that time of the year,” adds Gupta.

Speaking on the unchanged tourist sentiments, Professor Maharaj Pandit from Delhi University’s Department of Environmental Studies, comments, “Years ago, the Kedarnath tragedy did dampen the spirits of travellers for some time, but human memory is so short-lived, the number of tourists going to the deeper Himalayan valleys continues to grow unabated. Sadly, we neither listen to scientific advice nor to nature. Disasters and destruction continue!”

Amid such gloom, a tale of hope was created by the Tamil Nadu government. Vaan Island, a biodiversity park that forms a part of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve that extends from Rameshwaram to Kanyakumari, was estimated to be submerged by 2022. Its area had drastically reduced from 20.08 hectares in 1969 to just 1.53 hectares in 2015. However, thanks to the TN government’s plan of building artificial reefs, the land area has increased since 2015, studies suggest.

Wildfires blaze amok

During the summer of 2022, the peak tourist season in Europe, several countries in the Mediterranean faced intense heat waves coupled with forest wildfires.

“In countries like Greece, we’ve seen local tourism industries decimated by the effects of wildfires, which have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and tourism infrastructure in their paths,” according to SeaGoingGreen, a ‘Sustainable Tourism Consultants’ group. Wildfires were also witnessed in France, Spain, Turkey, etc.

This has not happened out of the blue. The Mediterranean basin has witnessed a 1.4°C rise in mean temperature, which is 0.3° higher than the global average. This has a considerable impact on tourism, according to a McKinsey & Co report.

According to it, one of the ways that climate change could affect tourism is because of the rise in the number of “unbearably hot” summer days in key destinations. We expect the number of “too hot” summer days to double in some regions by 2050, impacting the tourism industry, it said.

It is a major challenge as tourism itself makes up 15% of the GDP of the Mediterranean countries. It estimates the number of days above 37°C in southern Spain, Turkey, and Egypt to rise from 30 to 60 by 2050, which could discourage tourism in the peak travel season. It gave the example of Antalya, a Turkish beach and resort city. It’s a major tourist puller as over 10 million visit it each year, making up 10% of all tourists who visit Turkey.

As per the McKinsey report, by 2030, the city will add 15 days each summer during which the temperature will breach 37°C. By 2050, the number will rise to 30. This can pose a challenge as the summer months are crucial for Antalya’s tourism making up 20% of the city’s GDP and 2% of Turkey’s. Similarly, in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and parts of Greece and Turkey, rainfall during the dry, warm months spanning from April to September is estimated to decrease by 10% by 2030 and 20% by 2050. Hence, drought conditions in these areas are likely to prevail for at least six months every year by 2050.

Last year, Turkey’s second-largest Lake Tuz, a tourist site given the lake’s pink colour, dried up completely during the summer months. The lake is the only nesting ground for flamingos. However, thousands of these birds were found dead there as drought marred central Turkey.

California’s yearly wildfires

Known for Silicon valley, Las Vegas, and Hollywood, California attracts over 100 million people each year. However, the state often finds itself in the throes of wildfires, which has brought down annual tourism income by 11% equalling a loss of $20 million, according to SeaGoingGreen.

During the 2020 wildfires, the state’s Napa and Sonoma counties lost several wineries, which were the primary source of income for many residents.

In the middle of all this is the Dead Sea, the middle-eastern sea known for its high salt content that allows people to float without moving a finger. This has made it a tourist attraction in its own might attracting 800,000 people from around the world every year. However, human interventions along with climate change are making the lake shrink at a rapid pace, with studies suggesting that it could completely dry up by 2050.

Remote areas turned tourist hotspots
While more and more tourist hotspots are bearing the brunt of climate change, travellers are increasingly looking at unconventional locations.

“Yes, we are seeing a rising trend in the desire to visit Antarctica,” says Patrick Woodhead, co-founder and CEO of White Desert, a British tour operator which conducts expeditions to Antarctica.

Data, too, suggests the same. While 56,168 people travelled with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) in 2018/2019, the number rose to 73,991 between October 2019 and April 2020.

IAATO is a group of private tour operators in Antarctica of which the White Desert is also a member. For the tour operator, too, the number of travellers has increased from 12 eighteen years ago to “not more than 250”.

Melting of the Arctic

The same applies to Greenland, the largely uninhabitable Arctic island of mere 56,000 people. Estimates suggest that the number of tourists to the place, which boasts of fascinating icebergs, Arctic flora, and fauna along with the fascinating site of aurora borealis, has increased from 77,000 in 2015 to 105,000 in 2020.

“It is hard to say,” says Mads Lumholt, senior marketing analyst at Visit Greenland, if climate change and the rise in the melting of Arctic snow have any role to play in the rise of tourism there.

“But the attention to global warming—especially the accelerated effect in the Arctic—is one of the factors that create increasing attention on Greenland as a travel destination,” he says.

Visit Greenland is a site owned by the Greenland government responsible for marketing the tourism of Greenland.

Speaking on the impact of tourism on the island’s fragile ecology, he says, “The number of tourists in Greenland is still relatively limited, so we don’t see any significant effect on the environment and the arctic nature yet, but we also ask tourists to follow the beaten paths when hiking, so that they don’t harm the fragile Arctic flora.”

However, speaking of the risk, he adds, “The greatest risk in my view is the increased number of big cruise ships that use HFO (Heavy Fuel Oil) because it emits not only CO2 but also other harmful compounds like SOX, NOx, and black carbon.”

Experts believe that sustainable tourism is the way forward.

“Our present challenge is to understand how we can establish more sustainable livelihoods in the background of a warming trend that will likely continue for many decades in the future,” says Gautam Menon, director, Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability, Ashoka University, Sonepat.

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 06-11-2022 at 02:15 IST