Colleen Stephens says it is hard to know
whether the changes she sees daily in and around Alaskas Prince
William Sound are good, bad or just different.
For more than 30
years her family has been taking tourists through the sound on day
cruises of glacier and wildlife destinations -- some 17,000 took
their tours last year. While that qualifies her as a frontline
observer of shifting temperature patterns in the far-north Pacific,
she says that despite the growing debate over climate change,
global warming is not a subject that seems to worry her customers.
Questions about the subject, she says, are relatively
We get a few
visitors who ask if the receding glaciers they see are the result
of climate change, she says, but we tell them there are as many
glaciers advancing as there are receding. That isnt to say that
were not seeing some changes, but are they related to global
warming? Who knows?
The fact is that
no one knows with any certainty what are the causes or
ramifications of global warming. What is known is that the
phenomenon is real and that it is causing significant changes in
weather patterns worldwide. Those changes, in turn, are beginning
to have a profound impact on travel and tourism.
In recent weeks,
as the worlds attention has been focused on the devastation wrought
by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, meteorologists have widely
attributed the increasing frequency and ferocity of tropical storms
to warmer-than-normal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Following a rapid
rise in extreme weather around the world in recent years, the Gulf
storms have fueled the debate over climate change.
politicians and energy industry executives continue to argue about
what is causing global warming, with some citing increasing levels
of greenhouse gases, while others point to geological records
suggesting that climate change is part of a natural cycle on
While that debate
rages, however, the results of climate change are creating a sense
of urgency in the tourism industry and in capital markets around
the globe. Ominous signs are everywhere.
" In August, rain
and melting snow from warming mountain tops caused lowland flooding
that killed more than 60 people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland
in two weeks time. Simultaneously, severe drought this past summer
in southern Europe produced conditions that resulted in devastating
forest fires in Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in the
" In the
Caribbean, the increasing frequency of violent storms has left
tourism-related businesses facing skyrocketing insurance rates --
and in some cases they are having great difficulty obtaining any
risk coverage at all. As a result, tourism and travel-related
businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to get the
financing they need to rebuild or to develop new facilities in
" Perhaps the
greatest impact of weather-related devastation was the crippling of
North Americas oil industry after the one-two punch of Katrina and
Rita. Pipelines were cut, refineries and oil-service company
facilities were destroyed or severely damaged and several drilling
platforms sunk. The result was soaring prices for diesel, gasoline
and jet fuel.
Damage by hurricanes
Katrina and Rita to the nations petroleum production capacity, and
the corresponding surge in gasoline prices, came into sharper
relief late last week when President Bush asked motorists to cut
back on nonessential driving and urged his own staff and the
federal government to lead the way.
merits of those directives, they are bound to have a significant
negative impact on the travel industry, especially on tourist
destinations, which account for much of the nations nonessential
remarks brought swift reaction from recovering tourism communities
across the country. In Maine, where fall color tours are now luring
motorists and tour companies from throughout the northeast, the
Kennebeck Journal quoted the states tourism director, Dann Louis,
as saying, The tourism industry across the country will probably be
ruing the day he said that. I think its an unfortunate statement
for him to make when the country is in a recovery
real and imagined
Of course, at
some point it becomes tempting to assign blame for all manner of
natural disasters to global warming, even if the link is at best
tenuous. Even so, a report released in mid-September by atmospheric
scientists at the University of Colorado and the University of
Georgia, published in the journal Science, linked warmer ocean
temperatures to increased volatility in the weather and to climate
changes that researchers suggested may be resulting from human
scientists agree that such a link exists. Some, including Roger
Pielke, a political and environmental scientist at the University
of Colorado, say the data are insufficient to make a definitive
causal connection between global warming and greenhouse
further is that global warming manifests itself in a number of
different -- sometimes seemingly contradictory -- ways.
Stephens corner of the far north, it is generally ice, not wind,
that churns the debate. But just as in the Gulf of Mexico, warmer
water is an empirical fact in Alaska, and its impact is only
beginning to be apparent.
we are having higher water temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska,
Stephens said last week as she worked dockside at Stan Stephens
Cruises in Valdez. But the impact on us is that we have wildlife
adapting differently. We see some species we dont normally see in
the region. Fish patterns and migration are different. The salmon
returns are different.
But beyond simple
observation, little is known for sure about what is causing all
these changes. Even the fish hatcheries themselves are trying to
find out why, she said.
fires in Alaska last year, she noted, chased tourists from some
areas of the state to relatively unaffected cruise operations along
Alaskas coasts earlier in the season, causing a rush of business in
June and less tourist traffic later in the season.
It balanced out,
Stephens said. We have become like the wildlife -- we
A few hundred
miles away, Alaskas Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest park in
the nation, draws thousands of hunters and fishermen annually. Park
ranger Johnny Evans -- Ranger Johnny to locals -- says visitors
worry more about water levels in lakes and streams than about
glacial melting or rising temperatures.
Last year, we had
low water levels, and that was bad for fishing and hunting, he
said. This year the levels are more normal. So, can I say that
global warming is affecting us here at the park? I cant.
Far from Alaskas
diverse, pristine environs, in board rooms across the U.S., travel
industry leaders remain uncertain about how to plan for, or respond
to, climate change -- and about whether changes in policies or
operations are needed to accommodate shifting climates.
Most express deep
concern about the potential impact of global warming on their
bottom lines, yet admit that their concern has not yet had much
impact on their business plans. What few changes they have made
recently have mostly been reactive.
Vail Resorts, the
Colorado-based operator of ski resorts and other tourism facilities
in the western U.S., is as familiar with the economic impact of
weather changes as any company in the travel industry.
prolonged drought could affect our otherwise adequate snowmaking
water supplies, the company noted in a U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission disclosure last year. Unfavorable weather conditions
such as drought, hurricanes, tropical storms and tornadoes can
adversely affect our other resorts and lodging properties as
vacationers tend to delay or postpone vacations if weather
conditions differ from [normal].
are impossible to predict, as are the economic impact of those
patterns, the company noted.
already thinking green
head of corporate communications for Vail Resorts, said that while
the company remains attuned to advances in meteorological research,
concerns over global warming and its potential impact on ski
operations havent yet become a major driver in corporate decision
I would say no,
at this point, said Ladaga, whose company has made environmental
awareness, fuel conservation and green issues part of its operating
mantra, going so far as to use bio-diesel fuels in mountain resort
vehicles and equipment.
But, then, we
have already begun diversifying our business, going more toward
hospitality and lodging, golf courses and such, she
That effort has
reduced the companys dependence on ski resorts -- and its exposure
to the whims of weather -- at a time when many scientists are
warning that steadily rising global temperatures could reduce snow
levels at ski resorts around the world.
Another very real
possibility, these scientists say, is that warming could create
more severe winter storms that would adversely affect
transportation and the costs of trail and lift
At Carlson Cos.,
the Minnesota-based operators of hotels, resorts, travel services
and cruise operations, company officials say global warming and
climate changes have not yet made their way into long-term,
high-level planning. But Bill Sipple, vice president of development
for Carlsons full-service hotels division, said weather patterns
now figure into decisions at various levels.
certainly consider hurricane risk in considering a particular
location and have done so in recent transactions, Sipple said.
Generally speaking, we may or may not elect to pass on a deal we
think has some limited hurricane risk, but we may also consider
building in the additional cost of other items, such as physical
plant improvements and insurance and risk-rate the transaction from
management related to climate change has attracted more attention
over the past year as global reinsurance companies have taken
multi-billion dollar hits around the world from storms, fires and
other climate-related issues.