Touring climate change

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Travelers snowshoe near Sermermiut, Greenland, on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord, where ice from the Jakobshavn Glacier falls into the water.
Travelers snowshoe near Sermermiut, Greenland, on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord, where ice from the Jakobshavn Glacier falls into the water. Photo Credit: Visit Greenland, Mads Pihl

On the western tip of Jamaica, Negril's Seven Mile Beach is the Caribbean ideal: soft sand, turquoise water and palm trees offering pockets of shade to tourists splayed out on towels and lounge chairs, trying to absorb the Caribbean through their pores.

However, the view, while idyllic, has been altered. There's less sand than there used to be, and the postcard-perfect water is lapping ever closer to the palms. Those tourists (approximately 20% of Jamaica's 2.1 million visitors to Negril last year) have less space to spread out and settle in.

The beach, and by extension the throngs who bask on it, are threatened by a formidable foe: climate change.

Sandals Resorts International program manager Mark Pike was born and raised in Jamaica, and he has noticed the changes firsthand: coastal erosion, shrinking beaches and disappearing sand.

The response so far, said Pike, has been to rebuild. "We do have to renourish the beach, to transfer and replenish the sand in the area in order to maintain [it]."

But trucking in sand is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. A proposed breakwater project recently stalled amid tense debate, and companies such as Sandals are pushing for practical solutions to protect their investments.

Still, there's one thing that nobody in Negril disputes: Something must be done about climate change. "Because in the Caribbean, it affects the things that we depend on," Pike said. "The beach and the water are part of our product. Lives depend on the lifeblood that tourism provides."

Seven Mile Beach by the Sandals resort in Negril, Jamaica. Estimates said coastal erosion has cost the shoreline more than 300 feet of sand in the last 60 years.
Seven Mile Beach by the Sandals resort in Negril, Jamaica. Estimates said coastal erosion has cost the shoreline more than 300 feet of sand in the last 60 years.

From the sands of Jamaica to the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland and Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the impact of climate change is reverberating throughout the tourism industry, affecting natural resources, destinations, resorts, infrastructure, transportation and accessibility.

The good news is there is still time to act. Yet it is also clear that the effects we're seeing are just the tip of the fast-melting iceberg.

Hottest years on record

Last December, 195 countries approved the Paris Agreement, a historic pact that commits almost every nation on the planet to lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to avoid reaching a 3.6-degree increase in average global temperatures since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

We're already nearly halfway there. According to NASA, worldwide averages have ticked up 1.6 degrees since 1880, when modern temperature tracking began. The hottest year on record was 2015, and 2016 is on pace to be even hotter. Climate change, in other words, is happening around us.

One of the primary concerns associated with a changing climate is a rise in sea levels. Though it's hard to pinpoint just how much the oceans will rise, the National Climate Assessment estimated it will be one to four feet by 2100. Low-lying atolls such as the Marshall Islands are already facing more frequent flooding, and a study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that some Pacific atolls could be rendered uninhabitable in decades rather than centuries. A rise of just three feet could sink the Maldives.

In the Caribbean, the encroaching waters are eating up the beachfront and washing away sand, while high surf from hurricanes and other extreme weather -- occurring more frequently thanks to climate change -- causes inundations that threaten the coastal infrastructure vital to tourism.

A polar bear sits in the Northwest Passage as the Crystal Serenity sails in the background. Climate change has caused the melting of sea ice, enabling ships the size of the Serenity to navigate the Passage.
A polar bear sits in the Northwest Passage as the Crystal Serenity sails in the background. Climate change has caused the melting of sea ice, enabling ships the size of the Serenity to navigate the Passage. Photo Credit: Neil Roberts, Paragon Pixels

Throughout much of the world, human development has been concentrated along harbors, shorelines and rivers. Now those places, including some of the planet's most important cities, are at risk from rising waters.

"The Caribbean islands in general are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise and increased storm surges because lots of the development, airports and resort developments are in storm-vulnerable areas," said Adam Markham, the Union of Concerned Scientists' deputy director for climate and energy.

Earlier this year, Markham authored a collaborative report by Unesco, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Union of Concerned Scientists that looked at the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites such as Venice and the Galapagos, the Ecuadoran archipelago where Charles Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection. The Galapagos each year welcomes more than 200,000 visitors, whose spending provides more than half of the local economy.

"The tourists who go to the Galapagos want to see the sea lions and the rare birds and the iguanas," Markham said. "But one of the impacts of climate change is that we will probably see more intense El Nino events and probably more frequent."

During an El Nino, higher-than-normal water temperatures can affect the phytoplankton, algae and fish populations, crucial food sources for the wildlife that draws visitors to the islands. "In a severe El Nino year, you might lose 60% or 70% of the population of sea lions or iguanas or some of the sea birds," Markham said. 

The Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica has seen unusual swings in precipitation, and experts worry the cloud covering might eventually evaporate.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica has seen unusual swings in precipitation, and experts worry the cloud covering might eventually evaporate. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg

Everywhere you look, climate change is on a collision course with tourism. In Venice, the rising seas are damaging important buildings. In Vietnam, historical Hoi An is at risk of extreme flooding. In Costa Rica, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, home to 2.5% of the planet's biodiversity, is seeing unusual swings in precipitation. If the trend continues, local experts worry that the cloud cover could lift entirely.

The U.S. is far from immune. In August, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection designated 411.2 miles of beach as critically eroded, and in Georgia, the only road to Tybee Island is now inundated by high tides multiple times per year.

"Glacier National Park [in Montana] is projected to have no glaciers left by 2030," Markham said. "The name will be the only thing reminding people that there used to be glaciers there."

More extreme storms can also mean growing insurance costs and travel interruptions. Warming temperatures can intensify air turbulence. In August, a JetBlue flight from Boston to Sacramento, Calif., had to make an emergency landing after severe turbulence injured 24 passengers and crew. That same month, 12 people were hospitalized after a Houston-to-London United flight hit rough air and took several precipitous drops.

One of the most well-publicized impacts of global climate change as it relates to tourism has been the recent coral bleaching event, the worst in recorded history. Bleaching occurs when stressed-out corals expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues, serve as their food source and give them color. With El Nino raising already warmer water temperatures, reefs around the world have been affected, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The reef attracted 2.4 million visitor days in 2015, generating about $1.5 billion in economic impact. Scientists estimate that areas of bleaching have occurred in 93% of the individual reefs that make up the larger system.

When diving at Port Douglas, Australia, last spring, much of the reef appeared unscathed, but branches of the fast-growing staghorn coral glowed white beneath the surface, an obvious sign of bleaching. In other areas, the spiky coral was already blanketed with algae, an indication it would not recover.

Staghorn coral shows signs of bleaching at the Agincourt Reef area of the Great Barrier Reef.
Staghorn coral shows signs of bleaching at the Agincourt Reef area of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo Credit: Jorg Van Santvliet/Blue Dive

According to Markham, the Great Barrier Reef is an excellent example of the integration of tourism management with climate change management, "but none of that can compensate for the fact that the oceans are becoming warmer."

Even if the world meets the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement and the average temperature increase is kept in check, he said, "even that will probably not save more than 50% of the world's coral reefs. So many countries, if you think of many of the Pacific islands or Caribbean islands, rely on coral reefs for part of their tourism economy. Nothing demonstrates the urgency for action more than this."

Threats and opportunities

Flying into Ilulissat, Greenland, climate change can be seen through the windows of the plane.

"When you come in, you start to see this white line on the horizon. If you have an untrained eye, you don't probably notice it or know what it is," said Sarah Woodall, international relationship manager for Visit Greenland. "As you get closer and lower, the ice gets bigger and bigger and you start to see it's this huge fjord just filled bumper to bumper with massive icebergs."

Nearly 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Ilulissat Icefjord, where the Jakobshavn Glacier reaches the sea, is one of Greenland's top tourist destinations. It's also a climate-change hot spot, a place where travelers can witness the sundry impacts of global warming firsthand as icebergs calve off the glacier and crash into the water.

Seeing the fjord and its mountains of ice, some of which reach about a half-mile beneath the surface, is one of the key motivations for tourists traveling to Greenland, and climate change has boosted interest in the country and its environment.

A water taxi sails in front of an iceberg near the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. Sarah Woodall of Visit Greenland said some travelers are visiting to see the glaciers before they’re permanently altered.
A water taxi sails in front of an iceberg near the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. Sarah Woodall of Visit Greenland said some travelers are visiting to see the glaciers before they’re permanently altered. Photo Credit: Visit Greenland, Mads Pihl

Rather than downplay it, Visit Greenland has embraced climate change's role in driving visitation. A new information center is in the works for Ilulissat, and while Greenland.com already discusses the impact of climate change, there are plans to expand the content and build a dedicated landing page. Though the country is in no danger of losing its ice anytime soon -- the Greenland ice sheet covers more than 660,000 square miles -- Woodall said more younger visitors are making the trip, choosing to see the white wonderland's natural resources before they're permanently altered by a warming planet.

Rising temperatures are also predicted to drive visitation to the U.S. national parks, according to a study by the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program.

Researchers who examined historical temperature data and visitors statistics found a strong correlation between mean monthly temperature and mean monthly visitation. In the majority of national parks, rising temperatures meant more visitors, said adaptation ecologist Gregor Schuurman, co-author of the study.

Using that data, Schuurman and his co-authors modeled how climate change and warmer weather might affect future arrivals, causing higher peaks and extending the shoulder season earlier into the spring and later into the fall.

"We're seeing some of this already in Yellowstone," Schuurman said. "We see both warming temperatures and record visitation."

Even as climate change is threatening tourist destinations around the globe, it's also creating opportunities.

The Crystal Serenity passes by an iceberg in Canada’s Bellot Strait, along the Northwest Passage.
The Crystal Serenity passes by an iceberg in Canada’s Bellot Strait, along the Northwest Passage. Photo Credit: Herman Oosthuizen

Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity last month completed the first voyage by a luxury cruise ship through the fabled Northwest Passage. One thousand guests paid between $21,000 and $132,000 to travel 7,297 nautical miles over 32 days through the remote route, stopping in Inuit communities and passing icebergs and polar bears along the way. The cruise sold out in just three days.

"It blew my mind," said Keith Steiner, a guest aboard the Serenity, who has sailed with the company 84 times. "The scenery was even more spectacular than I could have imagined."

Though a smaller commercial passenger ship from Lindblad Expeditions first traversed the passage in 1984, a vessel the size of the Serenity making the journey would not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.

"This is literally a part of the world that has just opened up," said Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises.

That opening is due directly to climate change. "It's increased the accessibility twofold," said Pat Maher, an associate professor at Cape Breton University who specializes in sustainable and polar tourism. "There's the obvious one: There's the melting of the ice. ... But I think climate change has also opened up the social perception of accessibility. Climate change has said to more people, 'We can go. We should go see it before it's gone.'"

Tourism as a solution

The travel industry is just beginning to grapple with the new reality of global climate change and work to adapt to a world in flux. But it also has a role to play in mitigating the effects of a warming planet by protecting natural and cultural resources and educating the visitors who come to see them.

In Jamaica, the Sandals Foundation has led a tree-planting program and created a marine sanctuary to foster healthy coral and restore fish populations. The project is good for the environment, but it also benefits the resort: Coral acts as a natural breakwater during high seas, and parrot fish generate new sand by excreting tiny fragments of coral.

As travelers become more savvy about sustainability, resorts that emphasize environmental stewardship are also reaping the rewards. Protravel International agent and Professional Association of Diving Instructors dive master Robert Becker, a 2016 Travel + Leisure A-List agent, said clients come to him because they want to stay somewhere that takes its carbon footprint seriously.

"There are leisure clients who simply don't want to be where resorts are not treating their environment or their community well," Becker said. "It's not just the vacation, but it's how your vacation affects what remains after you go away."

Even as consumers grow more attuned to issues of sustainability, tourism is also directly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

"The farther you travel by air to your destination, the more you're contributing," Markham said. "Air travel is really the fastest-growing sector of man-made carbon emissions right now, and the aviation industry has done very little to address it. It's a very difficult question: How do you get an airplane to go farther with less fuel?"

Some cruise lines are turning to liquefied natural gas to reduce sulfur emissions in newbuilds, and Norway's Hurtigruten line has ordered two vessels that can sail on electrical power for limited distances.

"I think the tourism industry has a real responsibility to take this more seriously and to undertake more actions to support climate resilience and education," Markham said. "People are willing to learn and listen when they're on vacation. There's a real role for tourism in educating tourists."

Cape Breton University's Maher agreed and said travelers can become ambassadors for the places they visit, embracing the need to conserve what they've experienced firsthand. For some destinations, climate change threatens to destroy the very elements that attract tourists and their valuable dollars.

"It's really in everybody's best interest to try to maximize sustainability," Maher said.

For Sandals' Pike, the issue goes beyond protecting his company's investment and maintaining the steady stream of travelers to Seven Mile Beach. It reaches all the way to his own childhood in Jamaica and to the generations before him. Pike's parents and grandparents had some of the first cottages in Negril, where by some estimates coastal erosion has robbed the shoreline of more than 300 feet of sand in the last 60 years.

"Where the swimming barrier is [today], the beach was all the way out to there," he said. "It was in pristine, pristine condition."

Now in his 30s, Pike said that recognizing the retreating coastline isn't a tragedy, but a chance to take action and make positive decisions so Negril welcomes tourists for decades to come.

"We can't correct the past," he said. "But we can correct the now so we can have the future."

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