Tourism and Recreation

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Tourism and Recreation


Climate is often a deciding factor in choosing a tourism destination, whether it is a balmy, warm climate for outdoor activity or a cold, snowy climate for skiing. Climate change thus threatens to alter the qualities of many tourist destinations worldwide. Tourism of small islands, reefs, and ski areas are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Tourism, the world's largest industry, also contributes to climate change. About half of the world's air travel is for tourism, and aviation contributes about 2–3% of all human-caused (anthropogenic) carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and about 13% of anthropogenic

radiative forcing (increased heating of Earth) because of effects of high-altitude, non-CO2 jet emissions.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Long-distance travel for pleasure was rare before the mid-nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution produced both improved means of transport and a larger middle class with extra resources to expend on travel. In the twentieth century, tourism expanded greatly, especially after the globalization of air travel after World War II (1939–1945). The number of people traveling by air grew at about 9% per year from 1960 to 2000; it is forecast to continue growing at 5% per year through at least 2015. As of 2007, the world aviation industry was carrying 2.2 billion passengers per year, almost half of them tourists and almost all on jet aircraft; this number was projected to double in about 15 years. Long-distance tourism by automobile is also common within Europe, North America, and some other areas.

By 1999, tourism was the world's largest industry, taking in $3.5 billion in receipts in that year and accounting for 11% of global gross domestic product. (Insurance was the second-largest industry.) Eco-tourism—travel to experience particular ecosystems—was the tourism industry's fastest-growing sector, increasing at 20% per year and accounting for $154 billion dollars of business in 2000.

Impacts and Issues

Tourism of all sorts, but eco-tourism especially, is threatened by climate change. Jerry Mallet, president of the Adventure Travel Society (a trade group), told the Washington Post in 2001 that “my fear is we're all going to wake up soon and find the places we love totally gone…. Global warming is a train wreck about to hit the world tourism business, and I think we've all been asleep at the switch.”

As climate warms, climate zones favorable to tourism will tend to shift toward the poles. Areas that are now comfortable may become too hot. For example, the tourism industry suffered in southern France during the unprecedented European heat wave of 2003, and such extreme weather events are likely to become more common with global warming. Islands that are no longer above water, and reefs that are bleached and lifeless, cease to generate tourism revenue. Ski-industry losses have already occurred in Austria, Chile, the eastern United States, and Switzerland as winters shorten and thaws become more common. Glacier National Park in the United States is likely to be glacier-free by 2030.

Tourism is a major economic engine for many small islands, where sea-level rise due to global warming is projected to speed beach erosion, degrade coastal defenses such as coral reefs, and increase saline contamination of coastal wells, on which many island resorts rely for water. The 1,190 islands of the Maldives archipelago in the Indian Ocean, a major beach and scuba-diving travel destination, are only 39 in (1 m) above sea level on average, well within the range of possible sea-level rise by 2100 and almost certain to be exceeded in the following century or so.

Other coastal recreation zones are also at risk from sea-level rise. U.S. coastlines attract about 180 million recreational visitors per year, but most beaches are likely to experience rapid erosion as sea levels rise during the twenty-first century. Low-lying cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana, and Venice, Italy, may undergo climate-related changes that make them much less desirable as travel destinations.

A minority of regions or sectors of the tourism and recreation industry may benefit from climate change. The golfing industry in North America, for example, is projected to benefit from a higher percentage of days with good golf weather.


ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by people or resulting from human activities. Usually used in the context of emissions that are produced as a result of human activities.

CARBON OFFSETS: Reductions in emissions of CO2 (or other greenhouse gases) or enhanced removals of such gases from the atmosphere that are arranged by polluters in order to compensate for their releases of greenhouse gases. Carbon offsets may be purchased by individuals or groups.

ECO-TOURISM: Travel to experience particular ecosystems or view exotic wildlife. Eco-tourism was the tourism industry's fastest-growing sector in the early 2000s, increasing at 20% per year and accounting for $154 billion dollars of business as of 2000.

EROSION: Processes (mechanical and chemical) responsible for the wearing away, loosening, and dissolving of materials of Earth's crust.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The period, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, during which humans began to use steam engines as a major source of power.

RADIATIVE FORCING: A change in the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation. Without any radiative forcing, solar radiation coming to Earth would continue to be approximately equal to the infrared radiation emitted from Earth. The addition of greenhouse gases traps an increased fraction of the infrared radiation, reradiating it back toward the surface and creating a warming influence (i.e., positive radiative forcing because incoming solar radiation will exceed outgoing infrared radiation).


“Medium term mitigation potential for CO2 emissions from the aviation sector can come from improved fuel efficiency, which can be achieved through a variety of means, including technology, operations, and air traffic management. However, such improvements are expected to only partially offset the growth of aviation emissions. Total mitigation potential in the sector would also need to account for non-CO2 climate impacts of aviation emissions.”

“Realizing emissions reductions in the transport sector is often a co-benefit of addressing traffic congestion, air quality, and energy security.”

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al., eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Tourism contributes to climate change. By 2050, about 15% of global CO2 emissions will come from travel and tourism, according to the United Kingdom trade association Green Globe 21. If so, the percentage of global warming caused by the industry will be significantly higher than 15% because of the high percentage of world tourism that depends on jet aviation, which causes global warming out of proportion to the raw tonnage of its emissions. Burning a ton of aviation fuel at cruising altitude causes about twice as much radiative forcing (actual warming of the planet) as burning the same amount of fuel on the ground would do.

Travel industry interests are concerned that internationally mandated cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions could hurt business by diminishing international flights. They have the same concern about the introduction of an aviation fuel tax (aviation fuel for international travel is presently untaxed), as advocated by groups including the World Wildlife Federation. Alternative measures include voluntary levies, which are payments made by tourists and managed by travel companies to buy carbon offsets for travel-related greenhouse emissions. The efficacy of some offset schemes has been questioned by many critics: individual offsets must be examined carefully to determine if they are producing authentic reductions.

Travel-industry fears also exist over advice by some environmentalists to fly less and vacation closer to home. It is notable, for example, that a 2007 travel-section article in the Washington Post giving advice on how to visit 10 climate-sensitive travel destinations while causing minimal damage did not mention the possibility of not visiting them at all. Industry responses to climate change include the marketing of what are claimed as green, eco-friendly, or carbon-neutral tours.

See Also Industry (Private Action and Initiatives); Offsetting.



Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Eilperin, Juliet. “Yes, the Water's Warm …Too Warm.” The Washington Post (July 15, 2007).

Roth, Margaret. “Endangered Planet: 10 Sites around the Globe in Trouble, and How You Can Tread Lightly.” The Washington Post (July 15, 2007).

Streets, David G., et al. “Recent Reductions in China's Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Science 294, no. 5548 (November 30, 2001): 1835–1837.

Tidwell, Mike. “Global Warming and Travel.” The Washington Post (September 9, 2001).

Web Sites

“Tourism and Climate Change.” World Wildlife Federation, June 2001. <> (accessed November 13, 2007).

Larry Gilman