Saturday, January 29, 2011

Climate change and tourism: a sea change for the industry

By Theodore Panayotou (Cyprus Mail)

GLOBAL tourism profoundly affects, and is being affected by climate change and hence the tourism industry is a major stakeholder in global mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Cyprus tourism is no exception. On the contrary, the mutually detrimental impacts are likely to be more pronounced in Cyprus than in many other parts of the world.

The over-reliance on fossil fuels for electricity and on the private car for transportation results in high carbon emissions per tourist. Cyprus being an island with an already hot and semi-arid climate is likely to experience more pronounced impacts from climate change than, say, other parts of Europe.

With higher temperatures the demand for energy and water will increase while low-lying areas of the coast might be lost to sea level rise along with coastal tourism infrastructure. Extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, storms and hurricanes may also increase in frequency and severity and the range of tropical disease vectors may expand north to the sub-tropical zone of the Mediterranean.

At the same time, demand for climate-sensitive tourism from warming colder climates is likely to decrease and new competitors might very well emerge from the very places that today are the main sources of our customers. At any rate, under a BAU scenario the costs to the industry of supplying the same product will increase as a result of higher energy and water prices and carbon taxes on travel. Indeed, the most immediate effect of climate change on Cyprus tourism (and the economy at large) will come from EU directives and international agreements to drastically curb carbon emissions as well as from the reaction of people in target markets to the environmental profligacy of the sector.

How should the industry respond? First of all, not all types of tourism have the same environmental footprint nor are they equally vulnerable to climate change. Mass tourism of the sun-sand-and-sea variety has the greatest environmental footprint per euro of income earned. It is also the most vulnerable to climate change and the consequent sea-level rise, extreme weather events, carbon taxes, rising energy costs, and water scarcity. Not only is the resource-base of the mass (coastal) tourism, such as beaches and coastal infrastructure, more vulnerable than other types of tourism, such as experiential and special purpose tourism, but mass tourism tends also to be more price sensitive and less able to absorb the rising  costs of travel, energy, insurance and adaptation brought about by climate change.

Yet, its concentration in the summer months results in more energy and water use per euro of income earned and hence greater vulnerability to energy costs and water scarcity.  Furthermore, environmental (and health) concern could reduce demand for mass tourism because of its image of low environmental sensitivity.

Thus, one response that would both help mitigate climate change and adapt to it is to gradually shift from mass tourism towards experiential and special purpose tourism, spread more inland (villages, countryside, and mountain resorts) and off-season. These alternative forms of tourism have lower environmental impacts, higher environmental sensitivity and lower price elasticity as well as lower vulnerability to sea level rise and extreme weather events. They would help alleviate the pressure on the coast and on the summer season and mitigate risks through area, season, and product diversification. This is a no-regret shift that the Cyprus tourist industry has to make anyway to survive, even without climate change, because of the declining competitiveness of the Cyprus mass tourist product, the result of rising costs at home and growing competition from lower cost destinations offering a more natural and authentic product.

A second response is a set of mitigation measures to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint (and environmental impact more broadly) and a set of adaptation measures to adapt to the inevitable climate change and sea level rise.

While mitigation of carbon emissions by the Cyprus tourist industry will not have any perceptible effects on climate change, it is needed to comply with EU obligations and international agreements; it is also needed to preempt the higher cost of operation and retrofitting imposed by stricter future regulations as well as to improve the image of the industry. Such measures include energy efficient buildings and vehicles, solar panels and heaters, energy and water saving technologies, expanded public transport, educating staff and customers, greening the supply chain, promoting longer stays and domestic tourism, offering carbon offsetting options to customers, and pursuing  eco-certification. While many of these measures have both mitigation and adaptation benefits, additional adaptation measures may include effective building codes (in relation to sea level, high tide and wind speed), monitoring, early warning and rapid response systems, seawalls and protective coastal vegetation, drainage systems and insurance, among others.

The Cyprus tourist industry can ultimately benefit from climate change if it a) diversifies itself away from energy-and-environment intensive coastal mass tourism towards heritage-nature-and-culture-based experiential tourism, and b) commits itself to becoming carbon neutral and thereby capture the growing environmentally conscious niche market.

For example, the tourism industry can initiate a campaign to get the tourists to plant one or more trees to offset their trip-related carbon footprint. Individual hotels can do it; the associations of hotel owners (PASYXE) can do it; the association of hotel managers (PASYDIXE) can do it, CTO can do it, all in cooperation with the Forestry Department.

It would definitely be a memorable experience for tourists and an event that would capture international headlines. This will also contribute to repeat visits, loyalty benefits, and word of mouth for the hotels if the trees planted are marked and positioned (with GPS) and the tourists are issued certificates with the details and co-ordinates. This may make tourists feel that they leave something of themselves behind, a sense of ownership that makes them want to learn more about Cyprus, it gives them a feeling of connection and loyalty to the country, and a desire to return .

Theodore Panayotou is Director of the Cyprus International Institute of Management