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Climate change – tourism in danger?

Holidaymakers relax on Es Trenc beach in Mallorca

Shrinking beaches, extreme heat, hurricanes, and melting ski slopes – this is also having an impact on the vacation industry. Though not to the extent feared.

If you want to see the consequences of climate change up close, you only have to take a trip to Mallorca’s flagship beach, Es Trenc. There have been bunkers there for many years, which the dictator Franco had built. They were originally built well hidden in the middle of the dune landscape. Today they are visible from afar in the middle of the beach and show how the rising sea level is changing the area. Scientists have found that the dream beach has narrowed by up to 40 meters in places since 1979. Not an isolated case on the island: If global warming continues as forecasted, dozens of beaches will disappear in the floods.

Bunkers on Es Trenc beach in Mallorca
The bunkers on Es Trenc beach were once built in the dunes. Today they are almost on the water

Record summer despite beach shrinkage

“We’re talking about a huge loss of land in the Mediterranean region,” says Thomas Dworak, coordinator of a study by the Federal Environment Agency on the effects of climate change on tourism. A worrying prospect on an island like Mallorca that thrives largely on beach-and-sun tourism. So far, however, the loss of beaches has not yet been reflected in any vacationer statistics. Mallorca is heading for a record summer. In 2022, more tourists will probably visit the island than ever before.

“There is still little evidence that people’s travel behavior is really changing because of climate change,” says Dworak. Even if warnings about the consequences for the holiday industry have been piling up for many years, there are only a few studies that demonstrate concrete effects. “Many Europeans are creatures of habit,” says Dworak. “Anyone who has been going to Italy on summer vacation for 20 years will continue to do so.” Events such as the glacier accident in the Dolomites, in which eleven people lost their lives at the beginning of July, are only a short-term deterrent, it seems.

Bahamas Hurricane Dorian
Eleven people died when a glacier collapsed in the Dolomites in early July

So far these have been isolated events

At least that’s how Dagmar Lund-Durlacher, professor for sustainable tourism at the Modul University in Vienna, sees it. ” Should there ever be constant flooding or avalanches in the same places, then that will also affect tourism there.” So far, however, this has not been the case, since these are isolated events. “You know that the danger is there, but you don’t associate it with any specific region.” The Caribbean is one of the exceptions, as shown by the severe tropical storm that devastated the Bahamas in September 2019, and as result, tourism in the island state collapsed.

Bahamas Hurricane Dorian
In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian devastated large parts of the Bahamas

The ski tourism industry is particularly exposed to climate change– rising temperatures reduce snow security. “This is where a connection between climate change and tourism is most likely to be proven,” says Thomas Dworak. “Because if there is no snow in a region for several years in a row, then the ski vacationers are gone.” The problem is all too well known, especially in the Alps. So far, however, it can still be concealed thanks to modern technology. “Thanks to artificial snowmaking, snow is guaranteed in most cases,” says Arnold Schuler, Provincial Councilor for Tourism in South Tyrol. That is why there is still no trend away from winter to summer tourism in the northern Italian province. The number of overnight stays was spread over the months almost exactly as it was in 1995. However, Schuler admits that this will not always be the case. Artificial snow has its limits and is only possible up to a certain temperature. There are already areas where skiing is no longer possible all year round due to the shrinking glaciers.

Skiers at the Groedner Joch, Passo Gardena, in front of the Sassolungo
So far, the increasing lack of snow in South Tyrol can still be concealed by artificial snowmaking

Big problems for traditional tourism regions

Melting snow, disappearing beaches, hurricanes, and floods are just a few of the phenomena that climate change will bring with it and that will have an impact on tourism. Water shortages and extreme heat could also make holiday regions unattractive for travelers, experts have been saying for years. As early as 2008, the World Tourism Organization warned of the industry’s vulnerability to changing climatic conditions. Forest fires, new infectious diseases, the loss of biodiversity, and jellyfish plagues due to rising sea temperatures – all of this could pose major problems for traditional tourism regions. In contrast, more northern regions, in particular, are likely to attract more tourists in the future.

A young man douses himself with a water bottle to fight the heat
When it gets too hot, holidays are no longer fun

“There may be people who don’t go to the Mediterranean in the summer because of the heat,” says Dagmar Lund-Durlacher. “But it’s not yet a mass movement.” Nevertheless, the traditional travel destinations should not take too much time to adapt to the new circumstances. “Sooner or later they have to do this, otherwise at some point, there won’t be any more tourists.” Thomas Dworak points out that the right adaptation strategy varies from place to place. “If the ecosystem in a national park in Africa collapses because of a forest fire, then you no longer have to worry about adaptation,” he says. The same applies if it is not possible to secure the water supply in Greece, for example. If several meters of the coast are lost on Sylt, then that means for many people who live from tourism there that they have to think about something else in the medium term. In Italy, on the other hand, it may be enough to appeal more to holidaymakers who want to travel in spring and autumn.

Meanwhile, the rising sea level in Mallorca poses major challenges. How to deal with the loss of beaches is still completely open. Nonetheless, it does have a very concrete impact. On the narrow strip of sand at Es Trenc this summer there is only room for three beach shacks instead of the previous six. And the number of parasols and loungers that can be set up there has also been decreasing for years.

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