How will your destination fare in the climate change transition?

by Ben Lynam, Head of Communications, The Travel Foundation

Climate change will affect every destination and community, but it will do so unequally. Some will be better placed to adapt than others. What are the implications of this, and how can we take steps to ensure no destination is left behind?

It is surely no exaggeration to say that, over the next three decades, our generation will witness some of the most momentous changes in human history. We will experience a rapid energy revolution as we ditch fossil fuels, we’ll see game-changing technological breakthroughs to rival those of the past thirty years and, even if we keep global heating to within 1.5 degrees (the science-based goal of the Paris Agreement), we will see significant shifts in climate patterns, a rise in sea levels, and more extreme weather events. For tourism, we will also see a doubling of the number of trips taken.

Thinking about this future, we can anticipate that some destinations are better placed than others to have a “good transition”. All destinations are of course different, and as such the challenges they face and their ability to decarbonise and adapt will vary considerably. This raises questions around how best to build future resilience without leaving any destination behind, and how to ensure a fair approach to future proofing that doesn’t further exacerbate existing inequalities.

Thinking about the future was the exercise of our report, published earlier this year in collaboration with academic partners, Envisioning Tourism in 2030 & Beyond. The study aimed to identify possible decarbonisation scenarios for travel & tourism to reach net-zero by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement and Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. In fact, we were only able to identify one possible scenario, and our report highlighted how the transition is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities between destinations unless we intentionally seek to avoid this. So how would your destination fare in this scenario, and what can we do to smooth out the inequalities that lie ahead?

Fitting into the decarbonisation scenario

Some destinations will fit more easily into the decarbonisation scenario we describe in our report. For instance, some places are already way ahead in terms of existing infrastructure that will make the energy transition easier. Consider the shift towards electrified train travel that is needed. This will be easier and faster in Europe and parts of Asia where rail networks are already well-developed, and more difficult in regions such as North and South America and Africa. Furthermore, wealthier countries will have the advantage when seeking funds to invest in green infrastructure projects that accelerate their transition to a low carbon economy. Meanwhile, remote and less wealthy destinations which rely more heavily on long-haul aviation connectivity and cruise (the most polluting elements of the tourism industry), such as Pacific and Caribbean islands, have no easy alternatives for receiving international visitors.

Relying on growth based on aviation 

Our decarbonisation scenario did allow for future growth in travel (this is near-enough inevitable, given factors such as population growth and the burgeoning middle classes). But this must happen in ways that are very different to “business as usual”. For instance, businesses and places banking on growth based on long haul will be vulnerable. Growth in aviation and long-haul flights in particular must be curtailed to keep total distances travelled by air (and jet fuel burned) close to current levels. This will allow the supply of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which currently makes up less than 0.1% of the fuel used in commercial flights, a chance to catch up with demand.

So should we simply keep aviation as it is? 

With today’s air connectivity heavily concentrated in the Global North, that would be “tough luck” for the Global South. Countries with nascent visitor economies would understandably question the fairness of such a policy. And so, how can we ensure lesser-developed destinations, and in particular those reliant on air-connectivity, are able to pursue their reasonable expectations of growth? And if the tourism sector must now abandon traditional growth models, how can we ensure communities and businesses have the right investment and opportunities to enable green growth alternatives?

Inequalities between destinations and communities are perhaps even more striking when we consider climate impacts and the need for adaptation...

Adapting to climate impacts

This year we have, once again, seen heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods and cyclones impacting heavily on communities and tourism around the world. While every place in the world has already experienced some effects of climate change, the most vulnerable places are islands, coastal and mountain regions, often with communities that are the least equipped to deal with the impacts. These places can be particularly dependent on tourism, and so it is troubling that this is an economic activity that is particularly exposed to climate impacts. Tourism relies on freedom of movement, favourable weather conditions, water and food security, and outdoor assets such as beaches, national parks and ski slopes, to thrive. 

Climate change is a threat to all of these, and so those destinations that are highly dependent on travel and tourism will find their climate risks are magnified. The cost of climate disruption is set to grow. The insurance company, Lloyds, modelled the global economic impact of extreme weather events leading to food and water shocks, estimating the loss to be $5 trillion over a five-year period. As a percentage share of GDP, Lloyds found the Caribbean would be impacted the most by an extreme weather event focused on its shores, losing 19% of GDP across the five-year period.

It’s not just the direct damage and disruption of climate impacts that will be uneven. As destinations adapt to find new opportunities, there will be winners and losers from a consumer demand perspective. For instance, a European Commission study predicts the Mediterranean will lose out to northern European countries as traditional beach destinations become less appealing and too hot.  Shoulder seasons that avoid the severest heatwaves could become more popular too. 

All of these issues are difficult to navigate, and this is further heightened by the fact that many of the most vulnerable communities and destinations have contributed the least to the climate emergency. This is central to the concept of climate justice and has led to calls for countries and businesses with the biggest historical carbon footprints to accept the “polluter pays” principle and make amends (through reparations) for the loss and damage caused. This has become a thorny and, unfortunately, somewhat politically charged issue which will be high on the agenda at the COP28 climate summit next month.

Taking Climate Action

As tourism actors in governments and businesses develop and deliver their climate action plans, it is clear the choices we make will, intentionally or otherwise, exacerbate or alleviate existing inequalities.

At the very least, we must ensure our actions do not worsen climate-related risk for destinations – for instance by developing hotels and resorts in areas vulnerable to flooding, or by growing visitor demand in places already under stress and therefore putting energy, water or food security at risk.

Tourism can instead play a positive role in strengthening destination resilience – often with benefits for the wider community. For instance, investing in infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations that will support a greener transport transition; generating funds for environmental protection and habitat restoration; and to include offers that appeal also to domestic visitors and residents, to reduce dependency on the international market. And when extreme weather events strike, the travel industry is uniquely placed with its logistical skills, access to accommodation and global connectivity to respond with aid and recovery packages to help destinations bounce back.

The best way to ensure that our actions do not leave some communities behind is to be inclusive and collaborative in the placemaking decision-making process. If we start with people and communities first and bring the resources to them, we will unlock the leadership, innovation and creativity that is required to meet the challenges ahead.


The Travel Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Waterloo, Tourism Cares, CREST, Cuidadores de Destinos and with support from Expedia, is holding a webinar on this topic on Tuesday 28th November. You can register here.

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