Reimagining Travel: The Urgent Need for Sustainable Tourism in a Warming World

When preparing for a trip, considerations typically revolve around itinerary, attractions, cuisine, and packing. Often overlooked are the environmental consequences of travel and its effects on local communities. However, for companies reliant on travel and tourism, these aspects are crucial for investors and managers to address.

Bloomberg predicts that by 2033, the travel and tourism industry will expand to a $15.5 trillion sector, constituting nearly 12 percent of the global economy, marking a 50 percent surge from its 2019 value. While travel offers enriching experiences, including job creation, cultural appreciation, rejuvenation, and cherished memories, its projected growth is unsustainable, demanding serious industry changes.

Climate change is already impacting travel and tourism, evident in Europe’s record-breaking temperatures in 2023. As summers grow hotter, vacationers may seek cooler destinations or postpone travel to off-peak seasons, affecting travel patterns. Beyond summer tourism, warmer winters threaten ski resorts, leading to shorter seasons or closures. These changes profoundly impact local communities reliant on ski tourism for economic sustenance, disrupting hotel stays and restaurant investment.

While tourists contribute significantly to local economies, they also serve as cultural ambassadors. But shifts in travel patterns due to climate change pose economic challenges, with hotter temperatures deterring tourism in some areas. For instance, Greece temporarily closed the Acropolis due to extreme heat, reflecting a broader trend of declining Mediterranean vacations and a shift towards cooler destinations like the Czech Republic and Denmark.

Raising awareness about the environmental impact of travel is essential, even if it’s not always well-received. Air travel significantly contributes to climate change, emitting CO2, nitrogen oxide (NOx), vapor trails, and clouds, which together have twice the warming effect of CO2. In 2018, these factors accounted for two-thirds of aviation’s climate impact, with projections indicating a potential doubling by 2050.

Using OWL’s Deep Research Application, data on General Electric Company uncovers GE Aerospace’s 25 actions toward its 2050 Scope 3 net zero ambition. Air travel accounts for about 2.1 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). With aviation passenger traffic expected to grow by three percent annually through 2050, significant challenges lie ahead to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s net zero emissions goal by 2050

All industry players—airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers, fuel providers, and governments—must contribute to reducing aviation emissions. Aerospace manufacturers are developing technology for aircraft and engines with lower CO2 emissions that can use alternative fuels. Airlines and airports are improving ground operations, and fuel providers are creating low-carbon fuels. 

Similarly, cruise ships significantly contribute to global warming, emitting CO2 emissions equivalent to 50,000 flights between Paris and New York for ships visiting European ports in 2022. Efforts to address this issue include investments in alternative energy sources like liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shore power, although concerns persist about methane gas leaks associated with LNG use.

Additionally, the decline in biodiversity due to climate change will increasingly harm tourism, such as with coral reef bleaching impacting activities like snorkeling and scuba diving. Tourists often strain local resources, exacerbating issues in areas already facing scarcity, and shifting land use from conservation to accommodate tourism further harms biodiversity. Despite economic benefits, tourism carries significant costs and risks, including exploitation of communities.Truly sustainable travel involves renewable energy, water conservation, green transportation, responsible guides, and eco-friendly agriculture to enrich the tourism experience. While not every traveler prioritizes eco-travel, the industry must address greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity protection, and community support to achieve sustainability. Considering the long-term impacts of travel on climate change urges us to rethink our travel choices and prioritize sustainability.