3 Ways Local Climate Change Is Making Travel Tourism Riskier

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Rafters on the Acequia River in Venezuela in 2005 – the river is kind of affected by landslides

Climate change is making travel tourism more difficult and generally riskier, our organisations, tour operators and experts have told the BBC.

Rockfalls on some alpine climbing routes this summer, wildfires that have threatened campsites in southern Europe and the United States, and landslides and flooding affecting southern rafting rivers Americans can all be considered local climate change impacts, they argue.

“The tourism sector is increasingly challenged by excessive weather events driven by local climate change,” says Dirk Glaesser, Director of Sustainable Growth for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

“The hazards of travel and nature-based tourism are completely different now, they require fixed watch,” says Christina Beckmann, local weather specialist with Journey Journey Commerce Affiliation (ATTA), whose members represent 1,000 offices of national tourism and 33,000 people.

“The impacts of climate change mean we need to keep our eyes open to respond to the changes and continue to revise our risk assessments.”

Rock and ice falls

Guides say rockfall caused by rapidly melting ice – which otherwise keeps rocks and boulders safe – is the most significant hazard to mountain tourism.

“Many places have now become no-go zones, mainly due to landslides and glacier collapses which have destabilized them”, explains Jean-Claude Razel, a mountain specialist who also teaches ecological transition at the prestigious ESCP.

“Winter sees much less snowfall these days and whatever snow and ice there is, it softens quickly.”

A number of routes in the Alps were suspended by guides this summer due to frequent rockfalls, while a glacier collapse in the Dolomites region of the Italian Alps killed 11 hikers in July.

A rescue helicopter flies over the Punto Rocca glacier in Italy, July 2022

A rescue helicopter flies over the Punto Rocca glacier in Italy, after it collapsed in July

In August, a French mayor mentioned that Mont Blanc climbers should pay a deposit to cover rescue costs and any funeral costs.

The president of the Mountain Guides Association of Nepal, Ang Norbu Sherpa, said the changes were happening much sooner than he and other experienced guides had expected.

“Now you see a stream flowing at Camp Everest II. Rocks are uncovered everywhere and they are falling everywhere,” he says.

He says seracs – pinnacles or ridges of ice at the bottom of a glacier – are increasingly hanging precariously over climbing routes in the Himalayas and Alps. Meanwhile, the crevices widen, says Sherpa, to the point that some cannot be crossed.

Campsite fires

Wildfires led to the evacuation of many campers in Greece, France, Spain and California during this summer’s heatwave – highlighting a problem not just for traveling travelers, but for any camper who wishes get closer to nature.

The number of such incidents has increased lately, “and it’s going to become more prevalent now,” says Victor Resco de Dios, professor of wildfires and international change at the University of Lleida in Spain.

Five campsites had to be evacuated due to a forest fire near La Teste, southern France, in July

5 campsites had to be evacuated due to a forest fire near La Teste, southern France, in July

Professor Resco co-authored a study last year which counted 473 forest fire-related deaths in Europe between 2008 and 2021 – and 1/4 of the victims were tourists.

In a single incident in 2018, 103 people died in Mati, a Greek coastal village. It was sensitive because it was partly surrounded by forest, like many other places popular with tourists, says Professor Resco.

“These areas therefore need to develop and implement plans to minimize hazards and create escape routes, to ensure they don’t turn into mousetraps.”

A burned car in the Greek village of Mati, after the 2018 tragedy

A burnt-out car in the Greek village of Mati, after the 2018 blaze in which 103 people died

Wildfires make even wildlife viewing riskier in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands in South America, according to ATTA Vice President Gustavo Fraga Timo.

Troubled waters

Scientists have warned that landslides will become more frequent in many mountainous regions, due to changing rainfall patterns, and rafting guides say this is already happening.

Landslides pose apparent dangers to rafters on mountain rivers and, according to Alejandro Buzzo, a member of the Venezuelan board of directors of the World Rafting Federation, they make navigation difficult on some rivers.

“It causes the rivers to change course, with shallow depth, making rafting virtually impossible,” he says.

Rafters, like the ones here on the Noguera Pallaresa river in Spain, need a strong flow of water

Shallow water and “low motion” can stop rafting

The effect of local climate change can also be felt in non-mountainous areas, Mr Buzzo said, where intense rainfall could trigger erratic flooding.

“The Orinoco, the world’s widest river, rose an unprecedented 18m two years ago, causing some small islands to wear away while new ones were created,” he says. “I misplaced my own rafter tent website, which was a small island, and it was washed away by the river.”

In some areas, such as northern Spain, rafters also suffered from low rainfall. Fermin Larrea, an informant who rafts down the Gállego River, says the water movement is now usually only half of what is needed and the “low movement” intervals are getting longer.

Additionally, the water temperature has risen by 5°C lately, forcing guides to more regularly endure foot fungus that causes painful peeling of the skin.

“Only a few guides had it before and now almost all have it. We continue to use the anti-fungal cream as we used to, but it’s much less effective.

‘Close to nature’

Travel tourism accounts for about 30% of all tourism according to the ATTA, and a few tour operators claim this figure is increasing.

“After having to stay indoors for so long because of the Covid, people want to travel now and many are currently ready to go close to nature”, explains Jean-Claude Razel, an informant on the mountain.

“That’s fine, but given the increasing effects of climate change, it may be unhealthy to do so without sufficient preparation and caution.”

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