Increased tourism is threatening to exacerbate coastline erosion and loss of wetlands in poorer countries already suffering from global warming hazards. But a rising number of eco-conscious travelers are forcing some in the tourist industry to change their ways.
"Our typical client is well-educated and aware of climate change," said Derek de la Harpe, the corporate sustainability officer of Wilderness Safaris, a tourism outfit based in Botswana.
The luxury safari tour group operates 70 lodges and camps in Botswana and six other southern African countries. (Includes correction, 4/21/2011)
In Botswana, the sensitive Okavango Delta, one of the largest freshwater swamps in the world, faces unknown risks both from decades of rising temperatures as a result of global warming gases and the footprint of the 120,000 safari-goers who visit every year.
Largely in response to market demand, Wilderness Safaris has built two solar-powered camps there and is retrofitting sites that are large consumers of fossil fuel electricity, de la Harpe told SolveClimate News.
In popular ecotourism hotspots like Belize, where tourism accounts for 20 percent of the economy, the issue of greener tourism has become so prominent that a state policy is underway.
Seleni Matus, director of the Belize Tourism Board, said the country, which gets about 250,000 visitors a year, is developing a sustainable tourism master plan that aims to provide a framework for tour operators and resort owners to mitigate and adapt to the risks of climate change.
The Central American country is already experiencing the effects of warming such as storm surges, rising seas and coral bleaching on the Belize Barrier Reef.
Matus declined to provide specifics about the plan, which should be completed in June, but noted that accommodating those tourists who travel with a lighter carbon footprint was a major driver.
"Travelers now come to destinations wanting to learn more about what the destination is doing" to mitigate the impacts of climate change, she told SolveClimate News.
One such example of catering to the eco-conscious is the 100-acre Cotton Tree Lodge, founded in 2007 and sited on the Moho River near Punta Gorda in southern Belize. The lodge, which can sleep up to around 50 people, is partly solar powered and grows about 80 percent of the produce it serves to guests on its property, though climate change is making this harder.
Armando Sam, who oversees the lodge's organic garden, told SolveClimate News that especially arid dry seasons and more unpredictable rainy seasons have affected the lodge's crops. Planting times have been adjusted and irrigation is now being provided to deal with fluctuating weather, he said.
How Bad Is it? New Research to Tell Us
While ecotourism is growing, Matus said that unplanned tourism development could be having multiple ill effects on the country.
A group of students from Cornell University's Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise was in Belize last month to begin calculating the environmental, social and economic costs of tourism on the nation for the first time.
The project, a collaborative effort with the Belize Tourism Board and two global "voluntourism" groups, Gap Adventures and Planeterra Foundation, will assess the investment needed to maintain proper infrastructure in a coastal environment, explained Megan Epler Wood, director of the Toronto-based Planeterra.
One known problem is the destruction of the country's massive mangrove forests, the seaside trees and shrubs that thrive in salty waters.
Mangroves protect the shoreline from soil erosion, serve as buffers to stormy seas and absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Wood told SolveClimate News. About 68 percent of Belize's 1,100-mile-long coastline is protected by an estimated 185,000 acres of mangroves, according to a 2009 report from the World Resources Institute.
The group found that Belize's mangroves provide between $111 million and $167 million in avoided damages every year.
The Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC), a nonprofit group, estimates that the average net loss of mangroves in Belize is 125 acres a year. While some deforestation is allowed, most mangroves are removed without government approval and are generally cut down to make way for hotels and other infrastructure, or to build shacks in the poorest neighborhoods, Wood said.
A new study suggests that clearing the country's mangroves, which store more carbon than most forests, could also strain the absorptive capacity of the ecosystem.
Fiji: 'Great' Global Warming Education
For ecotour operators in Fiji, global warming is already severely affecting their livelihoods, though adaptation programming there remains in its infancy. Ben Keene, founder of Tribewanted, which builds and operates eco-villages for native and foreign visitors on the remote island of Vorovoro, said rising seas have forced him to stop building structures along the beach in recent years.
The elderly people on the island say "where boats are now floating, [those] were our houses," he told SolveClimate News, adding that large trees along the coastline have been enveloped by high tides and sea walls have been breached.
"It's a great [global warming] education from a tourist's point of view," Keene said. "It wakes people up to the reality of what's going on far more than a PowerPoint presentation by a politician ever would."
Indeed, seeing global warming in action and how locals adapt has become a tourist pull especially for young people, said Andrew Motiwalla, the co-founder of the San Diego, Calif.-based Global Leadership Adventures, which runs student service learning programs.
"The fear about the consequences of climate change is motivating some young travelers to go out and learn from non-western communities how to live in harmony with the land," he said. "Students want to learn more in order to become an agent for lasting positive social change. Our participants are scared that the world's natural treasures are going away.
"Consequently, our Galapagos programs sell out consistently," he continued. There, travelers can witness first hand climate change impacts on wildlife, local observers say.
Galapagos: Travel Industry Slow to Adapt
Santiago Dunn, president of the Guayaquil, Ecuador-based cruise ship company Ecoventura, said that global warming is causing more frequent El Niño conditions, referring to the weather pattern that brings higher air temperatures and warmer waters, preventing cooler nutrient-rich water from surfacing and impacting the food chain.
"Sea lions, marine iguanas and some of the marine birds suffer [in the Galapagos], and will suffer even more, due to the lack of ... food," Dunn said.
Higher sea levels can inundate sea turtle nests, explained Scott Henderson, regional director of marine conservation for Conservation International in the Galapagos Islands, which are 600 miles from the coast of mainland Ecuador.
The fragile islands, where Charles Darwin conducted his research in 1835, and which helped inspire his theory of natural selection, are vulnerable to threats other than climate change, said Henderson, including overfishing, a fast-growing local population and rising numbers of tourists.
Working with the national park service, Conservation International developed a system for tourism visitor management, restricting the number of people on sites and the number of boats on the island to limit stresses on the ecosystem, and encouraging adoption of green technologies on the part of tour operators.
Ecoventura, for instance, mitigates climate change by using solar and wind power on its boats and offsetting its carbon emissions.
Still, several observers said that while the travel industry in the Galapagos and other nations where tourism is the major source of income has acknowledged the impact of global warming on their livelihoods, generally they have been slow to adapt.
"The [climate] changes are relatively so slow that people don't develop a sense of urgency," said Henderson. "It's a problem worldwide in responding to climate change."
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately reported that the campgrounds run by Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris are similar to hotels with 100 rooms and 100 staff on-site. Most of the company's camps have between three to 16 units and a small staff.