At the start of each new year, we see countless articles highlighting the anticipated travel trends for the coming months. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that catch phrases such as “mask up” and “social distance” would top the list for 2020.
We always talk about how tourism is such a powerful industry, and that’s certainly true. But sometimes this leads us to forget that tourism is also extremely vulnerable to threats such as disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks.
These threats have the power to bring tourism to a sudden halt by disrupting the global supply chains that tourism businesses depend on, leading travelers to fear for their health and safety, and damaging the environments and infrastructure that the industry relies on.
2020 has reminded us just how vulnerable tourism is. In a matter of weeks, we witnessed an invisible enemy turn tourism upside down and devastate destination communities.
Though COVID-19 may be front of mind right now, there is another threat on the horizon that bears even graver consequences for the future of travel, and that is the climate crisis.
Like COVID, this threat will devastate the travel industry and cause suffering around the planet. But unlike COVID, we won’t bounce back.
(For more on this read: Can Our COVID-19 Response Prepare Us For Future Climate Emergencies?).
The existential threat to island destinations
We are already seeing the effects that climate change is having on some of our most treasured destinations.
Due to their small size and geographic isolation, remote tropical islands are among the destinations most at risk.
Tropical storms are becoming worse, destroying roads, airports, buildings, and homes.
In 2017, two of the most powerful hurricanes in history, Irma and Maria, tore across the Caribbean. The British Virgin Islands, one of the worst hit destinations, suffered a whopping $3.6 billion of damage from the storms and saw its tourism arrivals cut in half.
Rising sea levels and the flooding of coastal areas will continue to damage beaches and coastal properties with increasing frequency.
By the end of the century, global sea levels may rise by over a meter. If this happens, up to 60% of the Caribbean’s resorts will likely be damaged or destroyed.
The consequences are even more forbidding for low-lying islands like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands which could completely disappear underwater.
The climate crisis also poses a grave risk to the incredible marine life that attracts tourists to many island destinations.
Warming waters are bleaching coral reefs and acidic oceans are harming marine animals.
Currently, coral reef tourism generates about $36 billion annually. But with scientists predicting that up to 90% of all coral reefs could be gone by 2050, there may not be much left for visitors to see.
Not your average island destination
With climate change a very real threat to their existence, some island nations are starting to take action: the Pacific Island nation of Palau is one such destination.
This small country is located in the north Pacific Ocean, 400 miles north of Papua New Guinea, 550 miles east of the Philippines, and 800 miles southwest of Guam. In other words, Palau is truly a hidden island paradise.
Palau is a remarkable country of surreal landscapes, pristine seas, and a long cultural history involving occupations by several foreign powers including Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States.
The archipelago is made up of more than 340 lush green islands jutting out of the glimmering ocean, only nine of which are inhabited.
Thanks to its incredible natural beauty and biodiversity, Palau is considered to be one of the world’s top diving destinations.
The turquoise waters around the islands teem with an abundance of marine life, including over 500 species of coral and 1,300 types of fish.
Last year, roughly 90,000 international tourists visited the country. That’s about five times the number of people that live in the tiny island nation.
In fact, with just 18,000 residents, Palau is the world’s third least-populated sovereign nation. Tourism is the islands’ main source of income and provides vital jobs for local people. In total, the industry accounts for just under one-third of Palau’s GDP.
Tiny island, big ideas
Though Palau may be tiny, it is a destination that is bursting with big, bold ambitions.
This island nation is not one to stand by while havoc is wreaked on its environment and communities.
Environmental stewardship and responsible tourism have always been the way of the Palauan people, who know that the future of their country is intertwined with the health of their corals, fish, beaches, jungles, and other natural resources.
As soon as travelers arrive in Palau, they know they aren’t in just another island destination: upon entry, every visitor is required to sign the Palau Pledge, the world’s first mandatory eco pledge.
By signing the pledge, visitors promise that they will not damage or exploit the islands’ natural resources or culture during their stay.
Along with launching the Pledge, Palau has also established one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries, banned tour operators from utilising single-use plastics, and adopted the world’s strictest national sunscreen standard.
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Next stop: carbon neutral
Now, Palau is taking its ambitious commitment to sustainability a step further by taking on the greatest threat of all: the climate crisis.
How? By aiming to become the world’s first carbon neutral tourism destination.
In other words, Palau is working towards a future where tourism to and within the destination generates a net zero carbon footprint.
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Palau aims to accomplish this through a project that is being carried out by Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to protecting the planet’s most vulnerable destinations and transforming tourism’s impacts on nature and people.
Since 2002, Sustainable Travel International has worked in more than 100 destinations around the world, many of which are small islands that face similar challenges to Palau. Sustainable Travel International is partnering with both Slow Food and the Palau Bureau of Tourism to implement this project.
Tourism and carbon emissions
Tourism is not just a victim of climate change: the industry depends heavily on fossil fuels and produces emissions that contribute to the crisis.
All in all, the tourism industry is responsible for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions.
Consider the carbon footprint that is generated by a traveler going on holiday to Palau.
First of all they must fly thousands of miles to reach the remote island.
A one-way flight from London to Palau generates about 1.8 metric tons of CO2.
That’s the same amount of carbon emissions as an average person in Namibia generates over an entire year. Once in Palau, there are many ways that tourists generate CO2. For instance, by taking a taxi to their hotel, turning up the hotel’s air conditioner to stay cool, or going on a boat ride. You can learn more about the different activities that contribute to tourism’s carbon footprint here.
Promoting local foods
Another part of a tourist’s carbon footprint is the emissions generated by the food they consume.
Getting food from farm to table means growing, processing, transporting, packaging, refrigerating and cooking it – all of which produces emissions.
(For more on this read What’s Your Carbon Footprint? Dine Differently For The Planet).
It’s common for island hotels and restaurants to rely on overseas imports to feed their guests.
It is estimated that Palau imports between 85 to 90% of its food from other countries. Over half of these food imports come all the way from the U.S. A steak served in Palau may travel nearly 10,000 miles from a ranch in Texas before reaching a tourists’ plate.
Every year, Palau spends a staggering $39 million on imported food and beverages; that’s $39 million that could be benefitting local farmers and fishers, but instead is leaving the country.
Imported food and drink products also tend to be more processed than local ones. This contributes to serious health problems for Palauans and other Pacific Islanders. According to the World Health Organization, the obesity rate in Palau is the third highest in the world, with more than half (55%) of Palauans considered obese.
The tourism industry is responsible for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions
The Carbon Neutral Destination Project being implemented by Sustainable Travel International aims to increase the proportion of food that Palau’s tourism businesses source from local producers, thereby reducing the country’s dependence on imports.
The project team is working closely with Palauan producers, such as farmers and fishers, to build their capacity to market their products to tourists and celebrate the islands’ gastronomic heritage.
Historically, women across the globe have been marginalised from participating in the tourism value chain. This project seeks to reverse the status quo by empowering local women to market their food products to hotels and other tourist-facing businesses.
In Palau, women represent a majority of the food producers who farm plants like taro and vegetables, so attention will be given to promoting sustainable production practices and further linking women producers to the tourism supply chain.
As less food is imported to the islands, the CO2 emissions from transporting these goods will be mitigated. This will create income-generating opportunities for local communities and improve food security on the islands. As a result, the project will promote healthier diets and boost community resilience in the face of climate change.
Offsetting the carbon footprint of Palau’s tourism
Along with promoting local food production, the project will develop a first-of-its-kind online platform which will allow visitors to Palau to calculate and offset the entire carbon footprint of their trip.
The project team is currently determining the average amount of emissions that are generated by different visitor activities in Palau.
Once the platform is live, every tourist that visits Palau will be able to calculate the amount of emissions generated by their flights to and from Palau as well as their lodging, dining, excursions, and ground transport.
They will then be able to make contributions to a high quality project that will offset them. These contributions will be used to fund initiatives that protect or restore coastal ecosystems — such as seagrass meadows, peatlands, or mangrove forests—that act as carbon sinks. It is estimated that this programme has the potential to raise over USD $1 million a year for these carbon reduction initiatives.
This programme is part of Palau’s broader effort to educate visitors about tourism’s impacts and sustainable practices.
As such, the programme will be integrated throughout the visitor experience. Tourists will be made aware of the initiative from the moment they arrive at the airport and will continue to learn more about it during their stay. Finally, they will be provided with the option to offset at the end of their trip.
To learn more about this project or Sustainable Travel International’s work to combat the climate crisis and tourism’s carbon footprint, visit sustainabletravel.org.