Elephants might not fly. Image: Donald Iain Smith/Getty

The NZ tourism industry cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the room

While New Zealand may continue to prosper from the tourist dollar for a decade or two yet, there is the very real prospect that the climate crisis will drive international tourism down, writes James Renwick.

The headline read “Tourism industry working to ensure a sustainable future” but there was scant evidence of true sustainability thinking in the article. Looking forward to growth – as a tourism industry leader did in the piece – is a red flag for a start. Growth is ultimately unsustainable, wherever it is occurring. I wonder: does Tourism New Zealand have a maximum number of tourists in mind? It would be very interesting to know, and something that would form the basis for an excellent public discussion. The recent report from the parliamentary commissioner for the environment on the environmental consequences of tourism growth was based on the assumption of a tripling in international tourist numbers, reaching 10 million visitors per year by 2050. Is that sustainable? Or even feasible?

From what I can see, there is no serious consideration of climate change built in to planning around the future of tourism here in Aotearoa. We present an attractive destination, for sure, but most tourists fly here and we all know that air travel is a very high-emissions form of transport. Yes, renewably powered short-haul aircraft are making an appearance, but the prospects for electric long-haul flying, or for 100% biofuel-powered planes, look pretty slim. Cutting back on flying is often touted as one of the main things all of us can do to reduce our carbon footprint, as explained by Shaun Hendy in his recent book NoFly.

The concept of “flight shame”, or flygskam as the Swedes call it, is gaining ground in Europe. The BBC suggested that the growth in air travel might be halved as a result. As other sectors of the economy decarbonise, emissions from air travel become relatively a larger proportion of the carbon footprint of tourism, as shown in the PCE’s report. As pressure mounts to reduce emissions and reduce the pace of climate change, it isn’t hard to imagine international tourist numbers declining rather than growing. More may switch to cruise ships, but they are hardly emissions-free.

If taking “climate action” by reducing emissions isn’t enough of a worry for our tourist industry, the direct effects of climate change should be. Continued warming will see every aspect of our environment change. Our iconic glaciers will recede far up their valleys, many native species will be pushed to the brink of extinction, and we’ll see coastal property and infrastructure eaten away (and no longer insured or insurable), all of which will affect our economy and ability to support the tourist industry. It will also affect the desirability of New Zealand as a tourist destination.

Who will be visiting Aotearoa in future? Will significant numbers of overseas tourists continue to have the discretionary income to afford holidays in New Zealand? Unless we see transformational change around the world in terms of emissions reductions, further climate change will lead to more damaging extreme events, higher sea levels, impacts on food security and water availability, and significant economic impacts worldwide. The multibillion-dollar cost of this summer’s fires in Australia is a taste of things to come.

The economic impacts of increasingly severe heatwaves, droughts, floods and fires have the potential to seriously damage the global economy. That’s why the World Economic Forum in their 2020 Global Risks Report rate climate change and environmental problems as the four top issues facing the global economy. According to the WEF, failure to act on climate change would more damaging than a nuclear conflict, and a lot more likely.

In the face of an uncertain economic future, and a potentially rocky road for global food security, the chances of continued growth in the tourism sector look far from guaranteed. While New Zealand may continue to prosper from the tourist dollar for a decade or two yet, there is the very real prospect that international tourism may be on the way down long before 2050. If the globe misses the Paris Agreement limits of 1.5C and then 2C of global warming, an ailing tourism sector would be the least of our worries. Are such futures on the table in tourism industry discussions?

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.