Climate threat to tourism threatens economic stability of island nations

Climate threat to tourism threatens economic stability of island nations

By Will Bugler

The threat that climate change poses to the tourism industry threatens to collapse the economies of several island nations around the world. Those countries that are most dependent on tourist dollars to sustain their economies also have tourist industries that are highly vulnerable to climate change and its impacts. In 2017 there were 20 countries for which tourism contributed more than 25 percent of GDP, the overwhelming majority of which are small island developing states. Climate impacts such as extreme heat, sea level rise, extreme storms and ecosystem destruction, pose a severe risk to the sustainability of these industries.

For island nations such as the Maldives, Seychelles, Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas, the tourist industry contributed 76.6%, 65.3%, 51.8% and 47.8% of GDP respectively. The level of dependence on tourism for such countries makes them highly vulnerable to climate risks that threaten the industry. However, they are also highly exposed to just those risks.

The most significant driver of tourism for small island states are their coastlines. Tourists are drawn to the magnificent sandy beaches and marine ecosystems. However, sea level rise, ocean warming, and coastal erosion is likely to damage or destroy these assets entirely. Recent studies indicate that the world’s coral reef ecosystems could be gone by 2050 and a sea level rise of 1 m would submerge almost all of the world’s beaches. This is far from unlikely, a 2017 NOAA report offered the scenarios shown below, with sea level rise ranging from 0.3 m to 2.5 m by 2100.

The coloured bars on the right represent IPCC 90% probability. The dashed lines represent the projections of a more recent study by DeConto and Pollard. Source: Modified from Sweet, et al. 2017.

Such a rise would be devastating for coastal economies. The map below shows coastal areas in blue that would be submerged should sea levels rise by 1m.  

Areas in blue show land that would be submerged should sea levels rise by 1m (40 in). Source: http://globalfloodmap.org/

The extent to which it is possible for vulnerable nations to diversify their economies will determine, to some extent, how resilient they are able to become in the face of climate change. However, climate change poses an existential threat for many island nations. For instance, at current rates, sea levels could be high enough to make many island atolls uninhabitable by the end of the century.


Cover photo by Alessandro Caproni/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Shipyard in the Maldives.

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