23 Mar 2010

Climate change - a challenge for tourism

by Brendan Bateman, Honor Irvine

A new framework, guide and accreditation scheme are all responses to climate change's effects upon tourism in Australia.

The tourism industry, both here in Australia and internationally, is significantly vulnerable to climate change, but its awareness of this appears limited. With a window of opportunity now available, the industry must prepare itself and take action.

An industry at risk

Tourism is big business. In Australia in 2007-08, tourism contributed over $40 billion to Australia' gross domestic product (GDP) and directly employed around half a million people. With export earnings exceeding $23 billion, tourism is Australia's largest services export. On a global scale, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, in 2008 international tourism generated US$946 billion in export earnings. It forecasts a growth in international tourist arrivals of between 3- 4 percent in 2010 (this follows a worldwide decline of 4 percent in 2009 to 880 million, most probably caused by the global economic downturn).

Like all sectors tourism contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also particularly susceptible to climate change impacts. These include not only the physical impacts, such as rising sea levels, abnormal weather events and droughts, but also consumer perception. The greatest challenge for the tourism industry is to deal with climate change while remaining competitive.

Taking action

In Australia, Government, industry and tourism experts worked together to produce in July 2008 a paper, entitled "Tourism and Climate Change - a Framework for Action", to assist the tourism industry to build its resilience and capacity to adapt to climate change impacts and to prepare for a carbon constrained future. In addition, the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism commissioned Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop a Climate Change Guide to assist small and medium-sized tourism operators to further understand climate change impacts, develop mitigation measures and prepare adaptation measures where possible. The Guide was supplemented by a series of free workshops held across Australia in June and July 2009.

The Framework

The Framework identifies actions to be delivered in the short term (12 months), the medium term (two years) and the long term (over two years). Short- and medium-term actions are necessary to help the tourism industry to adjust to a carbon constrained future. This would include reducing emissions to minimise any costs associated with the introduction of a carbon price, whether through an emissions trading scheme, such as the current Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, or a carbon tax.

Long-term actions will be required to deal with the unavoidable impacts of climate change - i.e. adaptation strategies.

The Framework identifies three key challenges that will need to be addressed:

  • physical impacts and associated economic cost;
  • increasing costs associated with the implementation of climate change policy measures; and
  • changing consumer perceptions and purchasing behaviours related to climate change.

The Guide

The Guide is split into five user-friendly sections or steps. This first of these gives an explanation of climate change and how it could affect tourism. As mentioned previously, changes to climate patterns mean that extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, storms, droughts and bushfires will become more frequent, widespread and intense. In Australia, this could result in severe impacts on areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Kakadu wetlands and the coastal communities. This may affect the tourism industry in the following ways:

  • the attractiveness of certain tourist destinations may change depending on the extent and nature of climate change in that area - for example areas with increased bush fire or flooding risk may become less attractive;
  • tourism could potentially be favoured in areas where clean water resources are abundant and accessible;
  • winter tourism hotspots could be significantly affected.

The Guide provides information on how operators can evaluate their business, calculate their carbon footprint and adapt their business to achieve a competitive advantage over others. Finally it gives advice on developing an environmental policy for an operator's business and advertising the environmental credentials of the business.

As mentioned earlier, it is not only the physical impacts of climate change that will pose a challenge for the tourism industry - image and consumer perception will also play a role. Consumers today are far more aware of their carbon footprint. This could affect demand for air travel which not only affects the aviation companies but may also result in economic hardship in countries or regional areas heavily reliant on tourism. The aviation industry is already responding to this by allowing passengers to offset their emissions by purchasing offsets. However there is plenty more that can be done in this area, particularly with the rise in the demand for eco-holidays.


As sustainable tourism develops further in Australia, a number of programs have been created to accredit tourist businesses. The Australian Government is seeking to harmonise these by the development of a National Tourism Accreditation Framework which will provide an umbrella framework under which existing programs can continue to operate but with a common national brand and agreed quality. It is believed that accreditation will have a significant effect in enhancing reputation, provide significant cost-savings and environmental benefits and provide a competitive marketing advantage for operators to reach out to a wider range of customers.


With new reports coming out showing that climate change is happening faster than had been previously thought, the tourism industry cannot afford to do nothing. With its dependence on the natural and built environment, it must now take action to mitigate its own carbon footprint and be aware and adapt to the changing face of tourism. Companies and even countries with high tourist dependence that do not do so may find themselves left behind in the race for the tourist dollar.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.