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From Fiji to Botswana, Tourism Industry Aiming for a Lighter Carbon Footprint

Increasing numbers of eco-conscious travelers are forcing some tourist operators and resort owners to mitigate and adapt to the risks of climate change

By Lori Tripoli, SolveClimate News

Apr 12, 2011
Elephants in Botswana.

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.

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