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A cry for help: Climate Change and Tourism

Istanbul, 20 October 1997 - It is a great honour to be with you today in Istanbul to participate in this 12th General Assembly of the World Tourism Organization (WTO). Tourism is faced with many economic, social and environmental challenges; it also has important responsibilities.

As the leading environmental agency of the United Nations system, UNEP counts among its main missions and work programmes the sustainable management and use of natural resources, and the development of more sustainable production and consumption patterns. We are convinced that these concepts are fully applicable to service industries, in particular to tourism, and that it is essential to provide practical information to support their implementation.

UNEP and WTO have been cooperating for many years. In 1982, we signed a joint declaration emphasizing that "the protection, enhancement and improvement of the various components of man's environment are among the fundamental conditions for the harmonious development of tourism. Similarly, rational management of tourism may contribute to a large extent to protecting and developing the physical environment and the cultural heritage, as well as to improving the quality of man's life".

Fifteen years later, in 1997, this statement needs reinforcement and appropriate action developed even further. There are several reasons for renewal of our partnership.

First, the tourism sector is expanding at an exponential rate. The facts are ones that you know well -- the number of international tourists has nearly doubled, reaching 592 million arrivals worldwide in 1996. Domestic tourism has also exploded, especially in countries with emerging economies. Tourism is a major and a highly rapidly developing economic sector and tourists now go almost everywhere, even to remote sensitive areas.

Second, in the years since the Earth Summit in 1992, the concept of sustainable development has been widely agreed upon. Tourism, having the environment as its main asset and being an intensive consumer of natural resources which impacts the environment at both local and global levels, has a vested interest and the potential to be a pilot sector for demonstrating what is sustainable development.

Third, and most unfortunately, the environment has continued to deteriorate in all regions and is therefore high on the agenda; protection of land, biodiversity, fresh water resources, protection of seas and oceans, climate change and sea level rise, protection of the ozone layer are all topics of concern for the world community.

Unfortunately, tourism is one sector that can be particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation.

UNEP keeps watch over this Earth. We report on the destruction of forests, pollution levels in our oceans, the decline of fish stocks and of shrinking biodiversity. We measure the expansion of the deserts and count environmental refugees. We provide information on the quality of water and the availability of food. We catalogue the fragility of the ozone layer, air quality in cities and the future of the climate system.

As our recent state-of-the-environment report, the Global Environmental Outlook, indicates we are still far from a sustainable trajectory. Humanity is polluting and using up vital renewable resources: freshwater, urban air, forests and soils faster than they can regenerate themselves. Water resources are an increasingly critical issue worldwide, over one third of the world's coastal regions are at risk from land-based sources of pollution and infrastructure development; damage to the ozone layer continues at twice the predicted rates.

Our failures are most pronounced in the areas of climate change and biodiversity: greenhouse gases are still being emitted at higher levels than the stabilization target internationally agreed under the Convention on Climate Change, even though we are already seeing the effects decades before expected. We are also failing to reverse the trend in loss of biodiversity, one of the main factors undermining the life supporting systems of the Earth. In short, a sense of urgency is lacking and the gap between what has been done and what needs to be done is widening.

It would be arrogant for us to suggest that any of these problems should take precedence over the others. They are all symptomatic of our neglect and indifference and all need our immediate attention and remedy.

However, I will say this: there is no problem more deserving of our undivided attention today than climate change. If you would indulge me, I would like to spend a few minutes focusing on this particular issue.

We all know that the weather can ruin a holiday but how many of us consider that climate can ruin a holiday destination?

Recently, I had the pleasure of addressing delegates to a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The meeting was convened in the Maldives, a multitude of small islands none more than one metre above high tide level. The islands are increasingly popular tourist destinations reflecting the attractiveness of coral beaches and reefs and the get-away ambience of a tropical paradise. If the fears of those scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel are realized and currently there is little doubt that they will, then sea level could rise above the highest point of that island nation. The Maldives could not only disappear from the tourist map but from the geographic map as well. This same fate could befall any of the low-lying island and coastal states of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Even islands rising steeply from the sea would not be untroubled. Imagine your holiday brochures with beaches submerged, shorelines eroded and ocean views not only through the windows but in your basement as well?

Climate change is not only sea level rise. It is wetter or drier, hot and perhaps surprisingly cold with new extremes beyond the familiarity of what we currently recognize as climate. Imagine shorter, warmer winters in Europe and the likely impact on winter sport! Imagine an increased frequency of cyclones of the kind that last week shattered the holiday resort of Mexico's Acapulco with tragic loss of life. How often in the last decade has the "storm of the century" chosen to appear and how more frequent might it become? Imagine an increased frequency of drought in inner continents. Ecosystems subject to heat and water stress changing, or if unable to change, dying and fauna dependent on them vulnerable even in some cases to the point of extinction.

It is not for me to point out the implications of climate change for tourism. You are the professionals and will be aware of what you stand to lose if climate changes. However, I will question whether you have given the matter your fullest attention. A browse through the World Wide Web using the keywords climate/tourism realized three thousand pages of information indicating the essential interconnectiveness of the issues. Narrowing the search to climate change/tourism revealed little other than concern for snow cover in Nevada.

If climate change is on your mind, forgive my presumption. If, however, it is not, then the warming signs are there. Your business faces a growing danger with costs far exceeding your contribution to the risk. For that is the irony of climate change. Those condemned to experience the greatest impacts are those often the most vulnerable and those least culpable in changing the composition of the atmosphere. It is the developing world that is at greatest risk and it is in the developing world that tourism has most recently provided an opportunity for sharing the wealth of the richer nations and locally creating it through exploitation of the South's natural beauty and climate.

Unlike ecosystems under stress, the tourism industry can do more than just accept and adapt to climate change. Adapt it must as climate change is inevitable. Climate change is, however, controllable and it is possible to constrain climate within limits close to those with which we are familiar. I am encouraged by the published PATA Code for Environmentally Responsible Tourism also discovered on the World Wide Web.

In it, members are urged to "comply with all the international conventions in relation to the environment". This should mean not only conserving energy use in relation to tourism of which I have already spoken but also to adding an influential voice to those that would urge Governments to adopt targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions that will delay the onset of climate change and limit the extent of the impacts.

Another industry that has come to realize the unpleasant implications of climate change for its members is the insurance industry. The incidence of weather-related damage is now higher than ever before. Hurricane Andrew on the east coast of the United States and the most recent storm in western Mexico, Hurricane Pauline, have together caused destruction running into billions of dollars. Several storms in the Atlantic, Pacific and the Bay of Bengal have collectively cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

Insurers now learn, as their awareness of climate change accumulates, that these meteorological conditions are not a temporary aberration to be balanced in future years by benign, storm-free periods but instead a forerunner of possibly more frequent and more violent events. Less dramatic but equally devastating are the year-long droughts in Africa and we are all uncomfortably aware of the floods of Eastern Europe and the raging fires of Indonesia -- the latter having significant adverse effects on tourism.

The insurance industry, in partnership with UNEP, has addressed itself to climate change. It is making assessments of the real costs of climate to its members both now and for the future. It has become a powerful lobby for national action to tackle climate change and I welcome them as allies in the battle for climate protection, a battle still could be lost if some short-sighted greedy fossil fuel producers and users succeed in their well-orchestrated campaign to wreck the implementation of the climate change treaties.

I take the time this morning to focus on climate change because it is in your interest to determine what climate change means for you. Should you not care for the implications, not only for tourism but for the future of this planet and its peoples, then it is time for you to say no to uncontrolled climate change.

As we have done in other areas, UNEP will make its good offices available to you. Its experts will help you understand the issues. I ask you to consider if an association between UNEP and the tourism industry at this time to address climate change would be useful and timely. I believe it is and UNEP stands ready to assist you in all appropriate ways.

There is so much more that I would have like to talk about this morning -- the environment and tourism agenda for the 21st Century is indeed full of exciting issues and challenges.

For example, I would have liked to have talked at length about the importance of the applicability of tourism-relevant concepts like eco-efficiency and cleaner production, about the ways and means by which the tourism industry can improve its own environmental performance.

I would have also liked to talk about UNEP's perspective related to the environmental challenges and opportunities associated with the emerging fields of ecotourism and sport and environment.

And, of course, I would have liked to spend a moment talking about the excellent tools that our organization has developed for the tourism sector including one directed toward the hotel industry and environmental good practices. Another which we developed jointly with WTO, focusing on the protection of the coastal environment, and a third, related to the tourism- oriented Agenda 21 which we developed with WTO, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the Earth Council.

UNEP, particularly through our Industry Office in Paris, is a wonderful resource that I encourage each of you to seek out. Relevant information and dissemination of good practices are indeed needed to assist the development of voluntary approaches and self-regulation. As I mentioned earlier, UNEP is committed to participating -- with its partners from other organizations, and, in particular, with the leading organization for tourism, the World Tourism Organization -- in bridging this information gap.

My comments today are meant to highlight one essential fact -- that there is a great deal that can be achieved by working together to respond to specific challenges like climate change as well as more generally in the development of tourism policies and programmes.

In this spirit of collaboration, I am delighted to announce that this afternoon Mr. Frangialli (Secretary-General of WTO) and I will sign a UNEP/WTO Memorandum of Understanding which will define a plan of action for joint activities for the 1998-99 biennium.

I know that you have a heavy and challenging agenda for this important meeting, so let me conclude by saying that UNEP wholeheartedly supports the actions taken by Governments, industry and the WTO to put tourism on a sustainable path -- I hope that the leadership you have shown to date will continue as the challenges we face become more pressing. I wish you all a most productive and successful General Assembly.

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of UNEP, at the World Tourism Organization 12th General Assembly

Thursday 23 Oct 1997
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