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Climate Change Tourism Is Cashing In On Environmental Devastation

A travel company wants to take vacationers to places that are being wiped out by climate change, and critics say that's bad for the environment.

by Anne Gaviola
Jul 31 2019, 4:14pm

Half of the coral in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef system in the world, has been killed since 2016. Experts cite climate change and pollution for warming waters and decimating the area's marine life. Deforestation is destroying the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, turning large areas in one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet into dry savanna. And thanks to the twisted nature of capitalism, the tourism industry is now cashing in on all of that.

San Francisco-based travel site Stride’s “Places Disappearing Due to Climate Change” campaign, unveiled Wednesday, encourages visitors to book tours to 10 destinations it’s marketing as under siege from climate change. The idea, according to Stride CEO Gavin Delany, is to make climate change “feel more real and more time-sensitive.”

But critics and others in the travel industry have called this kind of approach opportunistic, and potentially misleading or “greenwashing”—disinformation painting something as environmentally responsible. Aside from the cynical optics of cashing in on environmental devastation, this type of marketing seems especially hypocritical considering the impact the travel industry has on greenhouse gas emissions—tourism accounts for 8 percent of the global total.

Stride analyzed 40,000 global adventures to curate a list of 10 places and experiences it’s marketing as in peril due to climate change, including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Rhone Valley in France. The company says it’s donating 10 percent of revenue to “non-profits that will fund local efforts in vulnerable areas and ensure well-traveled places thrive ecologically, economically and socially.” It did not specify which organizations it would be donating to. After we published this story, stride announced that the first charity it will focus on is the Arbor Day Foundation, whose mission is to "inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees."

“Disaster capitalism” is the term Alex Speers-Roesch, head of the climate change and energy campaign at Greenpeace Canada, uses to describe this kind of marketing. “Part of why we’re in this crisis in the first place is too often we have companies that, instead of looking for ways to make things better, are looking for ways to make a buck. Until we get more people and institutions putting human welfare ahead of short-term profit, we’re probably going to continue having a lot of these problems like climate change and other environmental issues,” he said.

Reality check

Stride co-founder Delany says that kind of criticism is fair and he says public awareness is an important element of what they’re doing. “When you see the glacier where it is today, and you see a photo of the glacier and where it used to go to years before and you see physically, with the wind blowing on you, how far it’s retreated—that is such a visceral experience. That emotional impact galvanizes you to care,” he said.

Delany says one of the outcomes of a climate change impact tour is that visitors are deeply motivated to do something about it long-term, after the trip ends. Delany, and others in the industry note that incorporating elements of climate change awareness into travel tours and packages is a growing trend. Their target audience includes millennials and Gen Z.

Critics warn that this kind of approach can do more harm than good by making it easier for a large number of tourists to visit environmentally sensitive places that are already under threat from climate change.

Speers-Roesch disputes the notion that the only way to make people care is by bringing them to far-flung places to see climate-change for themselves. “There are better ways to do it: great documentaries, fantastic VR videos. Instead of spending your money to visit these places, spend time and money to protect them in the first place,” he said.

Signs of greenwashing

Jamie Sweeting, vice president of sustainability at adventure travel company G Adventures, says that campaigns that capitalize on climate change are exploitative.

“Suffice it to say, it’s not an approach that we would take. I’m not personally a huge fan of the idea of ‘go before it’s gone’ sort of approach to these sorts of things. We as travel companies, have a fundamental responsibility to not only look after our guests and our employees, but also the people and the places that we take people to visit,” he said.

Sweeting points out that clever marketing and “responsible tourism” are two separate things. G Adventures has developed a “Ripple Score” system that identifies how its tours allocate money to benefit the local community.

He wants people to do their homework before booking, by asking the right questions, and finding out if companies are being responsible towards the environment, animals, and people that travelers encounter on their trip.

Half-baked activism

Delany admits Stride’s campaign may “fall short of the ideal amount of action,” but he says it’s a step in the right direction, and better than nothing.

However, Speers-Roesch worries that climate change tourism may make people feel like they’re doing good, without giving them the right tools. “Are they telling people the honest truth about what responding to the climate crisis actually requires? Are they giving people a complete education about this and telling people that we have to stop using fossil fuels and phase them out rapidly over the next couple decades? Are they telling people that it could mean a change in lifestyles and how we structure our economy and our lives?”

He said without a “complete education” on this matter, people may end up just as clueless as they were before the trip. And the environmentally sensitive places they visit, could actually be worse off.

Follow Anne Gaviola on Twitter .

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