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People can no longer ignore the impact of the climate crisis when they travel. | Photo by Anton Repponen on Unsplash

September 11, 2023

The topic on everyone’s minds these days is the rapidly changing climate. As the world burns and floods around us, there is (finally) some attention being paid as “the norm” is disrupted.

In the tourism space, this conversation is centered around issues like the near impossibility of drastically cutting carbon emissions created by aviation while travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. It’s the marriage of revenge tourism and last-chance tourism, which has given birth to a perverse kind of disaster tourism, whereby travelers are seeking out climate extremes and calamities.

As much as tourism needs to be significantly reimagined and/or scaled back, that’s not the reality. Though drastic systemic changes are desperately needed within the tourism industry, that’s not happening, and though people should be traveling less, they aren’t. Many of the big players in the tourism industry largely continue to celebrate “resilience” and “recovery” of growth and profits being “back on track,” and most travelers seem to see climate change merely as an inconvenience (though that may be changing).

Here’s the other reality: The climate crisis is affecting every single place and every single person in some way. And there is absolutely no reason to shield people from this reality when they travel.

Climate-related communication should be part of an integral part of every destination and travel-related company’s communication strategy. It is essential for creating awareness prior and during travelers’ trips, and also for risk management purposes. Just as importantly, those working in travel should actively be talking about the impact of the climate crisis on the people and places travelers visit, tourism’s role related to the climate, and what travelers can do to mitigate their carbon footprint.

But, how do we have those conversations?

Climate change is big and overwhelming. It is highly political, and people often have strong opinions about it. Plus, we don’t even know what to call it: Without a shared understanding of what we mean by “climate change,” “climate crisis,” or “climate emergency,” it can be hard to know if we’re even talking about the same thing.

Lead with action.

By and large, we don’t need to convince people of the climate crisis: Nearly 70% of people in a massive worldwide survey said they believe climate change poses a risk to their home country. But just because people know about or believe something doesn’t mean they’ll take action. The knowledge-action gap is a well-studied phenomenon, and emphasizing facts or even actions people should take isn’t necessarily going to result in behavior change.

Rather, taking action drives beliefs. People are likely to justify what they’re already doing, so placing them in a position where they’re taking climate-positive actions has the potential to lead to shifts in belief systems. This is one of the reasons why environmentally friendly, sustainable options should be the default options in experience design.

Remove single-use items from hotel rooms. Normalize drinking tap water by offering refillable pitchers of water at meals. Prioritize or incentivize the use of public transportation versus domestic flights or car travel. And, underpin the why: This is the right thing to do for the future of our planet.

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Make it a group effort.

People react to social cues. They want confirmation that what they believe — the climate crisis is real and we need to do something about it — is what those around them believe as well. Peer pressure is powerful, so normalizing climate action is a far easier sell than trying to convince people to act against social cues.

Tell (and show) travelers that people in this place and in this moment believe that the climate crisis is real and happening; local residents care and are concerned about mitigating its impact: This is what has happened as a result of the changing climate. This is locals’ concern in the present and near future. This is what they’re doing and what travelers can do as well. In this way, when travelers show care and take action to mitigate carbon emissions, they are not alone in their efforts. They are actually a part and in support of the community.

Address the problems. Focus on solutions.

There are great debates about whether climate-related messages should emphasize fear or hope. While that debate continues, one thing we do know is that we spend far more time focused on problems than communicating about the solutions

Travel offers an excellent opportunity for amplifying local solutions to climate-related challenges. There are countless changemakers, social enterprises, and local initiatives curbing the impact of the climate crisis every single day so make them part of this destination’s story! Travelers who can see, visit, learn from, and even participate in these efforts are educated about the local impacts of the climate crisis, have a more realistic (and, arguably, interesting) destination experience, and may even be able to take what they’ve observed back home in a meaningful way.

Be specific. Share anecdotes. Provide evidence.

Too much climate communication focuses on buzzwords without being clear about what the climate crisis looks like and really means.

In Iceland, it’s not climate change; it’s melting glaciers. Show travelers pictures of how far the glaciers used to reach in the not so distant past. Share your memories of visiting them as a child.

In Tunisia, it’s not climate change; it’s a severe water shortage. Stop by an olive oil farm so people can see how production is suffering. Explain how water rationing and daily shutoffs are impacting the day-to-day lives of residents. 

In the Maldives, it’s not climate change; it’s a rising sea level that could submerge the entire country by 2100. Visit a family that can no longer use its well because it’s contaminated with salt water. Take divers to see the bleached coral reefs that have failed to act as a natural seawall. 

Look around you. Wherever you are working, there are place-based examples just like these.

Reinforce the message.

Reinforce the climate crisis message throughout the customer and traveler journeys, and using all available channels. The tone of the message might change, but the intention is steadfast: The climate crisis is actively harming the places people travel, and here’s what travelers can do to address it.

Communicate with people before they leave home. Integrate messaging into activities and experiences. Take advantage of the personal experience, rapport, and expertise tour guides have. Don’t under-estimate the power of content creators in helping to spread this message. And don’t forget how important it is to match any climate-related messaging with action.

Embrace empathy and two-way communication.

There are a lot of complicated emotions and thoughts tied up with the climate crisis. It is impacting the daily lives of people in different ways. Climate anxiety is a very real thing.

Good communication is a two-way street that requires empathy and listening. Making sense of the current state of our planet at this current moment is massively difficult. People have a lot of feelings, questions, thoughts, and ideas about what is happening and how to move forward. Make space for those conversations to happen.

Recognize that people are coming into conversations with different experiences and perspectives about the climate. People are in different stages of their learning journeys. We might not always agree, and, given the complexity of the climate crisis, conflict is possible. 

But lean into that discomfort. When it comes to the climate crisis, the truth is we are in an uncomfortable place right now, and avoiding it will only dig us deeper into the hole. The only way is through. So dive in: It’s high time we acknowledge that the climate crisis is part of the travel experience.

About the author

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.

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