Carbon Industry Reports

Sustainable tourism can lead the charge for systemic change

Extreme weather events are not abstract, faraway issues. They are in the here and now, with devastating effects on health, wellbeing, and the economy. Although a global trend, in many ways Australia is bearing the brunt. We’re the canary in the coal mine. We all experienced the devastation of bushfires last year (not for the first time) and according to the Climate Council extreme weather could soon be costing the country’s economy $100 billion a year.

I and other sustainability advocates don’t bring these things up to fearmonger; we bring them up because there is still a window of opportunity in which we can change course and point towards a better future. That window is always narrowing, so it’s essential that we discuss and implement tangible, long-term solutions. These range from making the tourism sector more sustainable to nationwide infrastructure development.

A couple of weeks ago I went on Lindsay McDougall’s ABC radio show Drive to discuss these topics and several others. If you missed it, I’d like to use this post to unpack what we spoke about in more detail.

The cost of extreme weather events

Climate change – and the extreme weather it produces – has real, growing costs. This is true for everything from wildlife to mental health. The Climate Council’s new report, Hitting Home: The Compounding Costs of Climate Inaction, makes this starkly clear. Findings that hit especially close to home include:

  • Australians are five times more likely to be displaced by a climate disaster than people living in Europe
  • Around half of all hard corals along the Great Barrier Reef perished during successive mass bleaching events in the past five years. We are on track to destroy all our coral reefs
  • By 2100, annual deaths from extreme heat worldwide will outstrip all COVID-19 deaths recorded in 2020

More than two million people have died from COVID in the last year, if you were wondering. The costs of extreme weather are real and they are growing. For the purposes of this post let’s hone in on money, especially where hospitality is concerned.

The financial cost of extreme weather in Australia has more than doubled since the 1970s, reaching $35 billion over the last decade. Tourism is not exempt from that. If anything it is especially vulnerable. Lest we forget, hospitality is a perishable product. I can’t sell yesterday’s nights and neither can you. Once they’re gone they’re gone.

I’m not speaking to you from an ivory tower on this. My family runs Crystal Creek Meadows, a luxury accommodation and spa retreat in Kangaroo Valley. During the wildfires last year we had a (perfectly understandable) 71% drop in bookings. Fire did not reach our property. Many were not so fortunate. A 71% drop in bookings and we were the lucky ones.

This kind of drop off is not limited to near-apocalyptic events like wildfires. The same is true for heat waves, heavy rains, and other year-round extreme weather issues. Seeing on the news that the average temperature has gone up one or two degrees may not sound like much, but those small changes make big ripples. Days over 40 degrees are increasingly common here. Crystal Creek Meadows reached 50 degrees during the wildfires.

As well as hurting bookings, events like these have knock-on effects on other costs. Insurance for Crystal Creek Meadows is $24,000 a year, 7% of our annual revenue. Extreme weather will hike up insurance costs and will likely leave many companies uninsurable. There’s no getting around it: climate change directly hurts hospitality’s bottom line.

Sustainability needed at all levels

So what’s to be done? And by whom? There are unquestionably systemic changes that need to be implemented at a federal level, not to mention grants and other support for those transitioning their approaches, but pressure for that to happen comes from the bottom up. That’s where we come in. Sustainable hospitality can cut costs for itself while championing the kind of wider change needed to build a green future.

Sustainable hospitality is about mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing your footprint by buying green energy and making your supply chain as local and sustainable as possible. Adaptation means giving both staff and guests options to be comfortable in extreme weather conditions. Adaptation is where our invention My Green Butler thrives, monitoring energy usage and weather patterns in order to advise sensible, waste-cutting behaviours. The system led to energy savings of up to 20% in gas and 33% in electricity during 2019.

By inviting guests into the saving process you educate them on the issues facing everyone – not just the hospitality sector. Every sustainable hospitality advocate is helping to move the needle of public awareness.

Australia’s COVID response shows the good that can come from following science

Let’s be frank: environmentally conscious tourism isn’t going to solve the climate crisis on its own. What it can do is champion the bold, savvy approach needed to build a sustainable future. It can show tech working for people.

Australia’s response to COVID shows what can happen when we follow the science and embrace it in a positive, constructive way. We acted boldly and calmly and have been rewarded with life not far off normality while other nations continue to go through wave after wave of infections. A stitch in time saves nine lockdowns.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, extreme heat will be a bigger threat to humanity than COVID in the coming years. The climate crisis deserves the same dynamic, compassionate, science-based action COVID has received. Piecemeal won’t cut it. Zero carbon commitments, sustainability education, and green infrastructure are all things hospitality can lead the way on. Rather than a canary in a coal mine, Australia has the chance to be a light in the darkness.

By Dr. Christopher Warren | @ChrisWarrenRT


Christopher Warren