Experts Speak Out: ‘Climate Change Is Threatening Australia’s Tourism Industry’

Experts Speak Out: ‘Climate Change Is Threatening Australia’s Tourism Industry’
Image: Rae Johnston

Australia’s beaches, wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef, wilderness and national parks – these are our top five tourist attractions. Now extreme heatwaves, increasing temperatures, rising sea-levels, coastal flooding and “catastrophic” coral bleaching – all intensified by climate change – puts them at significant risk.

Enough to seriously threaten our $47.5 billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry, which is not only our second most valuable export earner, but employs a workforce of more than 580,000 people. That’s over 15 times more people than coal mining in Australia.

It’s time to pay attention.

The Climate Council’s Icons at Risk: Climate Change Threatening Australian Tourism report reveals some startling findings. Here’s a list of the biggest ones:

  • Beaches – our number one tourist destination – are threatened by rising sea levels.
  • Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Cairns, Darwin, Fremantle and Adelaide are projected to have a least a 100 fold increase in the frequency of coastal flooding events (with a 0.5m sea level rise).
  • The Red Centre could experience more than 100 days above 35 degrees Celsius annually by 2030. By 2090, there could be more than 160 days per year over 3 degrees Celsius.
  • The Top End could see an increase in hot days (temperatures above 35ºC) from 11 (1981-2010 average) to 43 by 2030, and up to 265 by 2090.
  • Ski tourism will be impacted, too. Declines of maximum snow depth and decreasing season length at Australian ski resorts have been reported for over 25 years, increasing the need for artificial snow-making.

“Tourists travel across the globe to see Australia’s remarkable natural wonders. But these icons are in the climate firing line as extreme weather events worsen and sea levels continue to rise,” says Climate Councillor and ecologist Professor Lesley Hughes. “Some of our country’s most popular natural destinations, including our beaches could become ‘no-go zones’ during peak holiday periods and seasons, with the potential for extreme temperatures to reach up to 50 degrees Celcius in Sydney and Melbourne.”

Climate Council Acting CEO and Head of Research, Dr Martin Rice, said the Federal Government’s Tourism 2020 Plan has “missed the boat” when it comes to protecting Australia’s natural attractions from worsening climate change.

“Without credible climate policy that cuts Australia’s rising carbon pollution levels, the impacts of climate change will only intensify and accelerate across the country over the coming decades,” he said.

The report also highlights moves by individual tourism operators including hotels, resorts, airlines and even Australian zoos that are taking action to tackle rising pollution.

“States and territories, local governments and individual tourism operators should be congratulated for rolling up their sleeves and doing their bit to slash pollution by embracing renewable energy and storage technology,” Dr Rice says. “Now, for the sake of our iconic attractions, we just need the Federal Government to do the same.”

Now, more experts have spoken out about the report.


Dr Liz Hanna is an Honorary Fellow of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, and the Immediate Past President of the Climate and Health Alliance

The Climate Council’s latest report is on the money.

Tourism is our second biggest export industry and employs 15 Australians for every coal job, many in our regional areas that are crying out for job security.

Tourism is under threat from climate change – so it needs protecting, and that means putting an immediate halt to polices that worsen climate change.

International visitors seek Australia’s unique environment, our biodiversity, our ecosystems and our climate. Who will travel to Australia to see a bleached reef, beaches without sand, animals that no longer exist, burned landscapes or risk death in extreme heat?

Australia’s tropical coast has been a tourist mecca, but our research shows warming is stronger along the coasts than inland regions. Currently, exercise for more than 15 minutes an hour escalates heat health risks, and Australians overestimate their capacity to cope with the heat by up to 10°C.

Tourists are even less prepared. Tourists succumbing to heat is bad for business.

The extra heat from global warming will further reduce the tourist season and make some enterprises unviable. Protecting the tourism industry protects jobs and protects Australia’s economic wellbeing.

The current government’s priority focus on coal industry protection and company tax cuts is way off the mark and represents a flagrant disregard for the needs of all Australians.


Dr Grant Wardell-Johnson is Associate Professor at the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration and School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University and is President of the Australian Council of Environment Deans and Directors (ACEDD)

This is an important report – continuing what many have understood for decades.

Human-induced climate change is serious and has been going on for decades. The well-understood trajectory of damage to the environment and biodiversity impacts greatly all sectors of society.

The toxic failure of Australian federal politics to engage seriously with either mitigation or climate-change adaptation maintains a dispute-driven culture. Thus, there remains a focus on denial and the regular shooting of messengers. This is to the detriment of our natural heritage. Australia could learn much from the current political leadership shown in New Zealand (and South Australia).

We must acknowledge the great changes (some beyond recognition) already occurring in our natural icons. But, we also recognise that these icons – though damaged – will nonetheless remain extraordinarily important for both biodiversity and people.

We must continue to cherish our treasures – even as they are diminished. We must focus efforts on climate adaptation to a very different world. At the same time, we must applaud the efforts made to reduce emissions wherever they are occurring. This is leadership society needs.”

Peter Sainsbury is President of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA)

“The Climate Council;s report on the damage climate change is already causing to Australia;s most popular tourist destinations highlights many harmful consequences for human health.

For instance, the health of people in Queensland’s coastal communities will suffer greatly when jobs are lost and economies are destroyed as global warming kills the Great Barrier Reef. And a similar fate will befall Australia’s ski resort communities as snowfall decreases and ski runs fail.

The report also identifies changing patterns of infectious diseases such as malaria arising from changed weather patterns in popular tourist areas.

This report provides yet further evidence of the need for Australia’s governments to wake up to the need to act now to prevent the most harmful consequences of climate change before it’s too late.


Ian Lowe is Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, Qld and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation

The report reminds us that tourism is a major Australian industry, employing about 5 per cent of the workforce.

Notably, tourism employs about fifteen times as many people as the coal industry. So it is just short-sighted to propose expanding the coal industry, thus accelerating climate change, when that directly threatens tourism.

While the great features such as the Great Barrier Reef deservedly get most of the attention, the more fundamental point is that overseas tourists almost always come to Australia to appreciate our natural assets: beaches and bush, rainforests and the Red Centre, Kakadu and kangaroos. All of those natural assets are now threatened by climate change.

This important report is a reminder that climate change is not just an environmental threat, but is also doing social and economic damage. A concerted and effective response is long overdue.


Dr Paul Read is at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne

Australia hasn’t learned much over a few centuries.

We once had the tallest tree in the world at Melbourne’s doorstep. In the late 19th century we cut it down for timber.

I think the Climate Council’s latest report on the effect of climate change on tourism pulls together all the main themes. It will hit that industry hard and the economic cost will be felt by Australia’s GDP. The problem is that all the ripple effects are never fully captured – the cost to Australian lifestyle, amenity, health and well-being will be deeper and permanent.

The good times were wasted – we voted for leaders who failed to leverage booms in construction, mining and education to position ourselves as future-ready.

Now, even education reckons it’ll need to piggy-back on tourism to stay viable against dwindling demand and escalating online delivery.

So where to if tourism fails? The buck has to stop somewhere.

Meanwhile the idea of adaptation, at least as it’s interpreted, is increasingly farcical – more energy will be needed to adapt and this will simply pump more emissions into the existing problem.

More heat, no problem! Pump up the air con! Less snow; we’ll make it! No Barrier Reef? Subcontract China to build one. No wildlife? China again! Nowhere left for kids to play? Jump on a plane and pollute Bali instead (if there’s an Australian middle class left by then). Talk about runaway climate change!

If the climate doesn’t do it for us, we’ll do it to ourselves, blundering like zombies (thanks John Quiggan) into cyclically accelerated, behaviourally driven, runaway madness.


Professor Joseph Reser is an environmental and social psychologist at Griffith University, contributing author to the most recent IPCC Report, and member of the American Psychological Association’s Psychology and Climate Change Taskforce

The world regards Australia as a largely untrammelled sanctuary continent where many unique ecosystems have been able to survive the industrial and technological ravages of the 20th and 21rst centuries, reflecting in large part a strong and informed environmental ethos and regard.

It is noteworthy that Australia is blessed with 16 of our planet’s designated natural World Heritage Areas, the most of any country in the world.

The anguish for the international community at large, and for most Australians, is that many of these cherished and protected areas are at grave risk, with the Great Barrier Reef being a prime and tragically iconic example.

Climate change social science research has very clearly documented the very strong acceptance of climate change and the part of the Australian community, and, for many, the existential risk and associated grave concern that this altering global condition and risk domain poses to our country and continent, and indeed our planet.

Ironically a burgeoning ‘dark’ tourism is increasingly bringing many international tourists to these compelling, still-existing, reminders of what our world was and encompassed, and reminders of just what is at stake with respect to unfolding climate change and current and arguably unconscionable political and policy responses – in Australia and across the globe.