The disruptions in global mobility caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are still deeply affecting Asean's tourism industry, as the region lost 8.4 per cent in total GDP from the drastic drop in tourist arrivals.
With worsening climate disasters expected, the region is at risk of falling further behind in its development goals. As countries in the region gradually reopen to tourism, embedding climate projections and bold environmental policies in tourism planning is increasingly necessary.
Several Asean countries have actively boosted vaccination rates and dropped travel restrictions, establishing conditions that will allow them to quickly reopen to revive the tourism sector. While the pandemic is a medium-term challenge that would partially be resolved once most countries reopen, climate change is a long-term issue that poses different problems for the industry.
Tourism is one of the industries most vulnerable to climate change. Many of Asean's beaches and coral reefs have been seriously damaged by environmental factors, such as the inland erosion of up to 150m along 3km of Vietnam's Cua Dai Beach, and the significant increase in coral bleaching in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Climate change also affects cultural heritage sites. At least three Unesco-recognised sites in South-east Asia have been assessed as being the most vulnerable to future storms and floods: the risk of landslides in ancient town Hoi An in Vietnam; change in vegetation of Komodo National Park in Indonesia; and soil erosion at the Cordilleras rice terraces in the Philippines.
Extreme weather events, with more frequent and devastating storms, floods and droughts, will also create displacements of tourism flows. Tourists will likely shun areas with unpredictable and dangerous weather conditions for safer locations.
Cost and vicious circle
The cost of responding to climate change, whether borne by local governments or tourist businesses, will likely be passed on in price increases for tours, attractions and tourist visas, which might make tourists choose less expensive destinations with weaker policies on dealing with climate change.
Latest studies on Indonesia, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, show that every 1 per cent increase in temperature and relative humidity is associated with a decrease in the number of international tourists by 1.37 per cent and 0.59 per cent, respectively.
A vicious circle might develop, if government budgets for the repair and maintenance of tourism sites affected by climate adaptation measures are constrained, as income decreases due to declining visitor arrivals.
Failing to maintain these sites might mean that the tourist attractions in Asean countries might be lost forever to rising seas and powerful storms.
Since climate change is a problem that affects all Asean countries, collective action based on common principles, rather than piecemeal initiatives by individual member states, is required.
Mass lockdowns in many countries during the pandemic cut greenhouse gas emissions globally by 7 per cent in 2020, but this reduction barely meets the goals of the Paris Agreement, and emissions have gone back to pre-pandemic levels. Specific and concrete regional tourism strategies and regulations on climate change are needed.
The Asean Tourism Strategy Plan 2016-2025 stresses environmental preservation and climate change adaptation measures in tourism growth. However, Asean still lacks common environmental guidelines for the tourism industry, and individual member states are falling woefully short in taking action on renewable energy, reducing emissions and sustainable tourism.
Frameworks and guides
Currently, there are some projects in the world that offer specific frameworks and practices for climate change adaptation for tourism, such as the Eco-union's Strategic Guide to Climate Change Adaptation of Tourist Destinations for the Mediterranean.
Measures such as assessing the impact of climate change and managing its effects, including the adoption of early warning systems, must be clearly chosen and evaluated with the participation of local stakeholders. The strategic planning process should define and allocate roles and duties to stakeholders.
Furthermore, metropolitan regions such as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, two of Asean's most popular tourist zones, should not be overlooked in the development of climate-adaptive tourism.
The World Bank's Guide to Climate Change Adaptation in Cities suggests that cities can amend their master plans for land use and transportation while also investing in infrastructure to increase climate change resilience, such as improving the road network in a densely populated floodplain.
In particular, the report highlights the need for accurate data collection, which is one of the challenges facing developing countries in monitoring, verifying, and assessing the efficiency and efficacy of their climate change adaptation efforts. However, there is no general guide on regional climate change adaptation and tourism development investment for Asean.
Asean must quickly develop standard regional guidelines on environmental protection and climate change adaptation for its tourism industry. Failing to do so might mean that South-east Asia's tourist attractions might be lost forever to rising seas and powerful storms.
- Dr Nguyen Thu Giang is a lecturer at the Faculty of International Economics, Foreign Trade University, Vietnam. Dr Phi Minh Hong is an Assistant Professor at the EM Normandie Business School, Metis Lab, in Paris, France. This is an edited version of an article first published in Fulcrum, the commentary and analysis website of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute