Three ways climate change is making adventure tourism more dangerous

Beams on the Acequia River in Venezuela in 2005 – the river is one of those affected by landslides

Climate change is making adventure tourism more challenging and sometimes more dangerous, travel industry insiders, tour operators and experts have told the BBC.

Landslides on some alpine hiking routes this summer, wildfires that threatened campsites in southern Europe and the US, and landslides and floods affecting South American river rafting can all be seen as effects of climate change, they argue.

“The tourism sector is increasingly challenged by extreme weather events caused by climate change,” says Dirk Glaesser, director of sustainable development for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

“The risks in adventure tourism and nature are different now, they require constant monitoring,” says Christina Beckmann, climate expert at the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), whose members include 1,000 national tourism boards and 33,000 individuals.

“The effects of climate change mean we need to keep our eyes open more to respond to change and continue to review our risk assessments.”

Falling rocks and ice

Guides say rockfalls caused by fast-melting ice – which otherwise holds rocks and boulders in place – are the biggest danger to mountain tourism.

“Many places have now become no-go areas, mainly because of rockfalls and glaciers that have destabilized them,” says Jean-Claude Razel, a mountain guide who also teaches eco-transition at France’s prestigious ESCP university.

“Winter has less snowfall these days and whatever snow and ice is there, it melts quickly.”

Several routes in the Alps have been suspended by guides this summer due to frequent rockfalls, while a glacier collapse in the Dolomites region of the Italian Alps killed 11 hikers in July.

A rescue helicopter flies over Italy's Punto Rocca glacier in July 2022

A rescue helicopter flies over Italy’s Punto Rocca glacier after it collapsed in July

In August, a French mayor said climbers on Mont Blanc would have to pay a deposit to cover rescue and possible funeral costs.

Nepal Mountain Guides Association president Ang Norbu Sherpa says the changes are happening much faster than he and other professional guides expected.

“You now see a stream flowing into the Everest II camp. Rocks are exposed everywhere and falling everywhere,” he says.

He adds that crags – peaks or ridges of ice on the surface of a glacier – are increasingly seen hanging precariously over climbers’ routes in the Himalayas and Alps. The fissures, meanwhile, are widening, Mr. Sherpa says, to the point where some can no longer be crossed.

Campfires

Wildfires have led to the evacuation of hundreds of campers in Greece, France, Spain and California during this summer’s heatwave – highlighting a problem not just for adventure tourists, but for any camper looking to get close to nature.

The number of such incidents has been increasing in recent years, “and it will become more frequent now,” says Victor Resco de Dios, professor of forest fires and global change at the University of Lleida in Spain.

Five campsites had to be evacuated due to a forest fire near La Teste, southern France, in July

Five campsites had to be evacuated due to a forest fire near La Teste, southern France, in July

Professor Resko co-authored a study last year that counted 473 fire-related deaths in Europe between 2008 and 2021 – and a quarter of the victims were tourists.

In one incident in 2018, 103 people died in Mati, a Greek seaside village. It was vulnerable because it was partly surrounded by forest, like many other spots popular with tourists, says Professor Resko.

“So these areas need to develop and implement plans to minimize risks and create evacuation routes to ensure they don’t become mousetraps.”

Burnt car in the Greek village of Mati, after the tragedy of 2018

Burnt car in the Greek village of Mati, after the 2018 fire that killed 103 people

The fires are making it even more dangerous to watch wildlife in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands in South America, according to ATTA vice president Gustavo Fraga Timo.

Troubled waters

Scientists have warned that landslides will become more common in many mountainous areas due to changing rainfall patterns, and rafting guides say this is already happening.

Landslides are obvious dangers for rafters on mountain rivers, and according to Alejandro Buzzo, a World Rafting Federation board member from Venezuela, they make some rivers difficult to navigate.

“This causes the rivers to change course, with shallow depth, which makes rafting almost impossible,” he says.

Beams, like the ones here in Spain's Noguera Pallaresa River, need strong water flow

Shallow water and “low flow” can stop rafting

The impact of climate change can also be felt in non-mountainous areas, Mr Buzzo says, where heavy rainfall can cause abnormal flooding.

“The Orinoco, the world’s widest river, rose by an unprecedented 18 meters two years ago, and this led to the disappearance of some small islands while new ones were created,” he says. “I lost my log campsite, which was a small island, and it was washed away by the river.”

In some areas, such as northern Spain, beams have also suffered from low rainfall. Fermin Larrea, a guide who runs rafting trips on the Gállego River, says the water flow is often only half of what it needs to be and that the “low flow” periods have grown.

In addition, water temperatures have risen by 5C in recent years, making drivers more likely to suffer from foot fungus that causes painful peeling of the skin.

“Very few drivers had it before and now almost all of us have it. We still use antifungal cream like we used to, but it’s less effective.”

‘Near the nature’

Adventure tourism accounts for about 30% of all tourism according to the ATTA, and some tour operators say this percentage is growing.

“After having to stay indoors for so long because of Covid, people want to travel now and many are now willing to go close to nature,” says mountain guide Jean-Claude Razel.

“This is good, but given the increasing impacts of climate change it can be bad if done without adequate preparation and care.”

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