Climate Change Tourism: A Mere Luxury for the Rich?

by JP Kiefer

The small archipelago nation of Tuvalu is home to 10,000 people likely to soon become climate refugees when their islands fall below sea level due to climate change. Tuvalu is attempting to take on an image of both victim and hero of climate change by becoming an extremely green chain of islands run by largely renewable sources of energy. It is able to take on this image with help from foreign aid and charities. Its people are also portrayed as model citizens without the issues of overconsumption and essentialized consumerism, though they fail in this in some ways. Tuvalu’s tourist board attributes these failures to an invading and corruptive imperial force. Overconsumption and essentialized consumerism are tied hand in hand with climate change, so by rejecting these values Tuvalu hopes to show that man’s carbon footprint truly can be reduced.

Farbotko (2010) notes that making Tuvalu an image of sustainable living has brought it media attention as a tourist site to “see while you can,” as it is expected to be lost to the ocean forever in a few years. The idea of visiting a location because of the tragedy it has faced is not entirely new, but this climate change tourism is unique because the tragedy has not yet occurred. Tours of concentration camps like Auchwitz were the first form of this “dark tourism,” but they did not begin until years after the Holocaust. Tour busses drove through neighborhoods recovering from Hurricane Katrina to watch the community rebuild, but even this occurred after the main disaster. According to Farbotko, climate change tourism is especially tragic and in some ways unethical.

Climate change tourism brings with it two major issues, the first being the irony of it. Transportation to the remote archipelago of Tuvalu is costly on the environment, suggesting that those travelling to the nation have little empathy for its people. Furthermore, this travel is costly and available only to wealthy people with no direct vulnerability to climate change. These tourists seem to treat Tuvaluan identities with a convenient childlike simplicity, which lessens their feelings of ethical involvement in the disappearing islands. The tourists seem more interested in the simple lifestyle of a beachside vacation than genuinely invested in understanding the likelihood of the inhabitants becoming climate refugees in the near future.

Overall, Tuvalu’s tourist board views climate change tourism as a brilliant way to bring about empathy for the formerly faceless problems of emitting greenhouse gasses and of showing that sustainable living is possible. They do this while also promoting a simple beachside vacation tourists can enjoy. Farbotko disagrees, instead believing that combining climate change tourism with a simple vacation desensitizes visitors, rather than enabling them to empathize with the locals.

Farbotko 2010. The global warming clock is ticking so see these places while you can’: Voyeuristic tourism and model environmental citizens on Tuvalu’s disappearing islands. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 224-238

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