The Red Sea is home to one of the world's richest coral reef systems which, like almost all other reefs around the world, is suffering from the impacts of climate change. Coral bleaching is threatening not only the reef, but the tourism and fishing industries and the coastal communities who depend on it.
More than half a million people come every year to dive in the Red Sea, constituting much of Egypt’s US$ 7.8 billion tourism income last year, but climate change is a growing threat to the tourism industry, reducing the attractiveness of destinations and jeopardizing major sources of income.
Raising awareness of the threats to the reef among local tour operators and natural resource managers is critical to develop actions that can reduce future impacts on coral reefs and marine-based tourism. This is the focus of a partnership established last year between IUCN, local tour operators, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) and travel company, Kuoni. They are working together to assess the vulnerability of the tourism industry to climate change, focusing on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, and how best to adapt to future changes in the reef.
“We believe that the tourism sector, through its major contribution to global development, can influence other sectors by sending important signals to government, industries and the public that climate change mitigation and adaptation are not only vital for our future, but also make economic sense. Raising awareness among local tour operators and resource managers is crucial to plan actions that can potentially minimize future impacts on coral reefs and marine-based tourism“, says Matthias Lisinger, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Kuoni Travel Holding Ltd.
The partnership is boosting local capacity to monitor and manage coral reefs. Reef managers, including park rangers from several marine protected areas in the region, and members of the tourism and diving industry have undergone training and are now working together to develop a response plan to mass coral bleaching.
“Our work in Egypt is an excellent example of proactive management and adaptation planning in the face of climate change. Although Egyptian reefs have generally escaped mass bleaching, maintaining their health from day to day anthropogenic impacts is of critical importance to enhance the resilience of these fragile systems and associated communities in the face of climate change. In the future, we will focus on the Maldives as a case-study, where coral bleaching and mortality has been extensive and understanding the vulnerabilities of reef-associated communities and industrial sectors will play a major role in adapting to these impacts”, says Dr. Ameer Abdulla, Senior Specialist from IUCN Global Marine Programme.
Meanwhile, it has been found that awareness of tourists about climate change and other environmental issues is likely to be a major factor in their future holiday choices. According to a survey of tourists and tour operators in the Egyptian Red Sea region, carried out by HEPCA, analyzed by IUCN and funded by Kuoni, the industry often misperceives its clients’ environmental sensitivity, putting its own business at risk.
The poll results suggest that while the majority of tourists are interested in operators that promote energy efficiency, environmental friendliness and climate awareness, the dive industry in the Red Sea region is largely unaware of this attitude and focuses its marketing more on the allegedly less environmentally-aware traditional dive tourist. Operators that do not adapt to this emerging ‘climate aware’ market risk losing market share to more responsive competitors, the study warns.