Fostering Resilient and Sustainable Travel and Tourism
Goal: Reduce travel and tourism’s contributions to climate change and build a travel and tourism sector that is resilient to natural disasters, public health threats, and the impacts of climate change. Build a sustainable sector that integrates protecting natural resources, supporting the tourism economy, and ensuring equitable development.
Combating climate change and making the United States more resilient to its effects are key priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration. President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO 14008) puts the climate crisis at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Using a whole-of-government approach, EO 14008 seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in every sector of the economy; increase resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve federal lands, waters, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and create well-paying jobs and economic growth, especially through innovation, commercialization, and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure.
Travel and tourism is a key part of this agenda, from leisure and hospitality, to transportation, natural resources and wildlife, and infrastructure. As the industry recovers from the pandemic, the Strategy will seize a unique opportunity to rebuild a travel and tourism sector that is more resilient, sustainable, and equitable.
Climate change is already having a significant impact on tourism destinations, infrastructure, and recreation opportunities. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the frequency and intensity of weather events such as extreme heat, wildfires, droughts, flash floods, and storms are growing, costing hundreds of billions of dollars annually and threatening tourism economies across the United States. Climate change presents a growing risk to U.S. coastlines, which are vital to travel and tourism. Approximately 40 percent of the population – 127 million people – live in coastal counties, and travel and tourism significantly contributes to the marine economy along U.S. coasts.⁸ Rising sea levels and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and storm surges, threaten coastal assets and infrastructure, including roads, bridges, tunnels and railways. Climate change is also affecting seasonality. Longer summers and shorter winters have implications for outdoor recreation, public health (including from disease vectors and heat exposure), wildfire risk, biodiversity, and wildlife.
The federal government has an important role to play in supporting communities as they plan for and recover from natural disasters, climate events, and health crises. Federal agencies – especially those involved in the Economic Recovery Support Function under the Federal Emergency Management Agency – work closely with the travel and tourism sector while supporting communities with disaster response and recovery. Continued collaboration will include sharing strategies and best practices to help communities limit their exposure to climate-related disasters and events, as well as engaging destinations and adjacent communities around recovery efforts and resiliency planning.
The Strategy seeks to strengthen federal capacity to support communities during and after a crisis. During the pandemic, Congress appropriated billions of dollars for direct economic assistance programs, such as funding from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, which have been a lifeline for businesses, but many of the programs did not do enough to reach underserved populations. The federal government has already begun to identify and address challenges to ensuring programs are implemented broadly and equitably, including through EO 13985, which provides for every federal agency to conduct an equity assessment.
Climate change and natural disasters disproportionately impact underserved communities, further exacerbating wealth and social inequality. Efforts to reach more underserved communities could include public and private sector programs to improve financial literacy and create a better understanding about how to improve access to loans and lines of credit. These efforts include applying the lessons learned and best practices from the SBA’s Community Navigator’s Program, through which SBA is engaging with state and local governments, SBA resource partners, and other organizations in targeted outreach for small businesses in underserved communities. This work includes financial assistance, contracting and procurement, marketing, operations, business development, exporting and industry-specific training. Future programs should also seek to address risks of unemployment and job insecurity, especially for lower-paid workers in the travel and tourism sector.
Additionally, federal agencies should build on existing engagement with communities to help them further incorporate resiliency planning into overall sustainable tourism development. This resiliency planning could include economic or product diversification, especially for those communities dependent on a primary tourism source, such as cruise ships, or a single season, such as winter in skiing locales.
A successful, sustainable travel and tourism industry depends on the health of U.S. natural and cultural resources, communities, and the U.S. economy. Integrating sustainable practices that promote environmental conservation and stewardship and support of local and heritage communities is necessary to ensure long-term economic benefits that are resilient to shocks. Additionally, more vigorous conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems through a sustainable tourism policy could ensure these resources remain available for future generations.
If sustainably managed, travel and tourism can create revenue and incentives for conserving and preserving biodiversity and can serve as a reliable source of jobs and income for local communities. For example, local economies receive billions of dollars from visitors to coral reefs through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses based near coral reef ecosystems. In Southeast Florida alone, NOAA estimates that coral reef-related diving and snorkeling generate about $902 million and recreational fishing generates $384 million in total economic output annually.⁹ Nature-based tourism also generates positive social impacts by creating incentives to protect and preserve natural resources and educating the public on the importance of sustainability.
Additionally, there is significant overlap in strategies for disaster mitigation, conservation, and sustainable tourism. Implementation of nature-based solutions acts as a first line of defense against sea level rise, extreme weather events, and storm surges. Restoring and protecting wetlands can improve water quality and reduce flooding, and waterfront parks can also absorb storm and flooding impacts and improve water quality. Nature-based solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change can also provide opportunities for tourism development. For example, coastal habitats, such as coral reefs and mangroves, provide protection for hundreds of millions of people, preserve biodiversity, act as carbon sinks, and provide nursery areas for fisheries, all of which increases the food supply and creates jobs. Understanding the relationship among tourism, conservation, and climate change provides a roadmap for a more resilient tourism economy that supports natural resources and local communities.
A necessary step in creating long-term tourism sustainability is reducing its negative environmental impacts and contributions to climate change. The aviation, car transport, cruise, and accommodations sectors all contribute to carbon emissions, along with truck and rail transportation of food and materials on which the travel and tourism sector depends. The United States has committed to the goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.¹⁰ For the travel and tourism industry to contribute to this goal, it is imperative to measure and report baseline emissions levels, establish emissions reduction or net-zero targets, and develop effective strategies to meet those targets throughout the travel and tourism supply chain. Sourcing alternative energy and adopting sustainable practices and programs, including supporting and promoting green technology, can accelerate the sector’s transition to environmental sustainability.
A sustainable travel and tourism economy also requires travel and tourism businesses and destinations to reduce waste and pollution and prevent degradation of land, water, and natural resources during development and business operations. Sustainable tourism cannot exist without sustainable communities. Increasing the use and implementation of sustainable and resilient infrastructure and investing in clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, and pollution reduction create communities that are not only resilient to shocks but attractive tourism destinations. Transit-oriented development and infrastructure like high-speed rail also create more connected, accessible, and healthier communities.
In addition to the use of national data and emissions targets, an integral part of creating a sustainable travel and tourism sector is the availability to communities of timely, localized data. The COVID-19 pandemic increased demands for such data, as policies were being developed to quickly respond to employment and other economic impacts in the travel and tourism sector. More can be done to provide climate data to travel and tourism communities, including their exposure to climate-related risks and disasters and timely data ahead of extreme weather events. The federal government also needs data at the state, local, and tribal levels on travel and tourism (e.g., on economic output, composition of demand, contribution to gross domestic product, and employment), which the federal government produces only at a national level and only on an annual basis. Federal agencies should continue to innovate how they collect economic information, including decreasing reliance on paper surveys. Federal agencies could also look at using other data sources as a proxy for survey data.
Strategy 1: Ensure members of underserved communities in the travel and tourism sector are aware of and can easily access federal assistance before, during, and immediately following disasters and health crises. Develop greater institutional capacity in federal agencies to provide funding and grant assistance in connection with disasters and health crises, including preparedness, mitigation, recovery, and resilience.
- Provide a mechanism for ongoing communication between federal agencies and tourism destinations about their needs following a disaster.
- Leverage community-focused programs to improve access for underserved populations to government resources in the travel and tourism sector.
- Improve communication with the private sector as part of the federal assistance process.
- Align capacity-building, environmental, conservation, and climate resilience priorities.
Strategy 2: Support communities in resiliency planning, including diversification by industry and sector.
- Leverage funding for agency planning in alignment with federal, state, local, and tribal priorities and broader sustainability efforts.
- Incorporate resiliency planning into programs across the federal government, as applicable.
- Work with the private sector and state, local and tribal governments to share best practices with small businesses and communities on reducing their exposure to climate-related risks and incorporating sustainable tourism practices.
- Incorporate climate change resilience and adaptation strategies into infrastructure investment and management and visitor use management on federal lands and waters.
- Collaborate with destination management organizations and the private sector on regional tourism planning and diversification to increase the ability of the travel and tourism industry to adapt to changing demand for services.
- Provide NOAA data and tools to communities to inform and build resilience to extreme events and climate-related hazards, including through nature-based solutions.
Strategy 3: Reduce the travel and tourism sector’s carbon emissions.
- Support and encourage baseline and ongoing measurement of emissions and the setting of science-based emissions reduction or net-zero targets throughout the travel and tourism sector.
- Implement measures to reduce travel and tourism emissions consistent with the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030.
- Invest in electrical equipment and infrastructure, including electric vehicles, public transit, bike paths, and walkways, including at visitor centers, and in renewable electricity generation to serve these uses.
- Support the use of sustainable fuels for transportation, including aviation, cruise ships, buses, other modes of public transportation, and taxis and ride-share services.
- Support the integration of climate impacts into financial markets, including enhanced climate risk disclosure for tourism businesses and projects.
Strategy 4: Support nature-based solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation.
- Continue collaboration with state, local, and tribal governments to invest in nature-based solutions and green and blue infrastructure as a first line of defense against extreme weather events and natural disasters.
- Invest in projects to protect, conserve, and restore existing ecosystems such as coral reefs, kelp forests, seagrass meadows, mangroves, coastlines, and forests.
- Provide information and resources on nature-based solutions for communities to incorporate into their tourism planning and strategies.
Strategy 5: Support and protect the nation’s natural assets to ensure travel and tourism resources for the future.
- Implement and support initiatives and legislation, such as the Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful Report and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that prioritize increasing access to outdoor recreation opportunities and expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife populations, habitats, and corridors.
- Support locally led and designed conservation efforts and visitor use management strategies and encourage incorporating conservation into community tourism planning.
- Pursue a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation and disaster recovery that includes state, local, and tribal governments, conservation organizations, fishing and hunting organizations, and the private sector.
- Identify links between tourism and existing conservation tools, such as grant programs for local parks and coastal restoration projects, preservation of natural infrastructure, and management strategies for marine fisheries, coral reef conservation programs, mangrove protection and restoration programs, and national marine sanctuaries.
- Consistent with applicable law, work with the private sector and Brand USA, as well as state, local, and tribal governments, to promote the development of programs and experiences that engage visitors in activities that support conservation and stewardship.
- Support implementation of laws that promote outdoor recreation on federal lands and waters to provide needed maintenance and improved resilience for critical facilities and infrastructure in national marine sanctuaries, national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands and waters.
- Identify and address gaps that impede equitable visitor experiences on federal lands and waters.
Strategy 6: Build a sustainable tourism ecosystem in the United States and position the United States as a sustainable destination in the international travel and tourism market.
- Provide grants and funding for sustainable tourism businesses, especially for small businesses in the travel and tourism sector, in alignment with federal conservation priorities. Examples of current programs that help communities improve their development practices are the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2021 Climate Action Plan to incorporate resiliency uniformly across DOT programs, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Growth Program in the Office of Community Revitalization.
- Prioritize the use of green and blue and climate-resilient infrastructure.
- Collaborate with destination management organizations, state, local, and tribal governments, and the private sector, including the outdoor recreation industry, to share information on and best practices for economic opportunities related to resilient and sustainable tourism.
- Identify opportunities for ecotourism to support existing conservation and restoration efforts.
- Support the creation and use of common standards of sustainability for tourism businesses and a system of standardized labeling to identify sustainable and green and blue operators.
- Collaborate with local, state, and tribal governments and the private sector to create more parks, green and blue spaces, and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities and urban areas.
Strategy 7: Pursue innovations to provide timely data on climate-related events, natural disasters, and other crises.
- Communicate data on climate-related events and risks to travel and tourism communities in a way that is more easily understood, relevant, and actionable.
- Encourage linkages among data-producing programs to avoid data silos and facilitate a more holistic approach to data-based resiliency.
- Increase access to regional and localized data related to climate change and natural disasters.
- Increase the data available in connection with natural disasters and health events.
- Collaborate with the private sector to enhance metrics for evaluating travel and tourism’s environmental impact.
- Produce national travel and tourism statistics more frequently and provide additional travel and tourism data at the state level.
⁸ NOAA, “Our Dynamic Marine Economy” Chart, 2019
⁹ “Economic Impact Analysis of Recreational Fishing, SCUBA Diving, and Snorkeling on Florida’s Coral Reefs”
¹⁰ The White House, “The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050,” November 2021 and U.S. Department of State, “The United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution: Reducing Greenhouse Gases in the United States: A 2030 Emissions Target,” Washington, DC, 2021