Mother Nature continues to demonstrate her power and fury around the world. A hospitality and tourism advocate shares lessons she learned about travel preparedness based on experiences from her recent vacation in Europe.
By Leora Halpern Lanz
Summer in the Northern Hemisphere now comes to its annual transition and close. The issues which impacted travel and tourism thus far in 2023 still fester. Amidst the continued pent-up demand for post-COVID travel, there were also reports of poor tourist behavior, over tourism in the primary destinations of Europe, and inflated prices for air travel. Yet one issue seemingly dominated so many of the summer travel narratives this year: climate. Climate is affecting tourism experiences and travel patterns. As the World Economic Forum posted on its site August 14, 2023, “rising global temperatures are already affecting the tourism industry.” The evacuation of thousands of people in Rhodes, Greece due to the wildfires, the intense heat in Europe prompting many to return home because hospitals could not handle the masses, the August 8 wildfires in Lahaina, caused by the effects of drought and catapulted by wind-driven forces which have killed more than 100 people to date, and the recent hurricane and simultaneous earthquake which rocked Southern California — are notable examples of a new normal in global tourism.
Leora Halpern Lanz, ISHC is Assistant Dean, Academics and Associate Professor of the Practice at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration. Her near 40-year career in hospitality and destination marketing has established her as an advocate for cross-cultural exchange and learning, particularly to appreciate the people and places of varying backgrounds and countries. In this Q&A, Professor Lanz shares her summer 2023 experiences which were impacted by weather, and the lessons she shares for traveler preparedness in the future.
At what point during your summer travels did you start to “learn lessons” that related to climate change?
I am someone who frequently reads articles about the impact of climate on tourism, and so there’s always been an innate sensibility for resilience and flexibility with travel, particularly if there are interruptions that are out of our control. During this vacation to Europe in July, there were two specific days that truly reminded me about the fury and power of the climate.
The first was a day of travel. The night before a flight from Portugal to Sicily (connecting through Paris), Air France emailed us to tell us our flight was going to be rerouted because the Catania (Sicily) airport was closed. Turns out the airport was damaged by fire; the electrical fires were sparked by air conditioners that were pushed to the limit (due to the 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures that had already lasted for several weeks). The airline also clearly stated that it would not provide ground transportation once we arrived at this other airport. So my husband and I had to determine how to get to our intended destination, Taormina, which is now hours away in the opposite direction. We were very fortunate though, because others we met throughout our stay in Sicily had their flights on ITA or TAP canceled altogether. Our first leg of the flight from Portugal to Paris also departed Porto more than an hour late. We did not know why. Once we were airborne, the captain announced that air traffic control had lost power, again because electricity was pushed to the brim because of extreme temperatures.
The second situation was a day when the weather was truly frightening. We had experienced a few days of power surges in the hotel and neighborhood where we stayed in Cefalu, as the power company was trying to maintain the cooling for what was now 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The power surges motivated me to not use elevators during this time. So my husband and I climbed up and down five flights of stairs each time we entered or exited our hotel room. My choice, and I’m so glad I went with my gut. On this particular Tuesday morning, the entire area lost power in the early hours of the morning. Our air conditioning didn’t function, and the temperatures were continuing to rise. We had trouble breathing in our guestroom because if we opened the sliding door to the balcony, a very thick, hot, heavy, smoke-filled gust of wind blew in rapidly. At 4:30 in the morning, I woke up because I had trouble breathing. I opened the balcony doors, and was not only hit with hot, heavy air, but also with a visual of several fireballs in the distance. There were multiple wildfires in Palermo and on the route between Palermo and Cefalu.
So what happened here? This was a day when two destructive weather forces collided. Turns out the scirocco, an unexpected wind and sea storm which hits Sicily annually from Africa, arrived as normal, which is, without warning. This only added to the already dry conditions, severely hot temperatures, and the erupting wildfires. The winds blew the fires around, making it difficult for small planes to drop water and extinguish the fires, until much later in the day when the winds finally began to subside.
What are some of the key takeaways that you learned due to your recent weather-related travel interruptions?
There were many lessons for me, actually, and I had considered myself a somewhat experienced traveler:
- Working through your hotel can be very helpful to arrange (or rearrange!) transportation options. We had pre-arranged our ground transportation in Sicily through our hotel, and that was beneficial when we had to reroute the ground transportation to pick us up from a different airport. The hotel demonstrated care for our safety and relied upon a trustworthy car service. They also helped in translation as our driver only spoke Italian. Because so many passengers were rerouted, Ubers were scarce, and car rentals were not available at all, so it was comforting to know we had a means to get to our destination.
- Be sure to allow for additional travel time and budget contingency money in case flights are canceled or delayed. The benefit of cushioning travel time allows one to think clearly and not feel stressed if having to make tight flight connections or adjust to schedule changes. One of my closest friends from college has been a travel advisor for decades now, and she advises her clients to allow for a three-hour window for a plane change, in case there are delays. Travel should be enjoyed, but it’s not uncommon for the most stressful part of travel to be the travel itself.
- I highly recommend the purchase of a luggage tracker because Apple can find your suitcase, in many situations, faster and more accurately than the airline.
- Be sure to follow social media or news outlets to keep abreast of the destinations where you’re traveling. I was so glad I followed several social sites while in Italy, including hotels or other attractions in the destinations we visited, to be able to stay in-the-know and understand what was happening around us.
Do you believe it is still ethical to travel to certain destinations considering global climate change and over-tourism?
I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled, “The Last Place on Earth Any Tourist Should Go; Take Antarctica Off Your Bucket List.” Antarctica has always been on my bucket list but once I read this article, I learned how rapidly the continent is melting, and how tourism, primarily via cruise ships, has exponentially increased the visitor count by 40% over pre-COVID numbers. Now I feel it is my responsibility, as much as I want to learn about the region, to not go there and not add to the diminishment of the landscape. However, I am an advocate of sustainable travel. It is important to explore the world, in order to learn tolerance and appreciate the peoples and cultures around the globe.
Sustainability in travel not only refers to climate realities, but also pillars that protect local populations. This summer witnessed a resurrected pattern of over tourism to some of Europe’s primary cities, such as Rome, Paris, and Florence. I would encourage travelers to pick lesser-known destinations for more immersive travel, a way to avoid crowds and to better connect with locals. As a matter of fact, the June 2023 issue of Departures magazine included an article recommending “off-the-beaten path European destinations” for those who want to enjoy smaller crowds of tourists and more of the region’s historic and geographic treasures.
What changes in travel patterns may arise due to climate change?
Seasonality and new choices of locations. If families can travel during periods when school is not in session, that can help with a smoother travel experience. The summers in the northern hemisphere have gotten hotter and more uncomfortable, as well as crowded. If Americans can travel to Europe in May and June or September and October instead of July and August, that’s a way to travel more comfortably.
My dear friend’s daughter was traveling in the south of Spain during this same period in July. When the already hot temperatures elevated further, they couldn’t bear it any longer, and modified their travel plans heading to the north of the country. Another friend of mine represents beautiful hotels in the Provence region of France. This was the first July in decades that the hotels actually had availability because guests canceled their plans and shifted their vacations to Scandinavian countries instead — for cooler temperatures. Consider other places to visit based on the time of year and anticipated weather conditions.
Do you have any recommendations for folks who are about to embark on their next trip?
I really believe this is a new normal. Pursue your travel plans, but be prepared for unanticipated situations, weather-related or otherwise. If a weather event happens while you’re traveling, take a breath to think clearly if air carriers make changes, or if power goes out, for example. This way you can make sensible decisions. And go with your gut. I’m not sure what told me not to use an elevator, but I’m glad we used stairs, and it was good exercise for us anyway, despite the very hot temperatures. When we checked out of our hotel in Sicily, we learned that four people perished from the wildfires in or near Palermo; two were in an elevator.
I’d also say that any little step we can take to help reduce a carbon footprint, to respect the mission of recycling, to connect with local populations when visiting a destination, are ways we can also help the cause. For example, turn the lights off when you leave your hotel room. Drop plastic in recycling bins. As author James Clear shares in his book, Atomic Habits, “little steps lead to big changes.” Each of us can help in some way. We may not be able to stop climate change, it’s clearly too late for that. But if we can help to slow it down, that’s a very good thing.
Additionally, if you have the chance to, for example, visit a Caribbean resort and participate in a coral reef restoration experience, or visit Panama, as we did with ten of our students last March, and immerse with a local indigenous tribe, this will help the sustainability effort and the planet. Consider a beach clean-up experience as part of your vacation in Sardinia or Thailand or Costa Rica, by picking up plastic bottle caps or six-pack rings. Or volunteer the family to clean at a local park, plant trees, trim bushes….no matter where in the world you are.