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NEWS / Visitor pressure: How climate change could stall Brazil's tourism growth
Category: Tourism

Image: Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Marcos Fernandes (CC by 2.0).

By Mathieu Gasowski

In the past two years, Brazil has played host to two of the world’s biggest sporting events: the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games this year. They have put Brazil in the spotlight, and really drew in the crowds. An estimated 3.2 billion viewers tuned in to watch the World Cup, and visitor numbers over June and July – when the tournament was held – were 3 times higher than for the same period a year earlier. Brazil’s tourism industry has been growing steadily over the last eight years, but as climate change and its impacts put increasing pressure on the country’s tourist assets the question is: for how long can such growth be maintained? 

Although not the world’s favorite holiday destination (Brazil ranked 43rd on the ‘tourism arrivals medals table’ in 2014), in 2015 tourism’s contribution to the Brazilian economy was US$ 7.4billion – 10% of GDP (according to the World Travel and Tourism Council). The country’s 6.4 million visitors in that year came for many reasons; the white sandy beaches, the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and the ecological diversity all played their part. But most of the major tourist areas are now under threat form climate change. 

The great cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are two of the country’s biggest draws: both will face considerable challenges from climate change. Rio is a coastal city, boasting long beautiful beaches among its main assets. But a rise in sea levels may mean that some of these will be lost. By the end of the century the sea level is expected rise by up to 70 cm on average. Even half of that rise will cause significant problems of erosion and flooding along Brazil’s extensive coastline. In some areas the effects of such changes are already visible: man-made erosion barriers have replaced beaches on some stretches of the coast. 

Image: Beachside flood and erosion protection at Boa Viagem Beach, Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil. Photo by A. Júnior (CC by 2.0).

Fragile infrastructure

Rising sea levels are also a threat to coastal property, including tourist infrastructure like beachside hotels and restaurants. Coastal storms, heavy rains and associated flooding may damage buildings or access roads cutting off access to tourists. 

Brazil’s cities – like most in rapidly developing countries – have fragile infrastructure systems that are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Rio’s sewerage system for example, is prone to flooding causing unpleasant sanitary conditions for tourists. Severe damage to such systems could also increase the risk of diseases spreading through its densely packed population. A case like this would greatly discourage tourism as the quality of water and health could decrease significantly.

For the Brazilian people climate change is not an abstract concept. Its impacts are already being felt. Following extremely heavy rainfall in 2011, landslides and floods killed approximately 900 people in the Rio de Janeiro state. In contrast, during the 2014 drought in South Eastern Brazil, near Sao Paulo: water shortages left the most financially powerful area in Brazil with diminished water supplies for over six months. 

In the case of the drought the part played by climate change remains debatable –  there is a clear link to Amazon rainforest deforestation as the trees affect the amount of moisture in the air that determine the rains in southern Brazil. However, increased global temperatures may amplify such droughts in the future. Water scarcity could cause significant problems for the tourism sector, which demands high levels of water for use in hotels.


Vector borne diseases

Another threat to the tourist industry comes in the form of the spread of diseases and viruses. Climate change can facilitate the spread of such diseases by increasing the amount of disease carrying insects (or vectors), increasing the amount of standing pools of water, or reducing the quality of drinking water amongst other things.

Image: Mosquitos carry the Zika virus that is prevalent in Brazil. Photo by James Gathany, CDC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL). Public Domain.

The current outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil gives a clear indication of the impact that such health concerns can have. Zika has become a major worry for visitors to Brazil where it has affected preparations for the Rio Olympics. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 41 percent of people say they are less likely to travel to affected regions due to the Zika outbreak. For Brazil’s tourism industry this could have serious consequences. The World Bank estimates that affected countries could take a combined US$64 billion hit in their tourism industries if the trend continues. 

In the short term the vibrancy and diversity of Brazil should keep the tourists flocking to its beaches. But Brazil’s tourist industry is facing a host of climate related pressures that could hit visitor numbers if no action is taken to adapt. Acknowledging these risks and planning for them, will give the country’s tourism industry the best chance for continued prosperity and growth.