How Tourism Could Become a Climate Change Ally in the Indian Ocean

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Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Ocean

This feature is courtesy of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

For travelers venturing to the Indian Ocean’s sun-soaked shores from chillier parts of the world, the area’s balmy waters offer an enticing allure. However, this same region faces a perilous future, as its shorelines are increasingly swallowed by rising sea levels—posing a danger to both natural ecosystems and human settlements along the coast. While this issue isn’t exclusive to the Indian Ocean, the situation here is particularly dire. Global sea levels have ascended approximately 10 centimeters in the last three decades, with the speed doubling from 1.5mm per annum for most of the 20th century to a staggering 3.9mm annually today. And if you’re chilling in the Maldives, where the highest peaks are just a tad over two meters above sea level, even a tiny rise is a big deal.

Most people know that melting polar ice contributes to sea level increases, but a lesser-known factor is ‘thermal expansion.’ Water molecules expand when they get hotter than 4 degrees Celsius. Now, imagine this phenomenon stretched across the entire ocean. Although you’d think this warmer, expanding water would be evenly distributed worldwide, it actually tends to accumulate in certain areas. In the Indian Ocean, particularly its tropical regions, waters are warmer and thus expanding more rapidly.

So, how are we combatting this? Take a look northeast of the Maldivian capital, Malé, where Hulhumalé, a human-engineered island, has been under construction since 1997. It aims to relieve the stress of overpopulation on one of Earth’s most crowded landmasses. Also, being two meters above sea level—double that of Malé and other Maldivian islands—it offers residents a temporary breather from the existential crisis they face.

However, this land reclamation strategy isn’t a silver bullet. It’s feasible in only a few spots and triggers its own environmental havoc—like damaging precious coral reefs. Speaking of coral reefs, they serve as nature’s best fortifications against coastal erosion, absorbing the brunt of storm surges. Regrettably, these corals are under siege from ‘bleaching,’ where warming waters kill the essential algae that feeds them.

Not all hope is lost, though. Marine biologist Jamie Craggs, a major player in the Coral Spawning Lab, is hard at work in the Maldives, cultivating resilient coral species. His perspective on tourism has also evolved over time. “You can’t halt the tourism sector,” he quips, “but you can guide it to be more beneficial.”

In agreement is Shauna Aminath, Maldives’ Minister for Environment, Climate Change, and Technology. Tourism makes up 40% of the Maldivian economy, and Aminath herself has personal ties to the industry—her father has been employed at the Kurumba Island Resort since its inauguration in 1972. She outlines that strict zoning laws, wastewater treatment protocols, and a ban on single-use plastics are all in play. Resorts are major stakeholders in this game, she says, because people visit the Maldives to revel in its untouched marine wonder.

On the grassroots front, folks like Gerald Ami and Romina Tello in Mauritius are making strides. Their venture, Mauritius Conscious, partners with eco-friendly local businesses, signaling a promising new era for sustainable tourism. Initially skeptical, they’ve grown optimistic, seeing governmental and private sector reforms slowly take root. Ami envisions a brighter future for his homeland and for his newborn son. “Mauritius is on a journey towards genuine sustainability,” he asserts, “and I want nature to be a dominant force, not a rarity.”

In conclusion, both the Maldives and Mauritius are leading the charge in innovative, eco-friendly tourism initiatives. And while the road to sustainability may be long, the wheels are in motion. Perhaps tourism isn’t just a part of the problem; it could very well be part of the solution.

This article was featured in the Indian Ocean supplement of the September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Ocean

What is the main focus of the article?

The article delves into the potential for tourism to have a positive impact on climate change issues in the Indian Ocean. It covers various aspects, from the rising sea levels threatening the Maldives and Mauritius to innovative approaches for sustainable tourism.

How are rising sea levels affecting the Indian Ocean?

Rising sea levels are having a disproportionate impact on the Indian Ocean compared to other oceanic regions. Coastal areas, particularly in countries like the Maldives, are facing existential threats, including loss of land and natural habitats. This is partly due to thermal expansion, where water molecules expand as they warm, causing the sea level to rise.

What role do coral reefs play in mitigating the effects of climate change?

Coral reefs act as natural coastal barriers that can help in diffusing the power of waves during storms, thereby reducing erosion. Efforts are underway to propagate hardier species of corals that can withstand the changing climate conditions.

What is the government’s role in combating climate change in this region?

Governments in the Indian Ocean region have enacted strict planning laws, regulations on wastewater treatment, and bans on single-use plastics to fight the effects of climate change. They are also working towards achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

What initiatives are being taken in the tourism industry to be more sustainable?

Tourism-related businesses are increasingly adopting sustainability as a core philosophy. Initiatives include partnering with environmentally conscious tour operators, investing in coral reef propagation facilities, and incorporating waste management practices.

How does this article contribute to the conversation about sustainable tourism?

This article sheds light on the dual role of tourism as both a contributor to climate change and a potential ally in combating it. It highlights real-world examples of how tourism, when managed sustainably, can aid in climate resilience.

Are there grassroots organizations involved in making tourism more sustainable?

Yes, grassroots organizations like Mauritius Conscious are pioneering sustainable tourism. These organizations collaborate with local businesses to promote eco-friendly practices and are optimistic about creating truly sustainable travel destinations in the near future.

What is the viewpoint of the tourism sector professionals on climate change?

Professionals in the tourism industry are becoming increasingly pragmatic about the role of tourism in climate change. While initially skeptical, many now believe that the tourism industry can work in tandem with environmental initiatives for mutual benefit.

What measures are being taken to protect the natural habitats in the Indian Ocean?

Both governmental and private entities are working on various measures such as building sea walls, investing in reef restoration, and enforcing strict environmental regulations to protect the natural habitats.

Is there optimism for the future regarding sustainable tourism in the Indian Ocean?

Yes, there is a growing sense of optimism. Both industry professionals and grassroots organizations believe that incremental changes are leading towards a more sustainable future for tourism in the Indian Ocean region.

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