A year ago, in January 2023, the headline on the front cover of The Week was stark: ‘Crisis in the Alps. Is the ski industry doomed?’

The corresponding article sought to give substance to the claim that climate change is threatening the long-term viability of many ski resorts in northern Europe. The story reported that over the New Year weekend in 2023, resorts that were used to temperatures of -10C were experiencing 18C. The impact on the snow and the capacity for skiing was potentially ruinous to the local tourism economy.

Fast forward one year and the ski industry in northern Europe looks anything but doomed. An Arctic blast in January 2024 dumped over a metre of snow in resorts such as Chamonix, while Italy, Austria and Switzerland all saw between 30-50 centimetres of powder. The industry is predicting one of its best seasons in years.

While this is good news for now, a boom or bust existence is in nobody’s interests and if the ski industry is to be sustainable, it will need to quickly adapt to the increasingly capricious nature of Europe’s snowfall. The issue is not just on the ski-slopes of northern Europe. The crisis facing the ski industry is a microcosm of the challenges the whole of the travel industry is facing due to the growing unpredictability of our climate and the extreme weather events taking place across the planet. Forest fires and extreme floods are the canaries in the coalmine of a fast changing and warming world. The weather has long been the ally of tourism but as violent climatic aberrations become more frequent, it is vital for us all to adapt to mitigate the risk of the weather becoming the industry’s nemesis.

Keen to know what UK travellers felt about this issue, in January 2024, Steppes Travel commissioned research into what extent the market was adapting to the prospect of travelling in a world blighted by extreme temperatures, flash floods and forest fires. The survey of more than 2,000 UK adults revealed that up to 83% of respondents would reconsider when and where they travel due to a growing number of extreme weather events – such as wildfires in Greece and record high temperatures in Spain last summer. The results also told us that 60% of those people questioned, would like to explore less ‘obvious’ destinations and want their holidays to be less crowded.

Our research has shown that Brit’s appetite for travel is undiminished but to navigate this fast changing and unpredictable world, adaptation is critical. Both the travel industry and travellers need to embrace the notion of travelling in different seasons and to look at destinations they may not have previously considered. Since we began in 1989, Steppes Travel has been an advocate for stepping off the well-trodden path to explore the world’s lesser-known places. Our clients know as well as we do, that avoiding the crowds and visiting countries with a fledgling tourist economy can be incredibly rewarding for both travellers and hosts. Such destinations – Kyrgyzstan, Eastern Turkey, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone for example – offer open-minded travellers the perfect antidote to over-tourism, however it is vital that such destinations are allowed to evolve and develop at a sustainable pace. Without management and planning, the invisible burden of tourism can quickly create the tragedy of the commons, especially if cash hungry governments chase more and more visitors.

As a result of our research, we were invited to speak with various radio shows across the UK and London TV. During these interviews, the question often asked, was how do extreme weather events directly affect the travel industry? Tourism relies on a predictable climate, where dry and wet seasons can be anticipated and either harnessed or avoided. Take the ski industry for example, which epitomises just how vulnerable tourism is to dramatic changes in the world’s climate. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has estimated that if global temperatures were to rise by 2C (the limit set by the Paris climate change agreement), 40% of the Alps ski resorts would no longer have reliable snow for skiing. In extreme circumstances, drought, forest fires, extreme flooding and the rise in temperature of the world’s oceans all have a devastating effect on biodiversity and local communities, not to mention the aesthetic of the landscape. In short and put rather crudely, the very raw materials of our industry are under threat by extreme weather events.

Tourism accounts for approx. 8-10% of the world’s carbon footprint and so while we believe that the holidays we create have a net positive impact on people and planet, we cannot ignore the paradox that we are also part of the problem. That is why we continue to adapt what we do, and how we do it, in order to enhance the positive outcomes of the travel experiences we offer. We are increasing our support for community based tourism, not only because it ensures our hosts are fairly remunerated for what they do but also because we know our clients have a superior experience by doing so. In the conservation world, the mantra of ‘if it pays, it stays’ has never been more pertinent and so we have doubled down on our commitment to only use lodges that give back to community and conservation. We are innovating the way we put itineraries together, avoiding domestic flights where possible to reduce carbon emissions. We are also excited to be working on a collection of flightless holidays to Europe, using the ever expanding rail network across the continent.

The world is changing and so travel must change with it. By striving to make a better travel industry, conserving and protecting the places and people we visit, we aspire to help our clients navigate this changing world in a manner that is both fulfilling and sustainable.

Thanks for reading

Jarrod Kyte

Author: Jarrod Kyte