Environment’s newest Canada Research Chair examines tourism in a changing world

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Michelle Rutty on why COVID-19 is just the start for an industry facing an existential crisis 

By Abbey Steeneveld

The holiday season looks something different this year as the world continues battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Airports usually packed marking the busiest time of year for the tourism industry now lie a ghost town with closed borders, enforced travel restrictions and the majority of Canadians staying home for the holidays. 

Michelle Rutty of the Faculty of Environment has just been named our newest Canada Research Chair (CRC). Her work can not come at a better time. As COVID-19 disables the global tourism industry, her work projects a challenging future for the tourism sector, with sea-level rise and warming temperatures placing coastal tourism resources at risk, along with less predictable natural snowfall and low temperatures required for winter recreation.   

A beach with touristsHOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS 

"The pandemic hit the tourism sector particularly hard, with travel restrictions resulting in unprecedented social and economic impacts on destinations worldwide," says Rutty. "International arrivals have fallen over 70 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, putting millions of tourism jobs and associated businesses at risk. The demand for travel even as restrictions lift, remains highly uncertain, with a complete recovery unlikely until late 2021."  

Rutty's research takes a comprehensive approach, looking globally and locally at every facet of sustainable tourism.  

"It is important to note that not all regions nor tourism markets are being impacted equally," she says. "While international markets are particularly hard hit, especially long-haul destinations such as the Caribbean, domestic markets are likely to recover more quickly, as well as outdoor travel segments such as parks and recreational activities —skiing, snowmobiling, hiking." 

As Canadian winter sets in, we are all looking to our favourite winter pastimes to get us out of the house as the pandemic continues. Rutty, who also completed her Ph.D. at Waterloo under the supervision of climate expert Dan Scott notes that "slushy ski slopes and melting backyard rinks are a troubling reminder that iconic Canadian winter sports may not be safe in a warming world. Add COVID-19 to the equation, and we should prepare for a significant transformation of our cherished winter traditions."  

A University of Waterloo study supported by Rutty's work as a postdoctoral fellow discovered many of the 21 cities that had hosted the Winter Olympic Games before the 2018 Games in South Korea might soon be too warm to host the Games again. 

Snow-based tourism is one of the sectors most at risk to climate change. It is considered the climate ‘canary in the coal mine’ of the tourism economy,' Rutty told Waterloo Magazine. 

"People are often shocked to learn how big the tourism sector is. For example, ski and snowmobile tourism contributes more than $9 billion per year to Canada's GDP."  

If Canadians did not fully appreciate the role of tourism in our economy, the one-two punch of climate change and COVID-19 should be a wake-up call.  

Michelle RuttyOfficially Rutty’s CRC gives her the title Canada Research Chair in Tourism, Environment, and Sustainability. The Canada Research Chairs Program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries in research and development. It invests approximately $295 million per year to attract and retain a diverse cadre of world-class researchers, to reinforce academic research and training excellence in Canadian postsecondary institutions. 

The Faculty of Environment now has seven Canada Research Chairs studying critical sustainability issues including food security, geoengineering, ecosystems and Antarctic ice melt.  

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