It's the summer of 2060 and you're heading off for your European beach vacation in ... Parmu. Never heard of it? You will. According to a recent EU report, the Mediterranean's multibillion-euro tourism industry will likely shift toward Europe's northern coasts in Scandinavia, the British Isles and the Baltics (home to Parmu and other up-and-coming beach towns like Palanga and Jurmala). Last summer's surge of jellyfish and toxic algae in the Mediterranean didn't merely beach swimmers; it marked a shifting of the tides. Adíos, Costa del Sol; hello, Costa del Norte.
Yes, a mighty change is coming. With temperatures warming, snow evaporating and portions of the Alps melting away, forecasts suggest we're looking ahead to a tourism revolution. Warming weather is shrinking prospects at most low- and even mid-altitude ski resorts, from the Rockies to the Pyrenees, while increasingly violent weather is destabilizing traditional beach paradises from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. "[Global warming] will have important consequences on the whole tourism chain, from the choice of destination to transportation and accommodation," says Jürgen Bachmann, of the Association of French Tour Operators. Hordes of northern European tourists may descend on Spain's Costa del Sol as long as the average August temperature sticks around 35 degrees Celsius, but if it rises to 40 degrees they might just shift toward the country's more temperate Basque coastline. Ski resorts that increasingly rely on snow cannons still need cold enough temperatures to use them. Indeed, weather-dependent destinations are increasingly facing a harsh Darwinian choice: adapt to the new climate realities or disappear.
Some Alpine ski villages are already finding ways to weather the lack of storms, which in some places caused a 40 percent decline in business this winter. In the charming, family-friendly town of Villard de Lens, barely half of all visitors still ski; the rest are too busy hanging out in an ever improving complex near the quaint outdoor market, where they can bowl or gamble at a casino. Mothers lay about in bikinis at a temperature-controlled indoor aquatic park, while children splash giddily in a wave pool.
Other Alpine holidaymakers are increasingly enjoying everything from regional cooking classes to parasailing, hiking and hang-gliding. The French ski resort town of Gérardmer is even promising "mountain golf" next year. Art and film festivals are the new ski competitions; several years ago the French Alpe-d'Huez ski resort launched an annual winter comedy film festival, echoing the increasingly popular sci-fi and horror movie festival in Gérardmer. After 40 years of diminishing snow and glaciers, Alpine diversification—encouraged in a recent OECD report on climate change risks for the Alps—has arrived. "Twenty years ago, people stayed six to a studio and they skied like crazy," says Thierry Combaz from Villard's tourism office. "Now they want more comfort, more style, more choices. Something more than ski, ski, ski."
Europe's nippy northern beaches, meanwhile, may soon be packed with die-hard sun-worshipers. In the coming decades, climate change is expected to push tourists further north, away from the sweltering Mediterranean beaches and toward the increasingly mild Nordic and Baltic coasts. For Georgette Bréard, the president of Brittany's regional tourism board, "it was a big surprise" to recognize that when cool becomes the new hot, northern France could well become the next Côte d'Azur.
But among beach destinations, there will be more losers than winners. Tropical paradises in many of the 51 island nations—from Africa and the Caribbean to Oceania and the Indian Ocean—may lose wide swaths of coastline. (The 5-meter-above-sea-level archipelago island nation of Tuvalu in the South Pacific could well disappear altogether.) Entire regions face grave consequences from violent weather—including hurricanes, wind storms, dangerous monsoon rains and flooding—as the devastating 2004 South Asian tsunami demonstrated. "You can expect flooding to increase if hurricane intensities increase," says oceanography professor Roy Watlington at the University of the Virgin Islands. "We wouldn't disappear; the problem is that all the hazards that go with hurricanes and tsunamis would go farther inland."
Even less deadly effects of climate change could cripple tourism. Extremely warm waters in 2005 created record levels of "thermal stress" on coral reefs along the U.S. Virgin Islands and caused the loss of half of those located in the Virgin Islands National Park along the shores of St. John. With the diving industry in coral reef areas valued at $2.1 billion, one study by the Washington-based World Resources Institute warned that continued coral loss could take a $100 million to $300 million bite by 2015. Tourist concerns about climate change have spun off a niche industry. Lindblad Expeditions will offer a cruise to Norway's Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Circle this summer. The global-warming-themed trip, which includes a $1,000 supplemental fee for research and conservation, will offer educational speeches by a trio of respected global-warming experts in environment, policy and science. "It is their turn now," explains Lindblad Expeditions' Brian Major, "to be the guest celebrity chef." Customers can rub shoulders with the likes of Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson school, Rafe Pomerance, president of the U.S. Climate Policy Center, and Adam Markham, a founder of the nonprofit Clean Air-Cool Planet. The Web site responsibletravel .com—whose slogan is "Holidays that give the world a break"—encourages ecosensitive travelers to assess the polluting effect of their trip on an online CO2 Emissions Calculator, and to pay a voluntary fee to offset it.
Even for traditional tour operators, there is still room for growth, as long as they remain flexible. High-altitude ski resorts—including France's 3,843-meter Chamonix, Switzerland's epic 3,820-meter Matter-horn and Colorado's highest, Arapahoe Basin, which peaks at 3,978 meters—can anticipate a prosperous future, as die-hard skiers are pushed farther up the mountain onto fewer, and thus more expensive, ski slopes. India is planning to enter the luxury ski market in 2009, with the ostensibly ecofriendly 115-acre Himalayan Ski Village. Running from an altitude of 2,286 to 4,267 meters, it is being marketed as the most elevated ski resort on earth. In a future of extreme temperatures, extreme hype may be required.