This year the winter season started later than usual in nearly all Georgian ski resorts (except Goderdzi) due to a lack of snow. Given the heated international discussions on climate change and global warming in recent years, the lack of snow in Georgian ski resorts has raised questions concerning the future economic viability of winter tourism in the country. This is hardly an unexpected development as even the World Tourism Organization recognizes that mountain tourism is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (UNWTO, 2015). Unforeseen climate change may thus create serious financial and economic burdens on the country, and slow any economic growth accrued from the winter tourism sector. The aim of this blog is to answer some of the questions raised regarding the winter tourism sector in Georgia and how it might be affected by climate change, and to guide the reader through the existing facts, data, and research outputs associated with the subject.
HOW IMPORTANT IS WINTER TOURISM TO GEORGIA?
According to the 2018 annual report of the Georgian Tourism Administration Agency, tourism contributed 7.5% to the total gross domestic product, and more importantly, it represented 75% of the country’s total service export. Furthermore, the 2019 annual research paper by the World Travel & Tourism Council identifies that in 2018 the travel and tourism sector maintained around 519,000 jobs (around 30% of total employment) and the number is expected to grow. Although the most popular tourist season is the summer, around 25% of total Georgian tourism comes from winter months. Additionally, the number of international visitors in winter, in the main winter ski resorts (excluding Goderdzi),1 have been increasing over the years (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Domestic and international visits2, the 2015-2019 winter seasons
Thus, given the sector’s increasing contribution to the country’s economy and the hopes it has generated, concerns about the potentially negative impact of climate change on the sector are certainly understandable.
WHAT ARE THE EXPECTED IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON GEORGIAN SKI RESORTS?
For winter tourism to be economically viable two indicators are important: snow cover days and the depth of snow cover. Our discussion will initially focus on the existing temperature and precipitation forecasts, as temperature and precipitation affect both indicators. A 2007 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that a 1°C increase in the global mean air temperature will raise the snow line by 150m, which adversely affects low-altitude winter resorts. In addition, a warmer climate in mountainous regions causes the replacement of snow with rain and shortens winter seasons due to the early melting of snow.3
Several existing regional, national, and municipal level documents report and discuss temperature and precipitation forecasts; probably the most comprehensive prediction is found in a recent report – a roadmap to climate change adaptation – created in 2016 thanks to USAID funding. It is worth stressing that, despite the soundness of their methodology, these projections are quite long-term and, therefore, might lack precision and pure forecasting power. Nevertheless, they constitute the basis of our discussion.
The table below summarizes the expected changes in the main winter season climate parameters for four ski resorts over two periods: 2021-2050 and 2071-2100, given the assumption of “very rapid (global) economic growth, global population that peaks mid-century and declines thereafter, and rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies”, as well as the balanced use of all energy sources.4
The study highlights that all winter resorts are expected to face moderate to high temperature increases in winter seasons and fewer snow cover days through to the end of the century. While seasonal mean precipitation rates and the annual mean number of days with snow cover change according to region. For instance, Mestia, Goderdzi, and Bakuriani are expected, on average, to have an increase in precipitation within the next 25 years, whereas Gudauri is expected to experience a decrease in precipitation during this period. However, the depth of snow cover is predicted to increase in Mestia and Gudauri between 2021-2050, although Goderdzi and Bakuriani might face decreased snow cover or no change. For the period of 2071-2100, all major climate parameters deteriorate at every ski resort, indicating poor prospects for the development of winter tourism.
While the exact quantification of the expected economic impacts on the winter tourism sector, and on the Georgian economy, require a much more thorough and systematic analysis, these forecasts do suggest the need for policymakers at both the national and local levels to acknowledge the issue and explore possible mitigation and adaptation actions.
Table 1. Climate parameter projections for (I) 2021-2050 and (II) 2071-2100, compared to 1961-1990
|Change in winter mean temperature (°C)5||I||(1.35 -1.36)||(1.42 - 1.43)||(1.31 - 1.34)||(1.40-1.41)|
|Relative change in annual mean precipitation in winter months (%)6||I||(5.1-7.3)||(-2.9 - -1.1)||(3.5-5)||(2-3.4)|
|II||(-1.3 -2)||(-8.1 - -6.2)||(-3.9 - -1.4)||(-6.1 - -4.0)|
|Change in annual mean number of days with snow cover7||I||(-39.9--26.3)||(-21.6--20.4)||(-18.1 - 17.1)||(-17.0 - 15.0)|
|II||(-65.2 - 58.7)||(-51.1 - 48.3)||(-48.2 - -43)||(-48.2 - -43)|
|Change in snow cover depth (%)||I||(14.5 - 36.6)||(0.1 - 14.4)||(-10.2 -0.0)||(-10.2 -0.0)|
|II||(-31.7 - 21.1)||(-44.1 - 31.8)||(-31.7 - 21.1)||(-21.0 - 10.9)|
Source: The Georgian Road Map on Climate Change Adaptation (USAID)
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE, AND CAN STILL BE DONE, FOR ADAPTATION
A great opportunity comes from the availability of resources provided by international donors (the green climate and adaptation fund of the Kyoto protocol),8 both for research and the implementation of adaptation activities. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, Georgia has thus far failed to tap into this available pool of resources.
Equally, the actions currently undertaken to study the challenges of climate change, and to suggest and implement adaptation and mitigation actions, have been limited and uncoordinated across national, municipal, and sectoral lines. For example, even though there are several legal and policy documents discussing processes of climate change adaptation (such as the law on environmental protection, the national environmental action plan (NEAP), and the intended national document of contribution), they are unrelated to municipal and sectoral Tourism Development Strategies.
A first crucial step to tackle the risks associated with climate change is to gather information and study the problem. This could become the basis for developing evidence-based strategic documents and, subsequently, a clear vision for future development.
A successful mitigation/adaptation strategy for the winter tourism sector may include a wide variety of actions, from the development of support infrastructure in and between resort areas, to the diversification of activities in winter resorts, and the development of financial instruments such as weather derivatives. We will discuss each of these in much more details in an upcoming blog.
At this stage, it is enough to recognize that Georgian mountains are an important touristic resource for the country, and climate change is indeed one serious constraint. Consequently, it is important to start thinking about efficient mitigation and adaption measures to combat such predicted weather challenges. In summary, the issues alone are quite complex and hardly straightforward, thus, more detailed research and planning are required, and that is exactly what we intend to do in the future.
1 Data about international and domestic visits and costs per visit could not be obtained for the Goderdzi ski resort.
2 The sum of the fourth quarter of the previous year and the first quarter of the current year.
3 Snow melt occurs at a mean daily temperature of 0°C, depending on the melt factor (Steiger & Scott, 2020).
4 The study Regional Climate Model (RegCM 4.0) and a Global Climate Model EH5OM (MPI, Hamburg), properly downscaled and compiled to Georgia, was applied for projections of climate change and climate variability in the country. The period of 1959-2100 was chosen due to Georgia’s Third National Communication in the UNFCCC.
5 In 1961-1990 winters, the average temperature was -4.3 °C in Mestia and -6.8 °C in Goderdzi.
6 In 1961-1990 winters, the average precipitation rate was 185mm in Mestia and 361mm in Goderdzi.
7 In 1956-1985 winters, the seasons included an average 111, 172, 180, and 127 snowy days for Mestia, Gudauri, Goderdzi, and Bakuriani, respectively.
8 The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).