Tourists are feeling the heat—and their bodies may not be able to catch up

Tourists visiting destinations during heat waves may be more prone to adverse health outcomes than residents, experts say.
tourists in greece
It takes time to acclimatize to warmer climates of a tourist destination. Credit: DepositPhotos

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Throughout June, six tourists died while visiting Greece during an unusually early summer heat wave. While these cases are still being investigated, authorities say that heat stress likely played a part in each of their deaths, as temperatures soared over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Heat-related deaths are increasingly common with climate change, and high temperatures could pose a particular risk to tourists, who are often both mentally and physically unprepared for the heat they may encounter in a new place, experts say. 

As tourist tragedies stack up in warming regions around the world—from southwest Texas to the Australian Outback—health officials are urging visitors to change their behavior to beat the heat. But a sea change might already be happening in the tourism industry: A growing number of people are opting for “coolcations” instead of tropical getaways, which could have far-reaching economic impacts for some areas. 

Visiting heat

A number of factors contribute to how an individual tolerates heat, including their gender, age and if they have an illness such as heart disease or diabetes. 

Their ability to beat the heat can also depend on where they live and the typical temperatures they are used to. If someone is consistently exposed to high temperatures or humidity, their body adjusts at a physiological level, a process known as acclimatization. These minor changes can include increased sweating efficiency, stabilization of blood circulation and increased blood flow to the skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Essentially, that means a person from Phoenix, a city that is consistently hot, might have a higher heat tolerance than a person from the chilly New England city of Providence when they are confronted with a 100-degree day (even though they are technically experiencing the same temperature). That also means that a tourist visiting Phoenix from Providence could face higher health threats from heat than a resident—at least at first.

“It takes at least 1-2 weeks to acclimatize to heat stress. That means, a tourist who lives in a cooler climate and travels for a week-long vacation to a warmer climate or area experiencing a heat wave won’t have time to acclimatize during their time in the warm area,” Alisa Hass, a geographer at Middle Tennessee State University who studies climate impacts, told me over email. 

Certain health conditions such as obesity or diabetes could impair a person’s ability to acclimatize, according to a 2023 study that analyzed the increasing threat for travelers to hot climate destinations. A lack of heat acclimatization may have played a role in the deaths of the tourists in Greece, Christos Giannaros, a heat expert at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, told The Associated Press

Compounding the problem, several vacation-related tendencies can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, including drinking less water, consuming alcohol and sleeping less due to jet lag. Heat is even deadlier when coupled with strenuous outdoor activities common on vacation such as hiking. Last year, at least seven visitors at national parks across the U.S. died of heat-related illnesses from June to the end of July—a trend that is only going to get worse as climate change accelerates, CNN reports

Chasing the heat or coolcationing? 

On Sunday, temperatures in California’s Death Valley reached 129 degrees Fahrenheit, just around 20 degrees shy of the heat required to fry an egg. 

Yet tourists still poured into the desert valley despite the deadly heat—or in some cases, because of it. 

“I was excited it was going to be this hot,” Drew Belt, a visitor from Tupelo, Mississippi, told The Associated Press. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Kind of like walking on Mars.”

However, extreme heat is not working in the favor of most top summer tourism destinations, Fast Company reports. After Europe’s 2023 summer heat weave, the European Travel Commission noted a 7 percent uptick in expressions of concern about climate change from European travelers. Experts say this concern could be part of the reason tourists have shifted their travel patterns in recent years. 

“Tourists are starting to travel to cooler locations, rather than warm climates like southern Italy and Greece, to avoid the heat,” Hass told me. “This is placing a heavy burden on communities where tourism is a large part of their economic base.” 

While tourism dips in some hot destinations, chilly countries such as Norway and Iceland have seen a rise in visitors during the summer months—a trend dubbed “coolcationing,” which Condé Nast Traveler named one of the “biggest travel trends to expect in 2024.” 

But some experts are not yet certain that change will stick and are urging countries with warm tourist destinations to help visitors prepare for the heat. One strategy: shifting popular events to different months. For example, in 2022, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) rescheduled the World Cup from the summer to November and December due to Qatar’s extreme heat, a first in the tournament’s 89 years.

Additionally, tourism-focused industries such as hotels or resorts must raise awareness of health risks by ramping up communications around heat, whether through advisories or a simple informational flier at breakfast, Andreas Matzarakis told me. He’s a professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany who studies how humans interact with the environment, including the intersection of climate change and tourism.  

However, he added that tourists themselves should also try to prepare for the heat they might face during vacation by staying indoors during peak heat and keeping hydrated. 

“You’re going for holidays, you will not have stress, you want to enjoy several things, but you have to keep in mind the things that you have to avoid, [including] extreme heat,” Matzarakis said. 

More top climate news 

Along with facing the impacts of climate change, some top tourist destinations are implementing strategies to prevent it from getting worse. Beginning July 15, tourists visiting Copenhagen will be given free access to museum tours, kayak rentals and more if they demonstrate climate-friendly behavior, such as cycling or cleaning up trash, reports The New York Times

On the stick end of the carrot-and-stick spectrum, the Hawaii legislature is considering a bill that would impose a $25 climate tax on tourists. Gov. Josh Green estimates it could bring in about $68 million annually for causes such as wildfire and flood prevention or coral reef restoration. 

Meanwhile, Hurricane Beryl whipped through Texas on Monday, killing at least eight people and knocking out power to nearly 3 million homes and businesses, BBC News reports. The tropical storm, which previously tore through the Caribbean, knocked down 10 transmission lines. Officials say it could take several days to put the power back on. 

In other news, the Key Largo tree cactus is extinct in Florida, in what researchers say is the first local extinction of a species caused by sea-level rise in the U.S. Though scattered plots of this prickly plant still grow in the Caribbean, the species has been battered by saltwater intrusion, hurricanes and mammals munching on it in Florida in the past few decades—representing a “bellwether for how other low-lying coastal plants will respond to climate change,” said botanist Jennifer Possley, lead author on a study published today that documents the population’s decline.