Climate change, a threat to local tourism

Climate change, with its rising and warm seas, more frequent and more violent storms, poses a growing threat to coastal tourist communities, such as Newport and the south coast of Rhode Island, according to a top Rhode Island tourism official.

“People are drawn to the water,” says Evan Smith, managing director of Discover Newport and a 30-year tourism industry veteran. “We are fascinated by water, always drawn to the sea.”

But climate change, he says, is taking its toll.

Cities, like Venice, ‘have to build their buildings on huge floats’, much of Newport’s Cliff Walk has fallen to the sea as storms ‘continue to attack our shores’, Smith says, and the beaches from Cape Cod to Long Island and along the southern Rhode Island coast are eroding.

Levees and raised buildings, he says, are “just band-aids. They’re trying to build levees in Manhattan…that kind of thinking can save you decades. It certainly won’t save you ages.

According to Flood Factor, a website of the nonprofit First Street Foundation, Newport and Washington County (South Shore of Rhode Island) face a moderate risk of significant flooding over the next three decades.

Flood Factor says 780 properties in Newport have a greater than 26% risk of severe flooding over the next 30 years, which is 10% of all properties in the city. Washington County, according to Flood Factor, has 8,157 properties at risk of severe flooding over the next three decades, representing 12% of all properties in the county.

Smith and several insurance industry sources say businesses and homeowners are facing sky-high increases in flood insurance.

FEMA and its National Flood Insurance Program last fall adopted the first new methodology for determining flood insurance rates in years. For some, less than 30% meant a lower rate. For others, an increase, sometimes a big increase.

According to FEMA, the new methodology “adapts to climate change,” but also takes into account reconstruction costs, among other things.

According to the National Flood Insurance Program, the average cost of flood insurance for homeowners nationwide is $958 per year. For Rhode Island, among the highest rates, it’s $1,416.

“The debate,” says Smith, “is really with the insurance companies. Some say if your business is in this area, we won’t insure you. Then the companies (owners) need to figure out their business model and decide if they can take that risk. Right now, that means today, will your insurance company cover you? It is as much a driving force as science.

Smith’s comments come shortly after Newport City Council received a comprehensive transportation master plan that said climate change is a major concern over the next few decades.

[Read More – Transportation Master Plan – Part I: Climate Change threatens historic, commercial, and residential neighborhoods]

This report indicates that sea level rise over the past 90 years has been about seven inches, but over the next several decades it will rise another one to three feet. At risk, according to this report, are Newport’s historic districts, including Thames Street.

Smith says businesses, and presumably governments, must rely on their “ingenuity” to fight climate change as they develop initiatives that preserve a coastline so cherished by Rhode Islanders and visitors alike.

Flood Factor says state and local governments can protect their communities through zoning, stormwater management plans, building code enforcement, flood levees and walls, and natural storage.

Smith also touched on several other topics during the interview, including:

  • A prediction that gas prices will help keep people closer to home and result in a robust tourist season for the region. The pandemic has brought pent-up vacation desires, but rising airline costs and international COVID risks will keep people closer to home.
  • While he predicts domestic tourism will increase, he says international tourism to Newport will be 40% or less than normal. “A lot of nervousness in the international market.” Many people are not prepared to travel, and many countries, including the United States, have strict testing rules. Typically, international travelers make up about 18% of Newport’s visitors, Smith says. He predicts that will drop to 5-7% this year.
  • Cruise ships will return, perhaps 60 this year, half of what would visit Newport in a normal year.
  • He says cruise ships, even in the most robust years, were only a small part of Newport’s tourism industry. The cruise ships “look big and spectacular”, but Smith says they only make up about 200,000 of the 3.5 million visitors to Newport each year.

[Related – Here are the 58 cruise ships that are currently scheduled to visit Newport in 2022]

About Bobby F. Lopez

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