I love to travel! Few things make me feel so alive as when I get to explore new places. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere – it all brings me right into the Here and Now. Travelling also makes me humble. I get a deeper understanding of other people, and myself, and of what really matters. It challenges me to make decisions, to get out of my comfort zone, and to stand for what I believe in while still respecting other views of the world.
However, I have been contemplating over the negatives of travelling in the last year or so. It is not as simple and problem-free as it might seem on Instagram. The more I think about it, the more I´ve come to realize that sustainable tourism have to become the only way we explore the globe if we want to keep it worth exploring. Just as with fashion and food, our urge to travel cannot be satisfied at any cost – there is simply nothing that should be as important as saving the planet. The two main aspects that I have identified as most important to consider when travelling are the environmental aspect and the exploitation aspect. Let´s discuss them both below. My thoughts are mainly based on traveling to less developed countries (I´m not a fan of that expression, but I hope you get the idea), but I think that some points are valid no matter where we go.
Exploring vs. Exploiting
I bet I am not the only one who seeks untouched nature and authentic experiences of new cultures. If not that, I think most of us at least want the surroundings to be clean, the people to be friendly, and the overall experience to be something else than what we get in our home countries. But how do we make sure that our longing for exploring doesn´t become exploiting? Some risks that I see are:
- Conflicts based on religion or culture. Tourism isn´t always welcomed by everyone, and it can create tensions between both tourists and locals, and in between the locals themselves. Take Bali, for example. The two bomb attacks in 2002 and 2005 were carried out by people opposing the increasing tourism there. I am not saying we should give in to terrorism, but I do think we need to realize that we are part of the problem.
- Tourists living in luxury while the people of the host country live in poverty. Honestly, I feel disgusted when seeing wealthy people taking advantage of the local staff with no respect or understanding of their struggles. Using up their resources in abundance while they barely have anything.
- Pushing the limits of local resources and systems. The idea of paradise comes with a cost. Roads, water supply, access to food, waste disposal system – all or some of this are often not made to handle the amount of tourists visiting each year. Last year in the Philippines they closed down an entire beach area for 6 months because of the pollution caused by the tourism.
- Bad working conditions. Many countries do not have sufficient labor laws to protect workers. Just as with fashion, the more the demand increases, the more people are exploited in these money making businesses.
- Animal exploitation. Not seldom are animals held captive to amuse tourists in different ways. The animal welfare in many countries is very poor, also when it comes to meat, milk and egg production.
Environmental aspects of traveling
There is no doubt that we affect the environment simply by just being alive. Of course it´s not all negative, but the bad effects on nature from traveling are real. I´m thinking of things like:
- Increased pollution and waste. We bring trash, and most of what we consume during our stay becomes trash in one way or another. Many countries does not have a sufficient waste disposal system, and our garbage risks ending up in nature. The amount of plastic waste I saw on my trip to Indonesia this year was beyond horrifying. Of course, most of the waste comes from the locals, but there is no denying tourism in pushing an already strained system.
- Flying. I will discuss this in an entire chapter below, because this is a big one.
- Transportation. Let´s be honest, moving around in general is bad for the environment, unless we do it by foot or bicycle. We tend to move around a lot when traveling, which of course increases the amount of pollution connected to our individual footprint.
- Increased consumption. Shopping for gifts, clothes and souvenirs is common for most tourists. Just as with transports, consuming stuff is in general never a good thing for the environment. Not to mention that we often have no idea if the materials are sustainably sourced and the working conditions are fair when we by tourist stuff from the local markets abroad.
- Hurting nature. There are a lot of sensitive environments, like coral reefs, that are becoming very sick or even dying because of mainly two things: too many people interfering with the natural balance of these environments, and global warming (caused by acts like flying).
Flying and transportation
Flying is a huge topic in Sweden right now. It is connected to the climate anxiety many of us are feeling, and new words like “fly shaming” and “sneaky flying” are popping up. Since I work at an airport I´m right now close to both sides of the debate: the ones fighting for flying to stop completely, and the ones fighting for it to continue as before. Personally I find this debate very emotional, which I can understand, but I am more interested in facts. What is true? Is flying as bad as they say? I will try to state some facts for you here.
- The total amount of emissions from a flight is affected by things like the weight of the plane; the route, the taxiing distance before start and after landing; the plane and engine model; temperature and air pressure.
- Flying emits 2% of the total carbon dioxide globally (4-5% if you count the high-altitude effect which emits other greenhouse gases as well, such as nitrogen oxide).
- 1 ton emissions per person/year is the limit in order to reach the UN goal of maximum 2 degrees global warming. In Sweden we emit around 10 tons/person. One return flight Sweden-Thailand emits about 2 tons/person.
- The number of flights is increasing rapidly, with 180 % only in Sweden since 1990´s. If flying was moderate, it wouldn´t be an issue. It´s the rapid increase that poses the largest threat on the climate.
- Height and distance matters. The higher you fly and the longer the distance, the more emissions are created. The longer the distance, the higher the plain goes.
- Taking the car is just as bad for the climate as flying, if you are always alone in the car.
- Global boat transports emits more than flight transports. This is not taking to account the amount of goods being transported.
- Trains using dirty electricity from eg. coal are also bad for the environment, but it´s still better than flying from a climate perspective.
- Bio-fuel is one way to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from flying, with at least 80%. It does however not decrease the emissions of nitrogen oxide and water vapor (the high-altitude effect), which are also climate negative. Bio-fuel + decreased flying is a must to lower the total amount of emissions.
- Modern airplanes are 70% more fuel efficient per person compared to older planes (1960 – )
- CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) is a global agreement on 1. not allowing an increase in emissions from airplanes from 2020, and 2. halving the emissions from airplanes by 2050.
“So what can we do?” Well, thank you for asking, I was just about to share some of my solutions to the dilemma of tourism and traveling.
- Fly less. Much less. If you can stop flying altogether that would be good. If and when you do fly, stay longer at the destination and don´t fly a longer distance than necessary. To give you an example: flying Stockholm-London = 1600 kilo greenhouse gas emissions. Flying Stockholm-Thailand = 8000 kilo greenhouse gas emissions.
- Climate compensate. This is not a short term solution, but it´s better than not to do anything at all.
- Travel by train when ever you can – it is possible to go by train to more destinations than you might think.
- Chose your destination mindfully. Avoid over crowded tourist spots, and do some research on the politics and culture of where you´re going.
- Stay at home stays, small resorts and hotels with an eco-mindset and fair wages. Look for certificates, statements, solar power, recycling, etc. Aviod the large complexes where most of your money will never reach the locals but stay in some rich owner’s pockets.
- Travel package free. Soaps, lotions, schampoo – you can get them all package free. Less packages = less waste.
- Only use eco-friendly products. Keep in mind that the sewer systems might not be so developed and that everything you flush out might end up in the ocean.
- Avoid anything including riding, touching, holding or eating animals. Zoos, elephant riding, swimming with dolphines in a pool, feeding stations – all those things are a big no-no if you want to keep the animals safe. Instead, experience animals in their natural habitat, and respect their privacy. Animals are not here to amuse us.
- Minimize your consumption. Also make sure that you buy from local artisans who get to keep your money for them selves.
- Traveling is a gift, not a right. I don´t think we should take it for granted.
So what will I do? Well, first of all I will limit my flying even more than before. I’m thinking that once a year will be an absolute maximum, with the goal to not fly at all. I know this is a commitment that is realistic to start with. I want to create a change that is sustainable over time, something I know I can stick by. I will try to travel by train when ever the destination allows it. I also want to get even better at package free packing.
I have one clear reason for not telling you to stop flying, or committing 100% to do so myself. It’s for the same reason I’m not telling you to stop consuming. Not because I’m not aware of the harm it does, but because change is hard. Change is threatful. If we percieve the change to be too far away from our identity we wont do it. So rather than doing nothing, it’s about doing something. As long as you do less of what’s harmful you will be part of a change for the better. I know that I respond better to a softer approach to change, one that allows my free will to lead the way.
What changes are you ready to commit to?
I really hope you enjoyed this post (it´s taken me forever to write). I am still fairly new to this topic, so see this as my effort to bring something good to the table. If you find any wrongful facts, please let me know. Also, I am so curious to if you have some more thoughts on sustainable tourism and travel. Please share any additions you might have in the comments!
With love /Clara