Guest post by Mark Tungate, journalist, broadcaster and author of the book ‘The Escape Industry’
Travel is desirable, but it is not necessarily harmless. There have been moments, in India or Zanzibar – while I’m giving boiled sweets and cheap biros to school children, or money to beggars – when I’ve wondered if I really have any business being in these places, and what impact my actions will have on them. And this twinge of guilt is minor compared to the carbon footprint left by the flight that brought me there.
The aviation industry accounts for roughly 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), or 781 million tonnes of CO2 (www.atag.org). Some airlines offer passengers carbon offset schemes, and a deal to cap emissions across the industry by 2020 is in the air as I write, subject to negotiations between governments, airlines and environmental groups. But ATAG estimates that this will come at a cost of US$1.3 trillion to the industry, as it is forced to buy 12,000 fuel-efficient aircraft.
As you’ve heard, veteran travellers such as Mark Ellingham and Tony Wheeler, founders of immensely popular travel guides, began to question their comportment in the face of climate change. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, more than 1.1 billion
Tourists zip around the world every year (UNWTO Tourism Highlights 2016, e-unwto.org). As an article in The Guardian pointed out a couple of years ago ‘empty wilderness is not what most [of them] will find at their destinations’.
(‘Wanderlust and the environment: can we afford to keep travelling?’, The Guardian,
What they will find – apart from other tourists – is ‘the destructive hand of previous visitors’. It adds that ‘tourism is responsible for one third of all the waste generated in the Mexican Caribbean, for instance’. Across the globe, beaches are ravaged, garbage spills into the sea, local populations are corrupted, women and children are abused by the tourism-boosted sex trade. Then there’s the question of pumping tourist cash into dubious regimes.
Should we travel to Indonesia, currently engaged in a murderous war on drugs? What about Myanmar (Burma), which has made great progress but whose regime is still ‘firmly tilted to the military junta’, in the words of Tourism Concern. (‘Responsible travel in Myanmar’, . org.uk, 13 February 2015.)
In fact Tourism Concern – first mentioned in an earlier section on cruise ships – is a useful resource when weighing the ethical dimensions of a trip. The charity was established in 1988 to campaign for tourism which is ‘ethical, fair and a positive experience for both travellers and the people and
places they visit’. Entirely independent of the tourism industry, it publishes regular reports on its website, as well as its Ethical Travel Guide. This is particularly useful, as it’s often difficult to tell whether a tour operator is genuinely ‘ethical’, or simply using the concept as a marketing tool.
And then there are the travellers who want to do good – but are in fact doing exactly the opposite.
So what can we do to feed our craving for travel, while minimizing our impact on the environment? One of the more outlandish suggestions is virtual travel. If travel agents like Thomas Cook can use VR headsets to give customers a taste of a destination, why bother boarding the plane at all? Of course, a virtual experience is no replacement for breathing in the spices of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, or eating fresh seafood in a little taverna overlooking the beach in Crete; but it may protect some of the world’s endangered beauty spots from further damage: the Galapagos Islands, for example, or the game reserves of the Maasai Mara.
An organization called YouVisit offers virtual tours, although founder Abi Mandelbaum suggests that these are primarily to ‘give people a preview and an understanding of what they would experience if they went physically’. The problem lies in that word ‘preview’. In the end, a VR tour is likely to encourage travellers to sign up for the real thing. YouVisit has found that ‘13 per cent of people who take a VR tour of a destination have their interest piqued enough to take the next step in the process of planning an actual trip’. (‘How virtual tourism will enhance real-world travel’, http://www.mashable.com, 22 April 2016.)
An alternative suggestion, then. The truth is, we don’t need to get on a plane to experience other cultures. In cities, particularly, you can take a bus to the exotic. In London you can find elements of China, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, the Middle East… I could go on. New York has Chinatown and Little Italy, just for starters. Paris has its own Chinese quarter too, and several slices of Africa. Beyond the city, I’m willing to bet that, wherever you live, there are inspiring destinations only a train ride or two away.
Of course we will always want to take off now and then, but the occasional ‘staycation’ shouldn’t be too much of a hardship. If we want to travel ethically, the best option is to explore closer to home.
The Escape Industry: How Iconic and Innovative Brands Built the Travel Business by Mark Tungate, is out now, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.
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This extract from The Escape Industry by Mark Tungate is ©2017 and is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.
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