The Earth Blog is a collection of personal thoughts, ideas and solutions in search of a future for this planet.
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We only have one world - let's treat it well.
Keith Farnish, Earth.
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The human race is a race of travellers; we have imagined, discovered, explored, charted and opened up almost all of the Earth's land surface, and are rarely content to stop moving. Given the time and (usually) money, we have an instinctive urge to travel; whether this be to feed our imaginations, stimulate our senses or satisfy some less clear urge that we do not fully understand, we travel. Six and a half billion humans with itchy feet is not something we should take lightly.
Whilst tourism originally began with cultural and educational trips for the wealthy, it is almost always referred to now as an economic operation involved with moving large numbers of people to different places for short periods of time. The Problem With Tourism is that it is run by an industry far more concerned with short term commercial gains to recognise, let alone do something about, the huge environmental damage that it causes.
As with many large-scale commercial ventures, the users of tourism are being promised a dream. That dream comes with few strings attached. That dream can be expensive, but the potential returns are good memories for life. And we are addicted to that dream; the one fantastic holiday that we want to repeat over and over again; the sense of "getting away from it all", enjoying better weather, great entertainment, a chance to meet different people, and the cachet that goes with having done all this; all essentially selfish things, but none of them harmful as such.
As we continue to be enchanted by the riches that tourism has to offer, we fail to see the stream of people coming with us that grows ever wider, feeding on the same dream, taking advantage of the richly polluting cheap flights that deposit the hoards of people who engulf delicate habitats with concrete and suck dry the natural riches that so attracted them in the first place.
Does it have to be this way?
Do we ever stop and think of the reasons we go where we do? Do we actually consider the impact that our travelling, accommodation and entertainment are having on planet Earth?
The impact of tourism on the natural environment is huge, and growing at an enormous rate. With a current annual growth rate of about 5% in the western world, the emissions from flying are expected to triple in less than 25 years – far more if you consider the potentially enormous growth expected from China and other rapidly developing nations.
But whilst flying is a carbon menace of worrying proportions it is not the only impact from tourism. In fact we can neatly split the impacts into two groups:
First, the overall environmental cost of getting to our destination. This can take the form of aircraft emissions, travel to airports or directly to our destination by car, transfers from the airport to our final location. Not forgetting the impact of producing the means to get there in the first place; the damage caused by the roads, runways and port infrastructure; the energy required to heat, cool and light the infrastructure. And if you are considering a cruise, the endless energy required to essentially just keep travelling.
Second, the environmental cost of "doing" your holiday once you get to your one or more destinations. The high consumption of water, materials, electricity and land that the holiday resort, hotel or rented home needs for construction and operation; the pollution generated in the form of sewage and waste materials that your simply being a tourist in a different location generates; and emissions generated by travel once you are there. And all of this in a location that may be ill-suited to dealing with the impact of its own people, let alone the seasonal tide of relatively well-off travellers that demand services far in excess of that which a local inhabitant may require.
In order to try and reduce the damage, and more often than not the guilt attached to this damage, some organisations, and increasingly the global tourism industry are investing in ways to make us feel better about our travels. In the first case, we can attempt to Offset our travel, by purchasing "carbon credits" in the form of tree planting or funding alternative energy projects. This may neutralise the worst of our impacts, but only if everyone takes up the option, and the offsetting carried out is precisely equivalent to the damage that has been done. In many instances this "offsetting" is little more than the gross planting of inappropriate monoculture forests which stand little chance of survival.
In the second case, that of local impact, people are being offered Eco Tourism holidays; the sort that purport to treat the local environment lightly, to treat the local inhabitants with dignity, and to put value back into the area that is being harmed. Some of these do little more than acknowledge the local culture. Others increase the damage further by taking the tourist on "eco adventures" through already degraded habitats. Very few carry any true sense of the word Ecology.
Both of these, at best, are worthy but, as I say, they are essentially about guilt reduction. I cannot honestly see a world where every person offsets their travel impact, let alone companies increasing their prices to do the work themselves. Don’t forget, this is about the bottom line; selling a dream for a profit. I also cannot, even in my wildest imagination, see every person taking an Eco Tourism holiday; let’s face it, what most people want from a holiday is gratification. If universal gratification came from protecting the planet then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this; the Earth would already have a safe future.
I cannot offer a simple answer to the Problem With Tourism. I can only ask for understanding from everyone who has been seduced by the tourism industry. Before you decide how far to travel and what to do, take off the rose-tinted sunglasses that the travel agent has sent you with the travel brochure and try to see the true impact of that holiday in some far off place.
The Earth Blog’s "The Problem With..." articles are short opinion pieces that take an uncompromising look at key things that affect the global environment.