During the scorching summer of 2023, we have simultaneously experienced the hottest day on record and the busiest day for air travel in years. So what drives us to traverse continents and skies? Is it our innate human curiosity to explore the unknown, to connect with new cultures, to discover something new? Or are we just trying to break free from our stressful and busy lives? Can we reinvent traveling to satisfy our curiosity, improve our well-being, and experience meaningful social interactions within planetary boundaries?
On 25th July, Stay Grounded hosted the webinar “The will to travel (too) far and (too) wide” to take a closer look at some of the myths and misconceptions about what motivates us to fly, and how we can rethink tourism to be a more sustainable activity. See the video recording here:
As climate breakdown escalates, air travel increases
This summer, air travel is expected to increase by 11%, a 5.4% increase on the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. At the same time, Canada is experiencing its most destructive wildfire season on record, and large parts of the Mediterranean have been struck by an intense and prolonged period of extreme heat with temperatures over 40C. Ironically, air travel tourists who had flown to the Greek islands had to be evacuated because of unstoppable wildfires.
In 2018, aviation accounted for around 5.9% of all human-caused global heating. And it looks as though it will continue to rise. So, what motivates people to fly more often and further away?
Ignoring the role of advertising within tourism, one common argument for traveling is that it makes us better people. We grow by getting to know other cultures and traditions, and we often speak of traveling as if it were an achievement. If we travelled, we often feel as though we achieved something, we saw an interesting place or had an interesting experience. But traveling could be much more rewarding if we stopped to think about why we “really” travel and what we expect to get out of a trip.
Skyward Bound: Exploring the reasons behind flying far and wide
Visiting family and friends, experiencing better weather, traversing beautiful landscapes, and getting to know different cultures are among the common reasons people travel. People also travel to break free of their daily routine. Within the (capitalistic) framework, as our lives grow miserable with more work and less leisure, travelling is a tiny window of time that promises to be different and exciting, justifying, in a sense, our daily existence. But why far away?
Far is exotic. Close is boring. Exoticism – the quality of being unusual and exciting because of distance and a lack of familiarity – is very popular in Western culture. We believe we should travel far to discover the exotic. Even if we have never explored our local area. This idea is heavily supported and promoted by the tourism industry. It serves their profits.
Western societies also tell us that we are free to do what we want. There is freedom from constraints, freedom to break the rules. But we don’t break the rules at home. Instead, we travel far to behave in ways we would never do at home and, especially, would never allow someone to do in our own neighbourhoods.
Beyond the Postcard: How travel shapes local experience
People living in popular travel destinations are impacted by tourism. Crowded spaces, car traffic, noise, and increased air pollution, among other things, reduce the well-being and health of local people. For example, in Barcelona locals experience continuous overcrowding and higher prices due to growing tourism. In Mexico, workers at resorts are paid poverty wages, while the cost of housing increases, thousands of US Americans enjoy the sun, and the tourism industry makes rampant profits. In Venice, the cost of cleaning the city, removing waste, and maintaining its patrimony and cultural heritage is around €41 million annually.
Travelling also shapes urban architecture and landscapes. The tourism industry invests in infrastructure to attract more tourists. More hotels, more roads, more airports, more promenades, more tourist amenities are built at the expense of forests, wetlands, other natural ecosystems and the uniqueness of each culture. If we travel to see landscapes and nature, infrastructure annihilates the reason that drives us to be there in the first place. But more importantly, it changes the places where people live their daily lives. And in almost all cases, the tourism industry cashes in, while local communities lose.
Rethinking tourism: How municipalities, governments and the industry can help
Some cities are taking steps, although marginal, to regulate tourism. Venice introduced a tax on tourists to cap their numbers and compensate for damages and the maintenance of their infrastructure. Portofino is introducing fines to prevent people from lingering around their piers and to tackle overcrowding. Amsterdam introduced a scheme to encourage tourists to interact with locals and move away from busy, touristic areas.
Governments could promote local travel and disincentive long-distance flights. For example, they could introduce taxes on flight fuels to truly reflect the climate costs of flying. They should also invest in public transport infrastructure to make reaching nearby areas possible by rail. Meanwhile, short-haul air routes should be banned.
International agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should stop pushing economic policies on countries, primarily in the Global South, that convert their economies and communities to be dependent on tourism. Instead, they should make available the necessary financial support for countries to move away from this dependency.
The industry could do their bit by abolishing frequent flyer programs, stopping promoting exotic and faraway destinations with the promise of paradise, and offering fair wages to their workers.
A more honest conversation about how traveling affects local communities and nature and promotes further climate breakdown, as well as policies that truly reflect those costs would go a long way to redefining the way we think and execute our holidays.
Rethinking tourism: A fresh perspective on travelling as individuals
Have you ever thought about why you travel? What do you expect to find at a destination? How is that going to affect you as an individual? Or shape the local communities? That would be a good starting point to redefine travel. Individually, we can take an inner look, explore our real motivations, and what we are trying to achieve when we travel. Very often we travel far, before getting to know what is around us.
The industry would have us believe that by traveling far we find paradises and have extraordinary experiences that justify our otherwise stressful and busy lives. That is a delusion. Disentangling ourselves from current narratives that promote travel as an accomplishment or associate it with status, or that want to convince us that further is inherently more exciting than closer, can be liberating and an opportunity to embark on more enriching vacations.
In rethinking tourism, we must craft new narratives that arise from our collective societal vision, grounded in the well-being of people and the delicate balance of our planet’s limits, diverging from the traditional path of relentless economic growth. For that, we need everyone involved; our governments, industries, local communities and individuals. We hold the power to weave stories that represent our shared values and guide us toward tourism that enriches lives, strengthens communities, and cherishes our world. Let’s get organised!
This webinar built on a previous Stay Grounded webinar “Re-imagine tourism with less air traffic”.
For more concepts and examples on reshaping tourism, watch the recording of our lively discussion here.
For further reading, we recommend the related paper of Freya Higgins-Desbiolles: “Subsidiarity in tourism and travel circuits in the face of climate crisis”.