Travel Under Pressure

Like it or not, travel is under the microscope – and under pressure – from a number of quarters and for a number of reasons. From environmental concerns to overtourism, travellers would do well to listen, and to adjust their behavior…or risk a backlash.

Sensitive Environment

With climate change in the news, there is a growing resistance in some quarters not to travel by air. Sweden and Germany even have words for shame of flying – “flygskam” and “flugscham” respectively.

Aircraft takes off into grey skies
Bumpy skies ahead?

And where you have the option of travelling by train, it’s hard to argue in favour of airlines. But in the third world context, where the infrastructure may not exist, flying may be the only option. The statistics bear that out, with passenger numbers set to double to 8.2 billion by 2037, driven by increases in Asia-Pacific.

For travellers, taking fewer and shorter flights is an obvious response. As is offsetting carbon emissions when flying, even if that is an imperfect solution. Only one percent of travellers offset their emissions, but there’s really no excuse: If you can afford to travel, you can afford to offset your emissions. Given the EU leads the world in this sort of regulation it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it, if it weren’t likely to reduce visitor numbers.

Try to be more like Greta Thunberg, and less like Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Hitting the Reef

Other natural ecosystems can be managed to cope with tourism, though in some instances that may require complete closure, as has happened in Thailand at Maya Bay and Boracay in the Philippines. In the US the National Parks Service is only considering limiting visitor numbers at some parks, though one is experimenting with a requirement to book parking places in advance.

Sensitive corals struggle to cope with warming oceans and pollution

In the third world unchecked development doesn’t help – untreated sewerage flowing into the water in Boracay was one reason for its closure. 

And our travel habits are working against us. Maya bay saw a dramatic increase in visitors, to a peak of 5,000 a day, after appearing in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. If you had seen the film, you would recognize the irony of sharing it with 4,999 other people.

Social media only amplifies the pressure on certain ‘Instagrammable’ destinations – 51% of Millennials use social media as inspiration when planning vacations. Little wonder everybody ends up at the same place.

Travel for the FOMO Insta-cliche snap doesn’t help

Money Matters

Limiting tourism numbers is, however, a double-edged sword. Some destinations are heavily reliant on tourism dollars. More than 18% of the entire revenue of Barcelona’s commercial sector is driven by tourism. Foreign tourism receipts account for fully 12% of Thailand’s GDP.

Losing that income would cause problems of a different kind.

Still, moves are afoot to limit the numbers of cruise ships to Barcelona, which is now Europe’s busiest cruise destination. Ironically, that may be motivated by money too – the average spend in Barcelona by cruise passengers is only €57.

Big crowds, little benefit

Some tourism authorities talk about “quality tourism”, but the concept can be slippery. In her excellent piece on the issue Raini Hamdi, has some ideas:

“Ideally, quality tourism should be inclusive, welcoming both rich and poor guests who respect a country’s people, their culture and heritage, their tourism jewels. It should have healthy, responsible businesses that can grow and enrich the travel industry ecosystem and contribute to the economy by creating jobs, training people, and broadening the minds of locals through contact with foreigners.”

Observer Effect

That last thought may raise some hackles: Does tourism broaden the minds of locals? Is the notion of tourism changing a destination a good thing?

For the “it was better before all the tourists” types, the answer is probably in the negative. But there’s a bigger issue at work here, and a dangerous, almost colonial mentality in wanting to keep destinations and cultures ‘pristine’.

Particularly when many European cities are moving away from cars in city centres it seems reasonable to lament the increase in car and motorcycle traffic over bicycles in Hanoi. But that is to ignore the cultural significance of people for the first time being able to afford motorized transport. The last thing the developing world needs is to be lectured by the developed world for enjoying the same luxuries. 

Progress, Hanoi style

Tourism didn’t necessarily bring cars to Hanoi’s streets – progress did. Progress will possibly see them limited in the future too.

Globetrotters vs Globalism

Did tourists bring McDonalds to Barcelona? The outlets in the main tourist areas seems to suggest so. But should we deny the residents of Barcelona any agency? What’s to say that fatty, salty, cheap and fast burgers are not attractive to a number of local residents too? Obviously I don’t see the attraction, but the answer probably lies somewhere between the extremes. 

Melbourne only sees a fraction of the international overnight visitors of Barcelona (2.7m versus 7.6m in Barcelona), yet Melbourne has vastly more McDonald’s outlets. Correlation (an increase in McDonald’s outlets along with the increase in tourist numbers in Barcelona) doesn’t necessarily mean causation.

But no visitor to Melbourne or to Barcelona is going to learn much about either city by visiting McDonald’s. Some Americans apparently like to go to the McDonald’s in different countries to see how they’re different from Stateside. Quentin Tarantino made fun of it in Pulp Fiction back in 1994 with the iconic Royale with Cheese scene.

Go Small or Go Home

Eat in a local restaurant and you’re not only supporting the local economy, but you also stand a chance of learning something about the place. That is quality tourism.

Flying half way around the world for a Royale with Cheese, or for a copycat Instagram snap, or to taunt a young activist, is the reason travel today is under pressure.

Travel is important, because it reminds “people both of the incredible value of our diversity of this planet and the differences we have,” according to Barack Obama. “But travel also reminds us of what we share and what we have become – the ability for us to recognise ourselves in each other.”

Travel allows us to experience and celebrate human diversity, while at the same time forging bonds. It would be a shame to lose all that.