In the Northern hemisphere, summer is arriving and many families are deciding what to do for their holidays; trying to balance concerns about their finances and their fear of Covid-19, with their desire for fun and relaxation. With airlines mostly still grounded, and many facing fundamental questions over their futures, the pandemic may instead be pushing a revival of creative holiday making nearer to home, with potentially huge benefits for crisis hit local economies. Many are finding it a good time to look at other ways to take a break and cut their carbon emissions in the process.
The reduction in travel during the pandemic and people’s willingness to find simple pleasures closer to home bode well for the ‘staycation’ – holidaying at home or in the home country – and for reducing carbon emissions. Many countries dependent on tourism are caught in a double bind. Opening the floodgates to visitors could bring foreign income to their struggling economies, but it could also risk a life-threatening second wave of Covid-19, as well as spell bad news for their attempts to slow climate change.
The increase in international tourism has been staggering, rising from 25 million visits in 1950 to over 1.4 billion today – a 56-fold increase. However, alongside the economic benefits that tourism brings, are related rises in carbon emissions. Simply changing our holiday habits could make a real difference; transport-related emissions from tourism represented 5% of all man-made emissions in 2016 and was expected to increase to 5.3% by 2030. Recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) predictions expect Covid-19 to create a substantial but temporary dip in demand for flying of 60-80% in 2020, with long-haul flights back to pre-Covid 19 levels by 2024 under a business-as-usual scenario. But some voices in the tourism industry are questioning whether now represents an opportunity to rebuild in new, more sustainable ways.The culture of staycationing is one example of a new norm that could be cultivated; it’s cheap, possible and easily scalable – an ideal vehicle for rapid transition.
The concept of sustainable or eco-tourism has been around for some years, but it is often a niche issue focused on exclusive wildlife trips that feed into efforts to support a specific ecosystem, species or community. It can typically also still involve richer travellers taking a flight to reach their destination. Up until the coronavirus pandemic hit, the demand for flights continued to grow globally by 5% each year, and international flights are still not included in national emissions figures. According to the IATA, in 2016 there were a staggering 3.8 billion air travellers, a number it predicts will nearly double to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035. Most of this boost in traffic is predicted to come from the Asia-Pacific region (which includes Asia, Australia, and New Zealand), with China set to overtake the US as the largest aviation market in the world around 2024 and India set to displace the UK for third place around 2025. No country yet has a plan for reducing aviation in line with agreed climate targets, and so long as international flights continue to be excluded from national carbon emission statistics, there is little incentive to do so.
However, even before the pandemic hit, there were also signs of new holiday habits emerging. In 2018, for example, more people from the United Kingdom travelled abroad than any other nationality. But there are signs of a generational and more general shift, with more than half of 25 to 34 years olds planning to increase the number of holidays they take domestically, and around one third of all those already taking holidays in their own country planning to do more so. In the same study, over half of tourist businesses also reported an increase in domestic tourism in the two years up to 2019.
Staycations provide an opportunity for people to rethink holidays – especially those interested in experiences and in outdoor activities. Growth in the experience economy could be beneficial to our environment and to our wellbeing – but only if it replaces flying and other high consumption trips. Visiting a remote village in the Himalayas, to do yoga or live simply with nature is not very sustainable if it involves a long-haul flight to get there or a stopover in Dubai to pick up some shopping in a vast air-conditioned mall. But if bird watching in your own country, taking a train journey, or learning to paint become more mainstream holiday offers, then people, local economies and the environment could all benefit.
Ironically, many of the worlds tourist destinations that generate large numbers of emission-generating flights are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. Coastal tourism is the largest component of the global tourism industry, as more than 60% of Europeans choose beach holidays. Sun and sand tourism also provides more than 80% of US tourism income. Yet coastal regions and tropical islands are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events linked to climate change and threatened by rises in sea levels. In the Caribbean, it is estimated that a one metre sea level rise would result in the loss or damage of 21 airports, inundation of land surrounding 35 ports and at least 149 multi-million dollar tourism resorts being damaged or lost. Over 100 countries also benefit from the recreational value of their coral reefs, which are now largely under threat as a result of sea temperature rises. Coral reefs contributed $11.5 billion to global tourism according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2014 report. It says coastal systems are particularly sensitive to three key drivers related to climate change: sea level, ocean temperature and ocean acidity. Sea level rises will mean that coastal systems and low-lying areas increasingly experience adverse impacts such as submergence, coastal flooding and coastal erosion.
The other end of the weather spectrum is similarly affected by climate change, but this time it’s the effect of warmer winter weather on ski resorts. Temperatures in south-central Colorado have risen two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1988. In California’s Lake Tahoe region, home to more than a dozen ski areas, warmer temperatures since 1970 have pushed the snow line uphill 1,200 to 1,500 feet. Winter season lengths are projected to decline at ski areas across the United States, in some locations by more than 50% by 2050 and by 80% by 2090 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, according to a 2017 study. Only about half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast will be able to maintain an economically viable ski season by midcentury, another study found in 2012. Some US ski destinations are investing in energy-efficient snow-making machinery in an attempt to extend the season and still appeal to more environmentally conscious skiers. Other resorts hope to keep their businesses going by packing more people into a shorter ski season by making skiing less exclusive and offering cheaper, dormitory accommodation. In the Alps, the ski season has shrunk in recent years from 150 days to just 120, with some fearing it could further fall below 100. In the Alps, half the glacial ice has already melted. A study published two years ago in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, predicted 70% less snow in the mountains by the end of the century, threatening a $30 billion ski industry driven by more than 60 million tourists a year.
Some actors in the tourism sector have already seen the writing on the wall and are working to change attitudes in the tourism and leisure activity industry. Protect Our Winters (POW) is a US-based social enterprise which since 2007 has encouraged outdoor enthusiasts to work together to achieve climate protection. Its recent initiative called The Outdoor State, will mobilise more than 50 million people in the US aged 18 or older who regularly play outdoors to vote together for policies that would prevent climate chaos. This population could be bigger than the largest state in the US, dwarfing California’s 39.5 million residents. The outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia has funded climate action activities and advocacy for decades through their programme Patagonia Action Works. And organisations such as Conscious Travel are developing a model for sustainable travel that refocuses on purpose and aligns this with planetary health.
Only 2-3% of the global population fly in any given year, but a small number of very wealthy people fly a huge number of times each year. Tourism related transport emissions represented 22% of all transport emissions in 2016 and will continue doing so by 2030 (21%) according to a landmark report from the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the International Transport Forum (ITF). Business travellers account for 12% percent of airlines’ passengers globally, which means that tourism accounts for a sizeable chunk of the remainder. Indeed, CO2 emissions from tourism transport will go from 1,597 million tonnes in 2016 to an estimated 1,998 million tonnes in 2030 – a 25% rise. During the same period, international and domestic arrivals are expected to increase from 20 billion to 37 billion, mainly driven by domestic tourism (from 18.8 billion to 35.6 billion), followed by international arrivals (1.2 billion to 1.8 billion).
The problem is largely one of a small number of people flying a lot – so-called ‘frequent fliers’. A recent UK Department of Transport survey revealed that just 1% of English residents are responsible for nearly a fifth of all flights abroad and 48% of people took no international flights in the previous year. In the UK, just 15% of the population is responsible for 70% of all flights, resulting in calls for a ‘frequent flier levy’.
The aviation sector accounted for about 7% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, but it is growing at a time when other emissions are falling and is projected to be the single biggest source of emissions in the UK by 2050. Off-setting schemes offered by some airlines are fundamentally flawed in that they fail to discourage flying, remain voluntary and lack scientific credibility in effectively offsetting the emissions. The carbon intensity of flights is reducing by only 1% per year – far too slowly to balance the impact of the growth rates, despite investing in lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Meanwhile, tourism continues to be enormously important to many economies. Particularly as they emerge from the coronavirus crisis, governments will be looking to tourism for income and employment. The EU28 Member States received 577 million international tourists in 2019, a 3% increase on the previous year. In 2018, international tourism takings generated 407 billion euros across all 28 states – around 33% of the world total for tourism. The UNWTO data also shows that Europe continues to be the leading global region for tourist numbers, welcoming 51% of all arrivals in 2019. If this industry is to become more sustainable, it needs to look closer to home for customers and perhaps to the creative response to the pandemic for new ways of enjoying leisure time.
The challenge of being stuck in our homes for three months brought forward a rash of creative, funny and fun responses in how people spend leisure time. It also encouraged people to make do with what they had to hand and to look to creative pursuits for pleasure. Some of this was an extension of existing trends – for example, the rise in “experience” purchasing once societies reach “peak stuff” and do not need any more luxury items. Particularly younger people lean toward holidays that offer an experience rather than just a rest from work: a recent 2020 survey reported that 86% of millennials chose new culture over 44% who wanted to party and 28% wanting to shop. The same survey also showed an increased awareness of, and interest in green issues: 55% of travellers say they are making more sustainable travel decisions compared with last year and 73% of global travellers aim to stay in eco-friendly accommodation when travelling next year.
People looking for culture found the internet offered a surprisingly good replacement for visiting a gallery – often a frustrating experience involving long queues for top exhibitions and crowded viewing spaces. Galleries such as Paris’s The Louvre, New York’s The Frick and London’s Tate Modern quickly moved closed exhibitions online and saw tens of thousands of views for “The Stay at home museum”.
There is also a growing understanding that travel is not the minority activity it once was, and large numbers of people create noise, waste and distortions to local markets. Following in the footsteps of the popular Spanish island of Majorca, the Italian city of Rome – which hosts 15.2 million tourists annually – recently announced restrictions on antisocial tourist behaviour. The measures include a crackdown on drunk and disorderly conduct and a ban on shirtless sightseeing. The rise of short-term letting apps has created such major problems that 10 European cities issued a joint letter to the EU demanding help in their battle against Airbnb. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Bordeaux, Brussels, Krakow, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Vienna said these companies were locking locals out by causing housing shortages, raising house prices and displacing local residents, changing the nature of whole neighbourhoods. There is a new focus in some cities, such as Bruges in Belgium, which receive very high numbers of visitors, to engineer a shift from ‘quantity’ of tourists to ‘quality’ of tourist experiences.
Perhaps part of the answer is simply doing less, taking more time to do something meaningfully and perhaps taking the natural world into consideration. It could also mean taking smaller amounts of time off throughout the year to reduce stress rather than take one more extended and expensive trip as a holiday. One trend in tourism is the rise of the modern pilgrimage in the form of long-distance walking – usually to ancient places of religious significance or sites of spectacular natural beauty. The well-travelled Camino Frances pilgrimage trail from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France across northern Spain to the shrine of St James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is no longer a niche way to spend a month, and walkers on the UK’s South West coast path will find it similarly well travelled. Routes like this exist across the world, although few are suited to mass tourism – and most people dreaming of pilgrimage do not want to be in a crowd. The old practice of twinning could offer a new way to share not only cultures, but for those destinations on the frontline of climate change, a way of learning best practice, and showing solidarity and empathy.