The age of the budget airline has ushered in a new type of tourism. International travel, once the preserve of the rich, is now accessible to all, and we’ve taken that freedom and run with it, with air traffic booming from 1 bn passengers in 1990 to over 4 bn passengers in 2018. And that new age of international travel has unlocked a truly global society, where no corner of the world is inaccessible. We have more capacity for movement than ever before, and holidays on the other side of the world become not only normal but expected.
The social shift is quick: communities that were once completely self-reliant are now dependent on foreign visitors for their income. But we have to ask ourselves: how much do they rely on tourism because we continue to go there? Is this aviation’s version of dropping litter so the street sweeper can have a job?
We have so much power as consumers. We can choose not to buy air-freighted goods, and we can decide against purchasing factory-made clothing, and we are aware that if something is really, really cheap, there’s usually a reason – and usually not a good one. Yet we are blinkered about this when it comes to air travel.
Yes, we might be supporting remote communities on a short-term basis, but does our air travel really benefit them? As our awareness of the climate crisis grows, it becomes ever more difficult to ignore the growing emissions from aviation, and to justify the holidays that cause them. Maja Rosén, founder of the Flygfritt campaign in Sweden, puts it quite succinctly: we want people to be able to travel, but if we don’t solve the climate crisis now, we are putting future travel at risk.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the island nation of the Maldives, famously at risk from sea-level rise. Advocates of 'sustainable tourism’ encourage us to visit for its eco credentials, not realising the irony that by flying to reach it we are hastening its descent into the ocean. It’s the people who are least responsible for the climate crisis who will bear the brunt of it (and indeed, already are). These are the communities who are least equipped to deal with it, which is the brutal reality of the injustice of climate change.
We must not ignore over-tourism, either. The beach in Thailand made famous by the film of the same name has now closed to visitors because of the impact of so many people flocking to see it. Ayres Rock has seen its last ascent, damaged from hundreds of thousands of feet tramping over its surface. A new proposed airport at Machu Picchu will ensure that this ancient, iconic landmark will forever be blighted by the noise and smell of aeroplanes, and the litter and erosion caused by the many thousands of extra visitors it would bring.
The good news is, not flying doesn’t mean not travelling. It just means travelling differently, and this shift is good for more than just the environment. Slow travel connects us with landscapes and cultures in a way that air travel doesn’t. It gives us a much more authentic travel experience. A work trip by train is less stressful and more productive than the equivalent journey by plane. Overland journeys can be sightseeing trips in themselves. As Eurostar puts it, ‘You see more when you don’t fly.”
We are so lucky with Europe – there is endless variety here on our doorstep. For breathtaking mountain vistas, look no further than Scotland. For soft white sand and blue seas there's the Mediterranean. Head to Spain for culture, food and great weather. And let's not forget our own tourism industry here in the UK – once flourishing, now suffering, and in desperate need of our attention. It’s so easy to overlook what is under our noses. Holidays, even adventures at home can be just as varied and exciting (and much cheaper) than anything else we might see in the world.
Travel is what you make of it, rather than where you go. We would do well to remember that at this vital time for the future of both travel, tourism and the planet.