Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Sustainable Tourism Conundrum: Would you Stop Traveling to Save the Planet?

Would you stop traveling to save the planet? That is the challenge of sustainable tourism! 

I posted that on Twitter on April 13, 2011 while listening to a presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.  It was my most re-tweeted post at the conference, and one of the most re-tweeted of all of the #AAG2011 tagged posts.
The comment was written in response to a presentation by Antti Honkanen (University of Eastern Finland), titled Sustainability and the democratization of tourism - The limits of growth in travelling abroad.

Antti presented the essential conundrum for all of us who love to travel, but are also concerned about the major negative impacts that humans are having on the environment. That it was re-tweeted by several other people indicates, to me, that many of us are troubled by this issue.

Here is a edited and shortened version of Antti's presentation abstract (from the online AAG 2011 program) -
  • Does everyone, if wealthy enough, need to be a tourist? Or are we starting to reach some limits of growth for tourism?

    This paper asks whether the propensity to spend a holiday abroad has reached its limit for growth in some social or geographical groups, based on age, income, socioeconomic status, education, gender and country of residence. The study is based on survey data from Eurobarometer 25 (1985), Eurobarometer 48.0 (1997) and Flash Eurobarometer 258 (2008).

    According to the results, while differences exist, travelling abroad has become more common among all groups over the years 1985-2008. The democratization of tourism appears to be continuing, even if some lower societal groups are left out due to increasing social inequality. The propensity to travel abroad for their main vacation holiday has increased in almost all countries. Some limits of growth, however, may be seen among the upper classes.
Basically, her study of Europe found that more and more people are traveling internationally (at least through 2008), except maybe at the very bottom of the economic ladder (where they cannot afford it), and at the very top of society (maybe because they have already been everywhere?).  And this data was for Europe, which is generally far more environmentally conscious than most of the rest of the world!

The apparent answer to my Twitter post is "No" - we (including myself) are not willing to stop traveling to save the planet.

We are willing to tweak how we travel (using hybrid cars or developing alternative airplane fuels), and we are willing to pay a little more to try and compensate for our impacts (staying in ecolodges or paying to plant trees), but we are not willing to stop traveling -- which would have the biggest impact on reducing CO2 levels.

Of course, if we stopped traveling we would also have a huge impact on the livelihood of all the workers and businesses that are involved, to varying degrees, in the the fifth or sixth largest industry worldwide (which is
what I have estimated the size of the tourism industry to be).

And that is the
Sustainable Tourism Conundrum -- how to balance the Economics impacts of tourism (usually considered good) with its Environmental impacts (mostly considered bad). There are a lot of other cultural ans social issues related to sustainability and tourism, but I believe that the economic-environment tension is its most fundamental challenge.