The Complex Relationship Between Flying and Sustainable Tourism

flying and sustainable tourism

Ecotourism, a term that emerged in the 1980s, refers to a niche segment of tourism in natural areas. According to David E. Fennell, “Ecotourism is a sustainable form of natural resource-based tourism that focuses primarily on experiencing and learning about nature, and which is ethically managed to be low-impact, non-consumptive, and locally-oriented (control, benefits, and scale). It typically occurs in natural areas, and should contribute to the conservation or preservation of such areas.”

Ecotourism doesn’t mean quite the same thing as sustainable tourism, however, The latter does not refer to a specific type of tourism; it is instead an aspiration for the impacts of all forms of tourism. This distinction is important. For example, many people engage in ecotourism in other countries but will fly to those countries to do so. 

One could engage in tourism that involves education about – and the conversation of – natural areas, all while causing a low impact at the destination, but if you fly to that destination then this would be immediately carbon-intensive, as well as have longer-term impacts, including on the area one is visiting. (See my previous post on the effects of aviation and the common counter-arguments to not flying: e.g. the plane is going anyway; individual choices won’t make a difference, only systemic changes will; and the aviation industry makes up a tiny fraction of global carbon emissions.)

Sustainable tourism, in contrast, is defined by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” The broader scope of sustainable tourism can include transport to a place and not just transport in a place. But does sustainable tourism rule out flying? The answer is not so clear-cut. Yes, taking a single long-haul flight can wipe out all the emissions saved from not eating meat for a year, but this is not to say that flying has no benefits in terms of sustainability. The relationship between flying and sustainable tourism is complicated.

Many countries benefit greatly from tourism, including some of the most impoverished countries in the world. For instance, the tourism industry contributes about 3.6% of Nepal’s GDP. Moreover, tourism supports over one million direct and indirect jobs, or 6.7% of total employment in the country, with 80% of these jobs being in the most remote and resource-constrained regions. Tourism, then, contributes significantly to Nepal’s economy. In poverty-stricken India, tourism is providing even greater benefits. An article from the World Bank states, “While visitor numbers [in Nepal] increased sharply from 2016 to 2019, tourism receipts declined and have been low compared to competing destinations – an average of US$48 per day per international visitor in 2019 – almost half the global average and one-third of those in Thailand and India.” 

At the same time, however, most tourists visiting from other countries are flying to Nepal and India. The UNWTO states, “Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability.” What is a suitable balance between the harms of flying and the benefits of tourism? This is an incredibly difficult question to try to answer. Many factors involved will be context-dependent. 

The relative benefits of tourism in less developed, lower-income countries, for example, can be greater than those in more developed, higher-income countries. This is because the tourism industry in the former can help to contribute to more valuable economic growth, in terms of the differences it makes to people’s lives. In a paper on sustainable tourism in Pakistan, the authors note, “In developing countries, it [tourism] is the main source and a foundation for a country’s economic development and growth.” 

Of course, despite the benefits of tourism to a developing country’s various sectors, it can still pose sustainability challenges, including the damage that high numbers of tourists cause to natural areas and culturally important sites. And this can spell bad news for tourism itself since crowded, littered, polluted, and damaged areas will become less appealing to (local and international) visitors. High numbers of tourists can negatively affect the lives of locals, too, by making certain urban areas too expensive to live in and causing different kinds of disruption and conflict.

The aim of sustainable tourism, then, should be about finding a balance between the benefits of tourism to local transport, accommodation, businesses, and individuals, and the interests of the host community. Factoring the aviation industry into this mix can lead to other tough questions. Do we really want to promote a flight-free world, given the benefits of international tourism (particularly for developing countries)? However, in light of the severity of the climate crisis, making serious reductions in planet-warming emissions seems necessary. And if flying for leisure is not a necessity but a luxury (albeit an often extremely rewarding one for the traveller), is giving up flying not a worthwhile sacrifice in the long run? 

Well, not flying would likely mean not visiting far-flung developing countries (only a tiny minority of travellers would want to – or be able to – make the time- and money-intensive overland trips to these destinations). Reduced flying could encourage more domestic tourism (and rail travel between countries in Europe), but developing countries will still face the impacts of less international tourism. On the other hand, if flying, through its high quantity of CO2 and non-CO2 emissions, is increasing the warming of the planet, this will also negatively impact the lives of people in developing countries, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

It is true, however, that the aviation industry accounts for only 3.5% of human-caused global warming (although air travel is growing, so this figure will increase). Even if the world became flight-free, would the environmental benefits really outweigh the potential losses in economic development and employment in countries that depend on tourism? Yet we still can’t ignore that airlines contribute to most of the tourism sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

In order to create a balance between the harms of flying and the benefits of tourism, one could admit that there is no guilt-free way to fly while also promoting more responsible air travel. This might include flying direct (taking off burns a lot of fuel), flying on budget airlines (they carry more people, so the emissions per passenger are lower), flying economy, choosing less polluting airlines (that rely on biofuels for certain routes), staying longer in a destination (to get more experience from the emissions emitted, as well as provide more benefits to the local economy), and donating to legitimate carbon offset projects.

All of these actions may help mitigate the negative impacts of flying, although perhaps not to a very large degree, especially if encourages people to maintain (or even increase) the frequency at which they fly. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that the effectiveness of carbon offsetting is questionable; see this article from Professor Kevin Anderson, published in the journal Nature, on why he refuses to purchase carbon offsets and why we should do the same. There are several reasons why carbon offsets are undesirable. For example, they provide no incentive to increase fuel efficiency and newly planted trees cannot absorb carbon fast enough to offset the emissions from the flight you take. 

Travelling by rail and ferry to a destination and having a positive impact on the environment and lives of the locals once there would be a sustainable form of travel. But this could mean we no longer visit developing countries. Tom Baum – Professor of Work, Employment and Organisation at the University of Strathclyde – considers this a problem. In an article for The Conversation, he writes:

What happens, then, when the planes stop coming? Arguably, in time, nature would reclaim the runways and resorts that would be abandoned. But that will take time, if indeed it happens at all. In the meantime, it may be too late to revert to the economies and lifestyles of the past. Many would say this is a price worth paying to save our planet. In other words, without tourists, Phu Quoc and similar destinations could become wastelands with no way back to prosperity. Which might be seen as their problem.

But it’s not that simple. Communities in LDCs [least developed countries] and SIDS [small island developing states] – or, rather governments on their behalf – were seduced by the promise of prosperity through tourism. There was an implicit commitment from market countries through aid and loans that the planes would keep flying and the tourists keep arriving.

This form of neo-colonial dependence now places an obligation on countries and individual travellers whose demand created these destinations. However well-intentioned the no-fly campaign is, it is challenging from an ethical point of view to abandon these tourism destinations.

We have a responsibility to these countries now dependent on tourism for prosperity. At a minimum, we need to support communities to develop economic alternatives to tourism linked to air travel. This could be through stronger focus on domestic and regional tourism markets, or by empowering and re-skilling communities to rediscover more traditional economic activities.

But much of this tourism development is irreversible and communities are unlikely to recover from a major decline in visitors in the short-term. Even though it is clearly necessary to reduce our carbon footprint by cutting air travel, we must also reconcile this change in behaviour with the unintended consequences for powerless communities in the developing world. They are the people who will most likely suffer greatly in our belated rush to reverse climate change.

Therefore, perhaps some forms of sustainable tourism actually require flying, depending on the country in question and the kinds of circumstances that Baum has described. Domestic tourism in many developing countries is unlikely to make up for the loss of overseas visitors as a result of Westerners deciding to give up flying. Nevertheless, we do also need to drastically reduce the number of flights we take, as well as make air travel more eco-friendly. It may be possible, then, to argue that we should mostly avoid flying but that we shouldn’t refuse to fly to developing countries highly dependent on tourism. 

At the same time, economic development shouldn’t have to rely on unsustainable means of travel. Is it possible for developing nations currently dependent on tourism to maintain and grow their economy if no visitors fly to those countries? I would like to think so. Baum suggests that increased domestic and regional tourism, and the rediscovery of traditional economic activities, could be potential solutions. But he may (sadly) be right in his analysis of the situation in many LDCs and SIDS, which would face serious costs as a result of tourists not flying. Another way to create a more sustainable relationship between flying and sustainable tourism could be through zero-emission, hydrogen-powered aircrafts, like those being developed by Airbus; but these won’t be commercially flown until 2035 (Airbus’ target date). 

In the meantime, we have to deal with the fact there is no simple, issue-free balance to be struck between flying and sustainable tourism. There are trade-offs. Significant downsides can result from both flying and not flying, depending on the context. The difficult task, then, is to aim for travelling decisions that result in the least harm while also providing significant benefits to oneself (as a traveller) and to the local people, culture, and environment.

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