I’ve often wondered how it would feel to work in an industry blamed for its outsize impact on global warming — say, oil drilling or cattle ranching. But it recently struck me that the question is not hypothetical. I’m a travel writer.
Yes, I’ve long known that jet fuel emits a ghastly amount of greenhouse gases, but I pinned that on the fossil fuel and aviation industries. Now the flight shaming movement, which emerged recently in Sweden and spread into Europe, has attempted to shift blame onto travellers. And it is making its way across the Atlantic — literally:
A 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, travelled to the United Nations climate summit by a racing yacht. Privileged but climate-conscious Americans are faced a reckoning in August: Is your summer vacation destroying our planet?
And air travel isn’t the only part of the growing vacation guilt: You may also be uneasy about contributing to environmental and social degradation of destinations plagued by overtourism, by joining the crowds in Venice or Angkor Wat, or renting an Airbnb in what used to be an affordable residential neighbourhood of Barcelona.
You can buy your own carbon offsets for your plane seat. Unless you’re capturing atmospheric carbon yourself, they are a valid second-best solution.
I’ve grown steadily uneasier about travel since ending a stint as this paper’s Frugal Traveler columnist in 2016, during which time I barely gave it a thought. There were those two weeks sharing Lisbon’s otherwise perfect Principe Real neighbourhood with guidebook-toting, apartment-renting tourists who seemed to have largely replaced locals. There was my reading the International Air Transport Association’s giddy announcement that the number of people flying annually could double worldwide in the next two decades, and follow-up reading that found no good reason to think airlines’ reliance on fossil fuels will decrease anything but incrementally over the same period. And there’s my increasing discomfort with the travel influencers who glamorise and idealises travel into a if-you-don’t-do-this-there-must-be-something-wrong-with-you part of the human experience.
So, OK. How bad should we really feel?
Well, first of all, no self-flagellation required for that week in Italy. It is true that your round-trip flight is probably the biggest single contributor to your carbon footprint this year (unless you moved from a studio apartment to a mansion or quit your job for the Nature Conservancy to become a coal lobbyist). But shame is the wrong emotion. “The more we try to change other people’s behaviour — especially by making them feel bad — the less likely we will be to succeed,” Edward Maibach of the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University told me.
Instead — whether it’s global climate change or local vacation rental laws — the biggest impact a person can have comes from pressuring governments to address travel-related problems on a large scale. Likewise, so does engaging friends and family in conversations about those policies, and supporting research, advocacy organisations and candidates who take your issues seriously. Compared with that, your summer trip is small, if unorganic, potatoes.
But that’s not to say individual consumer choices don’t matter. Air travel is down and train travel is up in Sweden since the movement began, and airlines are paying attention. The Dutch carrier KLM even introduced a “Fly Responsibly” campaign, including a website that asks viewers if they wouldn’t be better off conducting virtual meetings or taking the train.
Take them up on it and start by cutting back on your overall travel mileage. Do you really need to take that many trips a year? There are platitudes aplenty about travel — it inspires, it educates, it reduces bigotry. But not all trips meet those standards: Consider an educational exchange programme in Vietnam compared to a week at a resort in the Maldives.
Most leisure travel, of course, falls somewhere in between. So I recommend setting a high bar for your travel, making sure any trip maximises your connection with the place you’re visiting, whether that be through volunteer activity, seeking out a particularly responsible tour operator or travelling where you have friends who can help you live truly local.
Ditch the car, hop on the bus
You can also substitute cleaner forms of travel, in whole or in part, for aeroplanes and road trips. Like a good New Yorker, I gave up my car years ago and now visit family in Boston and Washington by bus, not by plane. The train over those routes is too expensive for my taste, but I did take a very pleasant, TSA-free Amtrak trip from Miami to Orlando earlier this year for $33. It is true that a trip to Paris will require air travel, assuming no crew offers you a ride on a racing yacht. But from there you don’t need to flit around Europe on discount airlines. Take trains. They aren’t just better for the environment, they are also more fun and interesting. You may not get to see as many places in as many days, but dashing from city to city is usually just frenzied bucket-list checking, anyway.
When you do fly, pay a little extra to make it cleaner. Favour airlines that are taking their carbon footprint seriously. No airline is an entirely good actor in this game, but the use of biofuels is up, technology is making planes (gradually) more efficient, and a United Nations-overseen international agreement will eventually require airlines flying international routes between participating countries to cap emissions at 2020 levels and make up the difference through purchase of carbon offsets. For that matter, you can buy your own carbon offsets for your plane seat. These programmes have gotten a bad rap but have vastly improved in recent years, thanks to careful monitoring by independent entities. Unless you’re capturing atmospheric carbon yourself, they are a valid second-best solution.
You can also be a better traveller by choosing where your dollars are spent. A little extra research can help find substitutes for overtouristed areas like Dubrovnik, Croatia or Cusco, Peru. Less-visited locales have many advantages, not least of which is that the kindness of locals is usually inversely related to the number of tourists. If you must visit the most popular destinations, go (way) out of your way to support local businesses over international chains, even if that increases culture discomfort and language barriers. If you can’t resist Airbnb (and I can’t, because I don’t like hotel clerks and breakfast buffets standing between me and the people and cuisine of my destination) at least seek out a home that an actual local lives in most of the year — you know, what Airbnb used to be. Such vestiges still remain on the site, if you look hard enough.
Most of this will make travel more expensive — and that may mean travelling even less. Think of it as a progressive tax paid by those lucky enough to travel for damaging the world those who can’t travel must live in. It is a small price to pay. And maybe it will make you feel a little less shame.
— New York Times News Service
Seth Kugel is a former Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times and the author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.