Can there possibly be such a thing as sustainable travel? The more I read about climate change, the more I feel that the safest, most sustainable thing we can do for the environment is to stay put and not to travel at all. Look at pretty destinations online, walk to local places, use an electric (eco) bike, wait till one of the more sustainable modes of transport become available. Perhaps only car share when I need to get somewhere further afield, take a slow train to Europe on the odd occasion, maybe the odd row boat or small sustainably-fuelled boat around my local harbour, certainly not a large boat on the open seas, and certainly not a plane.
Apart from the fact that, as a travel writer, this would mean a slight tweak in career, I might quite like this vision of moving beyond sustainable travel to no travel at all. It would certainly be more restful, for travel can be tiring, and it would give me more time to be in the here and now and focus on my family, my home, and other types of writing. The destinations might quite like it too, for I’d be one less person adding to their visitor numbers.
On the other hand, imagine the people I wouldn’t get to meet, the experiences I wouldn’t get to have, the parts of my brain that wouldn’t get to grow with all the colour and life and potential of the world that you get to see when you’re out of your comfort zone and on the road. Responsible travel, yes, sustainable hospitality, absolutely – but no travel at all? I don’t think so.
I would happily give all that selfish reward up, if I didn’t think that my money or my presence made any (positive) difference to the places and people I visit too – but, now I number among my friends many people who I’ve met on my travels and who live and work in tourism in other countries, I know that not to be true.
The admirable UK-based company, Responsible Travel, says there is no such thing as sustainable tourism because flying is not sustainable. And indeed I agree that, until there is tougher regulation of carbon emissions and a wider use of sustainable energy, the best we can ask of ourselves and others is to be conscious of our motivations for travel, and clear on the results we seek to achieve before making decisions to fly.
But when it comes to sustainability, we’re no longer just talking about saving the trees, oceans and animals, but saving people and whole communities too. Most especially all the hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world who live in poverty and/or who rely on tourism and the travel industry for their main source of income.
It’s also not just tourists and travellers like me who fly, of course, but benign business people, governments and green campaigners seeking to do real, achievable, trackable good. And as Céline S Cousteau points out in our Inspired People interview with her this month, sometimes, only face to face real life contact will do, as ‘meeting in person with a group of like minded people can move the needle and catalyst making real change.’
Because yes, travel using fossil fuels isn’t good for the environment, and needs to be curbed, but benign human interaction and intervention in other places can be a force for good, and often the only way to achieve this is by short and long haul travel.
As well as working hard on finding (and using) sustainable energy and modes of travel, it seems to me that the travel industry’s relationship with people and local communities is its biggest challenge yet. For we know that relationship is not always – indeed, usually not – benign. As the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has said: ‘Reducing the negative impacts of tourism goes much deeper than how we get to our destination. Our focus must be placed on the impact our travels have on local communities, and whether the places we’re visiting will be viewed with wonder or regret in the future.’