People Do Give Up on Travel… Or Do They?

I read the article “Why Tourism Should Die—and Why It Won’t: ’Sustainable’ travel is an oxymoron” shortly after it was originally published on January 24, 2020. At the time, I considered writing a response; I’m glad I didn’t, because anything I would have written at the end of January 2020 would have become out of date fast.

Looking at the article again, I don’t understand some points. The article’s principal argument seems to be tourism is bad because it encourages frivolous flights which wastefully increase CO2 emissions. I’ve expressed thoughts on this before. It’s curious that the essayist criticizes the cruise ships for dumping sewage rather than air pollution (according to the link, 50,000 Europeans die premature deaths per year because cruise ships burn dirty fuel) or that they emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than commercial passenger airplanes. It’s especially weird to criticize airplanes for emitting carbon and NOT criticize cruise ships for emitting even more carbon.

I also don’t understand how short-distance tourism (say, visiting a place fifty miles away from one’s home) is so terrible for the environment. Yes, it has a higher environmental impact than just staying at home, but it’s a vastly lower impact than traveling two thousand miles.

Now, in the pandemic, we can ask: did tourism die? Technically, no. But tourism received a mortal wound.

First, with so many cruise ships being dismantled, it’s not possible for the cruise ship industry to return to its pre-pandemic size for years. Now that more people are aware of the danger of cruise ships (not just infection clusters, also the mistreatment of workers, bad treatment of crime victims, and other harms) fewer people want to cruise. Good riddance, I say. The world would be better if all the corporate conglomerate cruise ship companies went bankrupt and ceased operations. The only reason I don’t call for the entire cruise ship industry to disappear is some small cruise ship companies behave responsibly: their leaders don’t have friends like Donald Trump to help them escape scrutiny. The decline of the cruise ship industry is a silver lining of the pandemic.

The pandemic also decimated global flights. And… it’s fine to only have a fraction of previous flights. Okay, not completely fine; I know people who’ve had trouble with essential travel because of reduced flight schedules. But they managed.

When I first read that article, I pushed hard against the idea that tourism is an ‘addiction’. Even if it is, so what? Is it bad for mental health? Can’t the ‘addiction’ be satisfied with short-distance trips? Now, I am more sympathetic to the notion that some people are ‘addicted’ to travel. Despite the pandemic, some people still travel long distances for recreation. Perhaps it’s not just selfish and/or clueless behavior; perhaps they are acting upon an addiction. (Likewise, some cruise ‘addicts’ want to cruise again as soon as possible, risks be damned).

However, even after the pandemic, I believe fewer people will use long-distance flights. Many business travelers have finally figured out that virtual conferencing makes more sense than hopping on an airplane for a business meeting. It amazed me how difficult this was to explain to certain people pre-pandemic; now it’s obvious to everyone (though long-distance physical travel for business meetings still makes sense in a few situations).

Also, people who previously engaged in recreational long distance travel because it was a status marker, out of habit, because they felt like people in their social position ought to have certain types of vacations… have now discovered that they don’t miss long-distance travel that much. These people will not fly for vacations even after the pandemic. Instead, they will do other things which make them happier.

Not all forms of travel have declined; at least in the western United States, 2020 was a record year for backcountry hiking/camping trips. More people completed the Colorado Trail in 2020 than any other year to date. Because of travel restrictions and risks, more Chinese tourists chose travel within China over going abroad. These are excellent developments; I think hiking/camping within one’s own region is more beneficial/less harmful (both socially and environmentally) than taking a flight to another continent, and I think it’s good for Chinese society to have more people choose local over global tourism.

These changes were inevitable because unsustainable travel cannot be sustained indefinitely; the pandemic just sped things up. Fossil fuels are finite, and neither monster cruise chips nor mass aviation are viable without fossil fuels. Making these transitions sooner is better.

Is that essay right or wrong? Should tourism die? Broadly, no; certain types of tourism, yes. Will tourism die? Again, no, but certain kinds of tourism are permanently declining, probably faster and to a greater degree than the essayist ever imagined.

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