To Fly or Not to Fly – Is that really the question?

I was sitting in an airport in Dubai as I began to write this essay. The irony is not lost on me. I have worked in the travel industry for just over 10 years and currently spend a lot of time on the “road”. My company, Pandion Consulting & Facilitation, strives to raise the standards, quality and sustainability of the travel industry. I meet incredible people from around the world who are excited to share their home and their unique stories. My role is to help communities and travel professionals better harness the benefits of travel, while reducing the negative impacts. 

Recently, one of the most talked about negative impacts of travel is the greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. Cue the powerful speech by Greta Thunberg at the Climate Action Summit. The climate crisis is one of the most severe issues humans have ever faced and it needs to be addressed accordingly. Travel, especially air travel, contributes tremendously to this crisis – estimated to be 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So how can someone in good conscience actually encourage people to travel knowing that doing so directly pushes the needle closer to environmental disaster? 

Most of the challenges humans face are not black and white. Just cutting out travel will not solve climate change, and perhaps there are benefits that travel provides that makes the impact justifiable? The climate crisis isn’t the only crisis that humans or the environment face, and travel, when done sustainably, can be an aid to deal with some of these other issues. Issues such as poverty, threatened and endangered species, human trafficking, and environmental degradation are all issues that sectors of the travel industry are addressing directly. 

Another industry forced to evolve

I have believed for some time that the travel industry is going to be forced to dramatically change or risk going extinct. This confrontation is happening faster than I predicted, thanks to groups like Extinction Rebellion and activists like Greta. I have been amazed with the number of my friends who have openly questioned whether they should avoid an international trip and instead take a vacation closer to home. The response I get when I talk about the places I go for work has started to shift to being less impressed and more critical. While certainly not a significant sample size, this abrupt shift should be of concern to anyone in the travel industry. 

Let’s look at another industry that was forced to evolve in order to prevent from going extinct. Imagine you are visiting a zoo in the 1960s or ‘70s. Compare the enclosures and educational information to modern zoos. While still controversial to some people, if zoos did not evolve to incorporate more humane enclosures, as well as increase their focus to education and conservation, zoos would not exist today. Thanks to breeding programs at zoos and patron donations to fund critical habitat restoration, several critically endangered species have been brought back from the brink of extinction. The awareness and genuine love for animals, familiar and exotic, has increased thanks to educational curricula and opportunities to view wild animals up close. Visiting a zoo is not just about having fun. It is about leaving more aware of the diversity of life on this planet and the importance of humans to support (and fund) conservation and research. Travel needs to evolve too. I predict the era of traveling just for fun is coming to an end. 

Is there a Net Positive to Travel?

In considering whether to fly or not, I suggest looking at the net positive of your travel. Not all travel is created equal. There are ways to travel that will add to the positive side of your balance sheet. Incorporating these aspects, while reducing the negatives, are ways to manage the impact you have on climate. 

Life Changing Experiences

The first positive impact of travel is how travel has the power to transform the traveler. There is a growing list of challenges humans are facing – some of which threaten our very survival. Transformational travel strives to put travelers in scenarios that encourage them to examine their role in solving these issues. There is a lot to learn from, and be inspired by, how other communities and cultures live. Getting outside your day-to-day allows you to view the world, and your life in it, in new ways and return home recharged and inspired. Travel is a privilege that not everyone can take part in. To justify this dynamic the traveler must return home with tools and inspiration to tackle important challenges in his / her community. It is unlikely that a weekend getaway at an all-inclusive Caribbean resort will have this effect. More thoughtfully considering where to travel, spending more time in a destination getting to know local people, and incorporating activities that are intended to help you grow are all considerations to take into account. Those with means may be inspired to contribute to social and conservation organizations after they visit protected areas around the globe. For a deeper dive on this subject, The Transformational Travel Council is an organization promoting the deliberate transformational aspects of travel.

Benefitting Local People and Environment

The second important impact from travel has to do with the communities that are receiving the traveler. At nearly 11% of global GDP, travel and tourism is one of the largest industries in the world. Over 300 million people are directly employed in travel related positions, and each day travelers spend over $20 billion. Think about the impact on local people around the globe if a large-scale travel boycott took hold? If not travel, what other industries might local people pursue? Mining? Forestry? Poaching? 

As with most of the challenges humans are confronted with, there is a lot of intersectionality. Global poverty is a serious problem facing humans around the globe. Those without access to clean fuel for cooking contribute to deforestation by cutting down trees for cooking fuel. Lack of access to healthcare and family planning leads to unstable population growth in developing countries, putting pressure on important habitat for endangered species and forests for carbon capture. Economic benefits from tourism have led to incredible conservation efforts all throughout the globe, such as in Namibia where animals, critically endangered in most of Africa, are seeing population increases. Tourism competes with other destructive industries such as mining and logging and helps to make the case that wildlife and ecosystems are more valuable intact than denuded. Additionally, connecting with local people in the travel destination raises awareness to the threats facing people on the front lines of climate change and creates a global community to tackle these issues. 

To support the needs of local people, groups like the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund are working with industry contributions to fund important conservation programs around the globe. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) is pushing the industry to increase methods that minimize the negatives and maximize the benefits of travel. This includes local ownership of businesses so more money stays within the destination, less frequent but longer trips to reduce air travel, and promoting sustainable practices such as using local and organic foods. The ATTA has partnered with groups like ECPAT, the group that created The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct (The Code), and the World Animal Protection to provide resources and promote best practices for the tourism industry. 

Cleaning Up Air and Sea Travel

Finally, just because I am making the case that there are important benefits from travel, that doesn’t mean we should sit back and let the most destructive parts of the industry continue on unchecked. While some strides have been made to reduce the emissions of air travel, from lighter planes and more efficient engines, a LOT more urgently has to be done. As was the case with automobile safety in the ‘60’s, consumers need to push for stricter regulation on airplane and cruise ship emissions. Placing fleetwide caps on carbon emissions will force airlines to purchase more efficient planes, and possibly stimulate innovation for next generation electric planes. Additionally, do we need to get everywhere as quickly as possible? Lighter than air technology (blimps, air ships) could provide a lower carbon option combined with a much more enjoyable experience in the air. Without consumer and regulatory pressure, there is little incentive for airplane makers and airlines to get where we need to be with the speed necessary to continue air travel. Cruise ships currently burn some of the dirtiest fuel in existence, and depending on how you measure it, have a similar per person level of emission to air travel. Strict regulations from ports on the types of cruise ships allowed to dock, as well as requiring ships to be plugged in while in port would pressure the cruise industry to clean up its act.  

Maximizing these benefits from travel by choosing the right companies to travel with and pushing yourself to allow travel to inspire you to service, while at the same time reducing your impact by purchasing offsets and choosing more sustainable travel options means that you tip the balance away from unsustainable and towards a net positive. It is not perfect and needs to constantly be questioned. And just choosing not to travel without considering all these other elements is not necessarily moving us in the right direction.