To cruise or not to cruise? To safari or stay put? To fly — perchance to hang glide or kite surf into some un-Instagrammed country. So goes the great moral dilemma now lurking in the travel and tourism industry, perhaps the beating heart of global consumerist extravagance. Now that our year-plus fast is close to over, shall we commence gorging once more?
In 2019, according to an industry trade group, the world spent about $9 trillion — nearly a tenth of global G.D.P. — on tourism. It was the 10th consecutive year of growth in travel, and expansion looked endless.
Heedless success was the industry’s main problem. If you traveled anywhere during the summer or two before the Covid-19 pandemic, you weren’t alone; across the world, officials wrestled with the civic and environmental costs of overtourism. Each summer, armadas of cruise ships would spew stinking streams of people and pollution into the world’s beloved port cities. At Disneyland, wait times for the hottest rides stretched to two hours — which was at least better than on Mount Everest, where overcrowding on some of the mountain’s most dangerous spots created deadly queues and effectively turned the summit into the world’s highest garbage dump. A Times art critic called on the Louvre to take down the Mona Lisa, who had grown so thickly thronged with Instagramming bucket-listers that she was now, he wrote, “a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out.”
Exploration is an ancient and sometimes even noble human endeavor, and as the virus abates, those of us fortunate enough to be able to entertain such possibilities are yearning to make up for lost vacationing. The global economy may depend on the rapid rebirth of tourism. Travel was, of course, one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. Tens of millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic activity are riding on its return to normality.
But that would be a mistake. Tourism should not return to anything like its old, profligate normal. The pandemic has presented the world with an opportunity to reset how we tour this planet, and we should reach for it.
Some places are doing so. In Amsterdam — a city of fewer than a million residents that was mobbed by more than 21 million visitors in 2019 — leaders are considering new regulations for the city’s famous red-light district and cannabis shops, which locals say attract too many rowdy crowds. Calanques National Park, in southern France, has started a demarketing campaign to dissuade online influencers from talking up the place. But I fear that many countries will find it difficult to keep tourism at bay. Already, in the name of quick economic rehabilitation, politicians and companies are pushing for a hasty return to the ways of the past, and then some. Some European countries have reopened to tourists from the United States, and airlines are clamoring for the Biden administration to reciprocate by opening America back up to the world.
Let us not be so hasty. In planning for the future of travel, all of us — travelers, people in the travel industry and the governments that regulate the business — would be wise to follow the careful traveler’s most reliable maxim: Go slow.
We should exercise caution not just because the virus remains very much still out there; it’s also because, in the years before the virus, tourism grew unsustainably and to excess, driven less by sincere wanderlust than preening digital self-regard. Technology hadn’t just made travel very cheap but had also cheapened it. Glorious Instagram sunsets blinded us to the enormous planetary costs of travel. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that tourism accounted for about 5 percent of the world’s human-produced carbon emissions in 2016. Another study found that from 2009 to 2013, tourism was responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and that the industry is growing fast enough to outstrip its meager efforts to decarbonize.
It is in the travel industry’s own long-term interest to curb these costs; a world suffering from serial climate disasters is not a very pleasant place to tour. Yet for years the tourist sector has been largely allowed a free pass for its environmental devastation.
I have written already about how the pandemic should prompt a rethinking of air travel. This is most true in the business world. Sure, there’s something magical about meeting face to face, but in an age of pretty good videoconferencing, there isn’t magic enough to justify the extreme environmental costs of routine flight. But flying is so carbon intensive — your share of the emissions from a single round-trip trans-Atlantic flight is almost enough to wipe out the gains you might get from living car-free for a year — that it’s worth considering limiting leisure plane trips, too. Some people can afford to travel to Europe every year, maybe even several times a year. I’m not one for flight shaming, but that level of indulgence ought to earn some measure of social opprobrium.
Cruises present an even better target for radical reform, if not outright prohibition. The early days of the pandemic highlighted the cruise industry’s vulnerability to contagion, but getting disease under control should be just the first step for this most polluting of conveyances. According to one study, a midsize cruise ship can emit as much particulate as one million cars. One cruise company alone, Carnival, was responsible for 10 times as much sulfur oxide as that emitted by the roughly 260 million passenger cars on European roads in 2017, a 2019 analysis found.
This week I called Rick Steves, the travel writer and tour operator, to ask about the future of travel on a warming planet. For most of his life, he visited Europe at least once a year. Last summer was the first time in decades that he didn’t go, and he’s staying home again this year.
Steves told me that time at home has given him a new perspective on travel — both its liberating psychic possibilities and its heavy costs.
“I’ve gained an appreciation for the fragility of the environment and the importance of people and nations to not be afraid of each other but work together,” he told me. Like the battle against climate change, fighting the pandemic required coordination among politicians, scientists, regulators and businesses around the world. That kind of coordination is fostered by the trust and empathy gained by global travel, Steves said. The rub is that travel itself is worsening the crisis — and because the industry’s impact has been so loosely policed by the world’s governments, it has little incentive to make difficult changes to its operations.
To mitigate the environmental cost of his European travel business, Steves has turned to carbon offsets. For each of the 30,000 or so passengers the company takes to Europe in an ordinary year, the company contributes $30 for environmental initiatives meant to curb the costs of climate change. Many airlines now offer passengers the chance to pay for emissions offsets.
But because all these programs are voluntary, their impact seems limited. And at the moment, there is little political incentive to impose new regulations on struggling travel companies.
In May the Senate unanimously passed a bill allowing cruise ships to return to Alaska. The House quickly passed it, too, and when it got to his desk, President Biden signed it. The law, he tweeted, would “support Alaskans by allowing large cruise ships to return to the state this summer.”
The law made no mention of the environment. Neither did the president. (By Farhad Manjoo)