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The Future of Tourism – 1 Tourism’s Long Shadow


Tourism can be very beneficial. For individuals it can provide a welcome break from normal routines and bring enjoyment, exercise, relaxation or mental stimulation according to their needs. Communities and countries benefit too, because tourism can create employment, introduce new ideas and bring in foreign exchange – sometimes the only source of revenue in poor countries for the goods and services they need. It can also promote good will and understanding.

Unfortunately it can also contribute to Climate Change and have a negative impact on residents and local cultures. For the moment we will focus on the Climate Change aspect because this affects the whole world, including ourselves and the places we’d like to see. In the second part of  the Future of Tourism, we' ll talk about ways in which at least some of those issues are being tackled.


Long Distance Travel  - Air and Sea

Unfortunately, the very definition of Tourism implies some kind of transport and conventional transport based on fossil fuels is one of the major contributors to global warming. In Australia it is second largest source of emissions after power generation. A 2018 study found that tourism accounted for 8% of global green house emissions, four times more than the previous estimated with most of that coming from transport. It  is also set to rise even further in future as incomes rise in hitherto poorer countries and their citizens also want to travel. 

Despite advances in Electric Planes, Biofuels and other innovations, little progress has been made with respect to long distance travel since I last wrote about it in January 2022. One of the glimmers of hope on the horizon is Eviation’s “Alice,“ the first commuter -size electric plane which is able to cover distances up to 650 km. It is currently going through its paces in order to be certified by 2024. Quieter, cleaner and cheaper to run than conventional planes, it is capable of carrying 200 passengers. However, it will still be some time before it’s available for use by the general public. 

In the Electric Ferry Department, Tasmania’s very own Incat has just delivered the world’s largest electric ferry, though it’s not yet capable of doing the 250 -300 km across Bass Strait.  Bass Strait can be rough with waves up to 30m (100”) high, so only the largest, toughest ships can make it on a regular basis, though in future Green Hydrogen or new battery technology may make emission free travel  possible.

We can only dream of building a tunnel like the one being built under the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Germany, but if it could be built and was built at the rate the Channel Tunnel was, it would take 70 years. 

In the meantime, airlines are doing their best to reduce their emissions by using advanced flying techniques, using biofuels where possible, eliminating unnecessary weight and using carbon offsets, though none of these make up for the emissions actually produced, much less the anticipated increase in traffic.

The Offset Mirage

Offsets were to be used only as a last resort for emissions which couldn’t be remedied in any other way. To understand why they aren’t as effective as they were supposed to be,  read The Conversation article on this topic or the in -depth expose by Heidi Blake in the New Yorker

The author of this post in the Engineering Ethics Blog likens it to the indulgences paid to the Catholic church for forgiveness of sins, in that the payment of funds to some accreditation concern or other, seems to mean that companies - especially large emitters, make little or no effort to reduce their emissions at all.

Countries 'girt by sea' as Australia is or isolated in other ways, such as Bhutan is, must work much harder to reduce their carbon footprint in other ways, if they want the tourism gravy train to continue. 

We can also reduce our own impact in a number of ways:

1.       Travelling less and travelling shorter distances– start with our own state or region and then look to our neighbours, before going further afield.

2.       Direct flights help too, in that take- off and landing require much more fuel than cruising,

3.        Aim for destinations where public transport, especially electrified public transport and active transport options are available.

4.       Choose Eco, Green or Sustainable Travel products whose operators seek to reduce their own impact. We’ll talk more about this in the next post.

5.       Keep your own impact as small as possible  – don’t litter, don’t buy plastic water bottles or food in disposable plastic containers

6.       Offset if you have no other option, but make sure that whoever is offering them is really doing what they say they are doing – planting trees, conserving nature, investing in renewable energy and so on, or better still, focus on projects within your own locality or your destination where you can see the difference. You could also reduce your carbon footprint in some other way, such as walking or cycling to work

 Land -Based Transport – Trains, Buses, EVs

Public Transport

Within and between countries, one of the least damaging ways of moving large numbers of people is by public transport such as buses, trains, ferries and light rail. Ideally, these too should be powered by electricity generated by renewables – power generation being the second largest contributor to Climate Change, however, even when not, they still produce far less CO2  than the same number of people flying or travelling by private car.

According to the Climate Council of Australia, even fossil – fuel powered  trains produce 9 times less than private cars and buses 14 times less. 

Comparison of  carbon and space footprint of various types of transport. Note the Victorian Grid referred to is currently mostly powered by coal, hence the almost identical emissions profile for Teslas and conventional cars in that case

-This graphic is kindly reprinted with permission from the Institute for Sensible Transport  (see more under Active Travel)  

The poster child for Public Transport using renewable energy is currently The Netherlands which has been powering its trains entirely by wind energy since 2017  and provides carbon neutral travel for 600,000 passengers a day.  One wind turbine can power a train for 200 km. Another interesting example if on a much smaller scale, is the Byron Bay Solar Train in Australia. A world first, it uses curved mirrors to on its roof to generate electricity and can store enough for 15 runs at a time. A non -profit enterprise, it operates 364 days of the year and can carry 100 passengers per trip. 

There are considerable efforts underway throughout Europe to encourage people to use trains instead of short haul flights. Flight shaming seems to be working well among those who are even slightly environmentally conscious. France has gone a step further. It has banned domestic flights to some destinations which take less than two and a half hours to reach by train. Germany does it by issuing cheap tickets  for long distance journeys and more recently, cheap day passes which offer unlimited travel on any type of public transport – trains, buses and trams. Luxembourg has made all its public transport free.

For public transport to work, it must be frequent, reliable and affordable and requires a relatively high population density as well as people travelling in the same direction. This is less feasible in places like Australia where settlement density is low outside the cities and there is little connectivity beyond a few popular corridors. Public transport in cities could however, lower our carbon footprint overall and remove much of the vehicular traffic off the roads in urban areas, leaving personal transportation largely for people who are unable to use Public Transport or Active Transport or who live in unserviced  or rural areas.

It's very short sighted at this stage in human history to be closing rail and bus services (Hobart) because they don't immediately and directly make a profit. It's not about what they cost, but what they enable. The UK for example has just reversed its decision to close many rail ticket offices and is currently reopening railway lines, one of which hadn't been used since the 1930s, in order to 'level up' access for regional communities to jobs, education and family connections and it is proving immensely popular. 

 How wonderful would it be if some lines currently used only for freight in Tasmania, such as the one which runs through Railton and trundles along the along the Western Tiers, or the one which used to go from Hobart to Mount Field National Park, were electrified and reopened to passengers?  Of course they would need to be much more affordable than they have been in order to compete with cars, but think of the cost savings in other areas such as the continued expansion of and wear and tear on our roads and the boost it could give to domestic tourism. 

I don't know how it works elsewhere, but at least part of the problem in this country lies in the fact that local councils are largely responsible for buses, railways are a state responsibility and partly privatised, and the budget for roads comes out of federal petrol taxes. I hope some genius in public office works out a sensible solution soon, or we'll be paying more in loss and damage due to weather related events, than whatever it costs to run public transport.  

Electric Vehicles

Despite their larger environmental footprint, Electric Vehicles (EVs) may be necessary in many locations, especially in places like Australia, because unlike say, much of Europe or South Korea, distances are greater and populations are too small to support public transport beyond the cities. Though their emissions are lower than those of petrol and diesel vehicles, their true carbon saving potential can't be realised unless they are powered by renewable energy. However, the figure shown in the graphic does not include the embedded emissions used in producing EVs, nor the additional infrastructure required, such as charging stations or  the cost of providing additional power supplies needed to run them, but switching to renewables has benefits for local populations as well as tourists. 

Switching to Renewable Energy

At least 11 countries are well on the way to achieving 100% renewable power supplies including some relatively poor countries such as Costa Rica and Kenya. France – again, is making it mandatory for all parking areas for more than 80 vehicles to be covered by solar panels in 3 -5 years. This move alone is expected to generate 11 gigawatts of power, but it is also looking at building solar arrays on vacant farmland and alongside motorways and railway lines.

The Climate Council of Australia has reported extensively on decarbonising the transport sector. A brief summary can be found here.

Active Travel

According to the World Bank (2022) and mentioned in the the Climate Council's Report, one of the quickest ways to significantly reduce transport emissions, is to encourage Active Travel - that is, using bicycles, walking, using e-bikes and scooters and so on, which means prioritising riders and pedestrians over cars. This 'Mode Shift' as its called, not only reduces emissions, but also noise, pollution and congestion.

To this end France is investing heavily in bicycle infrastructure and training 850,000 schoolchildren to ride. It is also helping people to buy bikes. Other countries and cities are also working on this issue. Belgium pays workers for each kilometre they ride to work. Spain is a also keen to get children into less car -dependent ways by organising "walking buses.' The small city we stayed in in Canada in 1999, already had these as well as internal laneways, which meant that children could walk to school without having to set foot on busy streets.

 I was very surprised during my recent trip at how popular cycling was becoming as a holiday activity, both in Tasmania and elsewhere. For greater uptake in this country however, it needs to be made much safer. This means creating more dedicated bike lanes, away from fast moving traffic. There also needs to be more connectivity and support between places. More facilities such as showers and secure bike parking at the end of journeys would also make Active Transport more appealing. Protection from extremes of weather including shade on hot days, will become more essential in future. 

Again, as far as Australia is concerned, the Climate Council has done a great deal of work on this and governments at all levels -local, state government and federal, should read it before spending more on roads. Better mobile coverage is also needed and would benefit local people as well as visitors. 

The Institute for Sensible Transport specialises in making cities more suited to active transport. It is also part of the global bike sharing movement which involves some 2000 cities world wide and has a 'fleet' of 20 million bicycles.  

Other low emission options include activities such as sailing, kayaking, horse riding and diving, depending where and how you go. While regular devotees no doubt know where to find them, they could also be promoted more.

In the 2022 Trend Report by based on the responses of 30,000 travellers in 30 countries, 81% said that sustainable travel was important to them and 71% were actively looking at travelling more sustainably within the next 12 months. We’ll talk more about Greener Travel in the next post along with ways to reduce other negative impacts of Tourism.