Closer, less frequently, off-season: Travel must change

Air travel has an abysmal impact on the climate, and overtourism is a strain on popular destinations. Yet travel can also educate, build peace and broaden the mind. How do we solve this dilemma?

“Go while you can.” This slogan was used by travel agencies to attract students in the 1990s. You were encouraged to see the world before work and family tied you down. Travel was seen as inherently positive: it offered new perspectives and improved language skills.

These days, the slogan has a more ominous ring. Overtourism poses a threat to the climate and to popular destinations. Last year, around 1.4 billion international trips were registered worldwide. Travel accounts for 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Travel is on the rise, because more and more people have the time and money for it. Living standards have improved in China and India. The citizens of developing countries want to enjoy the same luxuries as the Western world has been enjoying for decades.

However, the status of travel is changing. Some years ago, travel was only talked about in a promotional, idealising tone. Now, contradicting ideas are gaining momentum. The drawbacks of travel are discussed more frequently year by year.

The reality of climate change is getting under tourists’ skins. When destinations are suffocated by heatwaves and scorched by wildfires, they quickly lose their attraction. On a blazing hot day, turbulence is more intense, which can make flying uncomfortable.

However, thus far climate concern does not seem to make an impact outside a small group of environmentally conscious people. On a global scale, air travel continues to increase, postdoctoral researcher Salla Jokela notes. Jokela works at the Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki.

“Nevertheless, avoiding flying may be a significant trend that continues to grow in the future,” Jokela says.

To this day, market economy has dictated how travel should be developed. Jokela believes that we should also discuss how jobs are distributed, and who benefits financially from tourism. We should also assess the management of travel destinations, in order to ensure that tourism does not harm locals or cause environmental degradation.

What can travel teach us?

The economic significance of tourism should not be understated. The industry employs a significant number of people. Last year alone, $1.7 trillion were spent worldwide on international travel.

Soile Veijola, professor of cultural studies of tourism at the University of Lapland, compares tourism to alcohol. Both are pleasures that can have severe consequences when enjoyed in excess. We impose restrictions on alcohol sales, so why not do the same for tourism?

The number of tourists is already regulated in sensitive nature destinations. Overcrowded cities have imposed limits on hotel construction and Airbnb rentals. Sweden has adopted an aviation tax. Air travel emissions could be combatted with renewable fuels, which are already technically feasible. However, the airlines argue that they are too expensive.

According to Soile Veijola, climate anxiety and travel angst are connected. Researchers do not wish to increase anxiety but instead strive to offer better, more responsible travel options.

The benefits of travel are still there. Cross-cultural connections help us understand that our way is not the only alternative. People may learn to understand one another. Sometimes they even fall in love.

Travel can make us recognise what is missing in our lives. It can also teach us to appreciate things that we otherwise take for granted.

“Sometimes, we see our lives more clearly after being away for a while,” says Veijola.

The good life

We have always been on the move, whether for business or for pleasure. In ancient Egypt, people cruised along the Nile. Trade trips, pilgrimages and spa visits date back millennia.

But why do people want to travel for their vacation?

“We want to experience the good life for a short while,” Veijola explains.

Some want to experience other cultures or get away from their everyday environment. Others go abroad to visit family and friends. Many want to share their travel experiences and selfies on social media: Best wishes from the pyramids! In earlier days, family members received postcards from different destinations. Sometimes they still do.

“Some travellers do not visit destinations in order to see them, but to be seen there. You get the sense that you should post holiday pictures on social media. Whether we post these pictures naively or to show off, the more we do, the stronger the message,” Veijola notes.

Veijola leads a research project, launched this autumn, which aims to devise multidisciplinary indicators for sustainable tourism. The impact of tourism will be monitored from a cultural, socio-economic and ecological perspective.

“All aspects are required for a balanced approach.”

Shared responsibility

Tourism has become the norm for financially secure people. There is no need to justify a trip reservation. Instead, someone who does not travel may be required to explain their decision. Travel is considered a form of education.

Veijola questions the idea that a cosmopolitan outlook requires long-distance travel.

“A true cosmopolitan has a sense of global responsibility for the planet, also when travelling. Responsible tourism could help save the world, instead of posing a threat to it.”

It is not necessary to give up long-distance travel altogether, but it is crucial to reduce it. If you travel less frequently, the experience is also more profound.

Many travel south in search of light and warmth. According to an EU Eurostat survey, southern Europeans travel less than their counterparts in the north and tend to stay closer to home.

This, too, may change. Southern Europe has experienced extreme heat spells in recent years. If they become more common, the northern European summer may seem a more attractive alternative.

When on holiday, people look for something different from their daily lives. A person leading a hectic life seeks relaxation. A person who considers daily life to be boring is interested in new, stimulating activities.

“Going abroad has been seen as a way to distance yourself from everyday routines. But to do this, you don’t need to travel to the end of the world. It is possible to separate yourself mentally from everyday life without leaving your home country or even your home town,” Salla Jokela notes.

Often, the success of travel depends more on the company and the activities you engage in than on the destination. Enjoyable activities and time spent together can be unforgettable no matter where you are.

“You can take the same approach to domestic sights as you would to distant attractions,” says Veijola. “And to learn about other cultures, you can acquaint yourself with foreign nationals in your own country.”

To see Paris once

The drawbacks of tourism are visible in poor countries, where tourism often involves exploitation and abuse.

The age-old cultural destinations in Europe also suffer from mass tourism. In a crowded Louvre, for example, you may see nothing but tourists. Dubrovnik and Venice have long been difficult cities for the local residents to live.

The UNESCO World Heritage programme was set up in 1972 to protect unique cultural and nature destinations. However, it has its drawbacks.

“Being named a World Heritage site comes with a risk. At worst, the ‘must see’ label it entails may cause environmental, cultural and social degradation to the destination,” Veijola says.

In her opinion, European cities suffering from overtourism, such as Barcelona, are best helped by staying away from them. However, this may sound elitist to those who have not had the opportunity to travel before.

“Anyone who dreams about seeing Paris once in their lifetime should be able to do so,” says Veijola. “Travel is accumulated by a select few. The biggest impact would come from world travellers restricting their travel.”

According to Veijola, it is better to visit environments built for tourists than go for untouched, unspoiled areas. If possible, travellers should visit sites off-season:

“This way, the travellers avoid crowds while helping local entrepreneurs survive the quiet season.”

Virtual travel?

Can virtual reality replace tourism? Train simulators with landscapes whizzing by have been piloted in British care homes. Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, in turn, has developed an immersive hotel room, enabling the visitor to fall asleep in Koli, in Finland, and wake up in Hawaii.

“Virtual experiences offer a good way to visit, for example, vulnerable habitats. However, they may also encourage users to visit the destinations in person. The longing for authenticity is one motivation for travel,” explains postdoctoral researcher Salla Jokela.

Travellers usually want to enjoy all kinds of experiences, not just visual and auditive ones.

“As long as cheap trips are available, it may be difficult to convince people to stay put at home. But should the price of travel surge, the demand for virtual devices may pick up,” says Oona Simolin, a doctoral student in the Doctoral Programme in History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Helsinki.

The 19th century panorama rooms, found in many big cities in Europe, could be called predecessors of virtual travel. These days, replicas made for tourists can help protect original sights, the Lascaux cave in France being one such example. The cave, known for its prehistoric paintings, was sealed off to the public because the breath of visitors threatened to damage the artwork. An exact replica was constructed next to the originals.

The article has been published in Finnish in the Y/08/19 issue of Yliopisto-lehti.