Accessibility of air travel
Sustainable travel is one of the fashionable terms being bandied about at the moment. Eco-tourism, green travel and reducing carbon-footprints are some of the current ‘buzz’ words of the travel industry.
Airlines are offering carbon offsetting programmes where paying a little more for the flight means that ‘green’ initiatives will be invested in. There is some debate whether these programmes are actually effective and perhaps in reality only allow passengers to feel a little less guilty for choosing to fly in the first place.
The motives of the airlines may also be called into question, the commitment to reduce emissions and become greener is possibly just a consequence of government and customer pressure rather than a genuine desire to tackle these issues.
Flying became more accessible to the average person during the sixties and seventies, prices came down and more people were able to afford to fly. Flying remains the cheapest option despite recent rises in fuel costs and taxes.
Slow travel options such as rail which are also greener are still unable to compete with airlines in price over similar journeys. This is one of the greatest challenges facing sustainable travel. Most of us are governed by our wallets and as long as this disparity remains most people will inevitably still choose to fly.
There are some genuine initiatives to reduce the effect of air travel on the planet and reduce emissions. Virgin has recently announced its plans to start using ‘green’ fuel for its flights in the near future. People power can be effective here, if this proves successful and passengers vote with their feet competitors will be forced to follow suit.
The newly introduced ‘Dreamliner‘ 787 with its carbon composite fuselage is hailed as the future of long-haul air travel. Lighter; it is able to fly further and is more fuel efficient and will hopefully prove to be a step in the right direction.
The true inconvenient truth remains however that the energy suppliers are an extremely powerful lobby which often have our governments running scared. The oil companies of the United States are a prime example, many often fund the election campaigns of Presidents and it is an extremely strong or foolish leader of the free World that chooses to ignore that when in office!
A number of United Nations initiatives such as the Kyoto Accord have almost certainly not been entered into because of this. The axis of power of huge conglomerations whose vested interests would suffer if suggested reductions were introduced globally simply will not allow it.
To date we have relied almost entirely on fossil fuels to power our thirst not only for travel but for progress towards a World of convenience. It is common knowledge that these resources are not inexhaustible and one day in our near future they will run out.
As these resources run dry less economically viable reserves are being exploited and although there is a treaty in place it seems unlikely the pristine wilderness of the Antarctic will remain so forever.
This has brought a race to find cleaner, more sustainable energy sources, solar energy, hydro-electric, wind and wave farms are all seeing massive investment and research as we attempt to secure our future energy supply. Nuclear energy is also seeing a return to popularity with many governments as concerns of future power outages become a reality.
Impact on the environment
Sustainable travel is not merely about emissions, cheap flights, increasingly expensive diminishing fossil fuels or huge power hungry companies. Small community led tourism projects often represent our perception of eco-tourism and probably our best hope.
Safaris on game reserves led by local tribesman, trekking excursions in the Himalaya with sherpas or whale watching in Iceland or even Japan. The really successful projects all have one thing in common; the majority of the community has accepted that tourism is more profitable than the alternative.
The destinations where many of these initiatives are being promoted are regions of extreme poverty where just feeding their families is a daily struggle. When there is not anything else to feed their children people will resort to bush meat. If crops are being destroyed by elephants or livestock being killed by predators they will protect them regardless of any endangered species lists or threat of penalty.
Tourism as a main industry
The only way any sustainable travel project can hope to be successful is if the local communities are convinced they are worthwhile and that dollars from tourism will directly benefit them. The effect usually needs to be relatively immediate, there is not much point explaining to starving people they will have food in their bellies five years from now.
This needs education not penalisation, communities need to understand fully the benefits of protecting their environment and the resources within it.
The monies provided through tourism has to directly benefit these communities, until tangible improvements in their standard of living are witnessed they will remain suspicious and reticent towards any such programmes.
Care will also need to be exercised that the impact of this tourism does not negatively affect the community, environment or eco-system. Countless safari wagons following a pride of lions around all day, whale watching boats chasing the same whale for several hours or clearing several hundred acres of prime rainforest to build an eco-encampment are unlikely to achieve sustainability.
It’s a World of convenience
Ultimately it is the traveller that has the final say, the real power. It is their money that keeps the airlines flying, the shareholders happy and provides the impetus for sustainable travel.
Most of us, me included are too reliant on our conveniences, big, powerful cars, endless entertainment devices, time-saving gadgets and of course cheap flights. It may require some sacrifices to be made, take an extra day travelling to our destination, and even have to pay a little extra to do so.
Rail travel has the lowest carbon-footprint of the popular forms of travel, but it still remains relatively expensive in comparison to air travel. To compete on equal terms it probably requires investment and possibly even subsidisation by governments to lower ticket prices. However if more of us travelled by train the costs would also likely come down and maybe even prices as a consequence.
A truly eco-friendly lodge in Africa or India is unlikely to have all the mod cons of modern society. It is possible that the shower is outside, a bucket with holes in the bottom. There may not be hot and cold running water or even a flushing toilet, a cappuccino may not be available with the breakfast muffin. Those wishing a true sustainable travel experience will probably be required to make some sacrifices.
This can be a positive experience; leaving the traveller feeling totally liberated from the trappings of modern society. Those wishing to genuinely reduce their carbon-footprint will need to research their chosen tour provider with care to ensure they are providing the experience they seek in a sustainable manner.
Truly sustainable travel is still someway off but it is possible, it merely needs all agencies to pull in the same direction. Airlines, power companies, tourists, communities, destinations and most importantly of all governments will need to make sacrifices and changes in the way they operate.
It starts with each one of us, we can make a difference, we can stop choosing airlines and companies with poor environmental records and start choosing our politicians very carefully, those that genuinely show concern for the planet. Finally we need to support the local community projects that are working to improve their own circumstances and providing sustainable tourism as a result.
This piece may sound a little preachy, but I do not apologise for it, it is about time we all woke up to the harm we are doing and my own hope is that I will start to practice what is written here more regularly.