Straddling the worlds of a consultant in the responsible tourism industry in Africa and the environmental, carbon footprint management business, one of our more regular debates is around the idea that long haul holidays are just a bad idea. How can you reconcile being a responsible, ethical tourist and at the same time contributing to climate change because of the CO2e emissions from long haul flights?
Well, we think the entire debate is a bit of a straw dog and in our opinion, you should be encouraging long haul flights for holidays which include nature-based tourism. But before I get eaten alive, let’s just clarify some context for this post:
We’re NOT referring to a long haul flight from London to Las Vegas for a weekend of bright lights, hookers and gambling. In this context we’re talking about long haul flights to developing countries, nature-based holidays, and travel with a focus on experiencing nature, nature reserves, culture, exploration, and learning.
We’re NOT referring to business travel or other frivolous flights. Yes, airlines do create carbon emissions, we’re not saying they don’t. But done right, with thought and consideration, the benefits definitely outweigh the downside.
In Africa, the vast majority of international inbound tours are for the purposes of wildlife or nature-based tourism. Also interesting to note is that nature-based tourism income is higher than business or general leisure tourism and mainly comes from international visitors. Africa's 8400 protected areas generate $48 billion in tourist spending. This Tourism revenue helps governments justify protecting wildlife habitats. It creates revenue for wildlife authorities., funds the management of many private game reserves, it generates foreign exchange earnings, diversifies and strengthens rural economies, and contributes to food security and poverty alleviation. Ecotourism in Africa is important!
A flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg is around 9000km and results in average emissions of just under one tonne of CO2e per passenger (with a few assumptions) and most folks do this once a year if they are lucky, the more likely scenario is that this one tonne of CO2e is spread out over a few years of "travel extravagance" ....it's often a once or twice in a lifetime experience. Also of note is that a long haul international flight in economy class is arguably about twice as efficient as a short-haul domestic flight ….so don’t think a holiday "close by" is any better for your conscience, unless you plan to travel by train or similar.
Now let us play out a bit of thought experiment ….globally, over 15% of all carbon is stored in protected areas, in Africa, this is about 49 gigatons of carbon which is sequestrated (captured and stored) in protected areas alone…..that’s roughly the equivalent to around 179 billion flights from Frankfurt to Johannesburg. Just to be clear, this is nowhere even remotely close to a minute fraction of the number of long haul passengers arriving in Africa each year.
What would happen to many of these protected areas, which rely on ecotourism for their survival if we all suddenly decided to stop long-haul flights to combat climate change? The value of these vast carbon sinks would shrink, the incentive to conserve new areas would be reduced, and the several thousand private game lodges and wildlife areas frequented by tourists would no longer have a reason for existence. The loss would be astounding for biodiversity and equally so in terms of climate change and the loss of valuable carbon sinks.
Climate change in Africa is also seen as a significant threat to local livelihoods, especially where there are vulnerable, rural societies with a dependence on natural resources, developing ecotourism can help communities develop new strategies to sustain themselves and survive. Ecotourism presents an opportunity for livelihood diversification. As a result, it mitigates the impacts of climate change on these communities or leaves them better equipped to deal with these impacts. There’s a very strong case for ecotourism as a strategy for climate change adaptation, this of course is reliant on tourists travelling to these areas for it to be a successful strategy. So in many respects, by being a conscientious ecotourist in Africa you can actually support climate change adaptation in these areas.
Consider the fashion industry for a minute, the fashion industry is responsible for around 7-10% of all global carbon emissions. The entire airline industry (including business travel, cargo etc…) contributes less than 3% of all global carbon emissions. And this is the curiosity for us, long haul travel to a protected area in Africa where your trip can directly benefit conservation or at the very least incentivize conservation efforts in areas which sequestrate a lot more carbon than all the emissions from all the tourists put together. Why is this considered bad? Surely if you look at the numbers, the clothes you wear on holiday should be getting more attention than the destination? Or the food you eat or the way you consume energy at home?
So here’s our opinion on this question. We should encourage long haul travel for the purposes of nature-based tourism activities/ecotourism, simply because the benefits of mitigating climate change (and biodiversity conservation in general) far outweigh the cost. Spending your money in a protected area in a developing country, regardless of the paltry (comparative) carbon footprint should be considered the responsible thing to do.
If your carbon footprint as a tourist really bothers you, look closer at:
- which airline you choose to fly with, the more modern fleets are more efficient and many airlines have initiatives in place to help reduce their carbon footprints. All airlines are not equal.
- find more direct routes rather than the cheaper indirect routes with connecting flights, these will inevitably have lower emissions....and of course, opt to fly economy class.
- pay more attention to your lifestyle at home. I can guarantee you’ll offset more carbon by changing your day to day lifestyle than cancelling your next holiday to Africa because someone said long haul flights were bad. Make it your mission to "payback" the emissions from your holiday by living a more thoughtful day to day life.
- offset your couple of tonnes of carbon emissions from your holiday by contributing to a cause or offset project which will help ensure the areas you visit are conserved long after you leave.
- consider where you stay and who you spend your money on the ground with. It’s your responsibility to make sure the impact you have as a tourist is good …..and the best way to do that is to support conservation areas with your spending. Research where you’re staying, and how the lodge or tour operator you’re using supports conservation efforts and how they work with local communities. Spend more time, more money, the more you, as a tourist invest in these areas, the more likely these vast carbon sinks will remain protected.
But, please, don’t say you’re being responsible for not travelling to Africa because of your carbon footprint, that’s possibly a bit of virtue signalling which is not fully backed up by facts. Carbon emissions and your contribution to climate change is an incredibly complex topic with many nuances, it can't be reduced to a simple black-and-white statement of "long-haul travel is bad" ...... Your long-haul holiday can do a lot more good than harm! Happy travels :)