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Back to earth: Rethinking international tourism.

A post-pandemic rethink of international tourism is also a chance to reduce our fixation with flying. Travel industry expert Emma Gregg tells Pádraig Belton why holidays have to change.

Here’s the paradox: Fewer carbon-spewing long-haul jet flights means good news for the environment. But travelling less is incredibly bad for remote conservation and community development projects depending on international tourism – wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, for example.

Restarting travel means confronting these mind-twisting quandaries, travel industry expert Emma Gregg tells me.

For one, flying economy class with airlines cramming their planes to the brim is actually a relatively green choice, she says: pack-’em-in policies minimise emissions per passenger. What’s more, low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair are “more proactive than most in pushing for a switch to sustainable fuel”.

For example, EasyJet is collaborating with Wright Electric in developing an all-electric 186-seater aircraft, and with Airbus to launch a zero-emissions commercial aircraft (all-electric, hybrid-electric or hybrid-hydrogen) by 2035. Meanwhile, in March 2021, Ryanair joined the EU’s Fuelling Flight Initiative, advising on policy for switching from petroleum-based aviation fuel to sustainable alternatives.

However, even with passengers packed like sardines, flying is almost the most damaging way to travel, mile for mile. Nipping from London to San Francisco and back releases twice the yearly CO2 emissions of your family car. Flight causes 5 per cent of global warming, even though only 3 per cent of the global population fly regularly. And taxation agreements make flights artificially cheap: the EasyJet flight from London Luton to Edinburgh begins at £24.99 while an advance rail ticket from King’s Cross starts at £43. They should be taxed higher, to raise funds for green projects, she contends.

Cruise lines are still worse. At around 390g per passenger per kilometre, cruise-ship CO2 emissions are between double and four times those of short-haul or long-haul flights.

Compare all this, in her example, to a high-speed train, bolting at 224 mph from Turin to Salerno on Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa 1000, for 5g per kilometre. “I’m keen to get out there and jump on some trains – the European network is just getting better and better,” she enthuses. Or cargo ship, perhaps a leisurely five-week sailing from Italy to Australia, a mere 1g.

So, back to basics. A two-page global map criss-crossed by railroad lines and transoceanic cargo ship and ferry routes: that is how Gregg opens her The Flightless Traveller: 50 modern adventures by land, river and sea. Her first chapter is entitled “How to Travel”. Some things we have to relearn.

Her book traces out 50 green city breaks and longer adventures, from reaching Bilbao’s Guggenheim by luxury Spanish hotel-train (El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, wending pilgrim-like to Santiago de Compostela) to island-hopping the Stockholm archipelago and Norway’s remote westernmost islands.

As we refashion our ideas of travel, Gregg’s mission is to “show the scope of possibilities: some nice things, cities, walks, bike rides, people starting in the UK can do just in the space of two or three days.” And at the other end of scale, “if they’ve got time and funds they can be really ambitious. Just because you aren’t flying doesn’t mean you can’t cross oceans”.

Not surprisingly, cargo ships (though it can be €150 a day to bag your berth) and trains feature frequently, but so do hot air balloons in Bristol, cargo-bikes in Copenhagen, kayaks for island-hopping round the Croatian Adriatic, and rambles along the Wales Coast Path or Scotland’s West Highland Way.

As a travel writer, Gregg has flown often from Africa’s elephant-spotting heartlands: sustainable safaris in Tanzania’s Serengeti and sleeping under the stars in Zimbabwe, for National Geographic Traveller, the Guardian, and Rough Guides. If we weren’t to go to these places anymore, that would have a “tremendously damaging effect” she asserts. Done right, international tourism can promote wealth sharing, community development, and wilderness preservation.

So how do we do our tourism responsibly? One way is staying within local communities, rather than hiding in gated resort confines: “Instead of stuffing yourself in a hotel buffet, go support a coffee shop next door.”

Tourism at any rate is big business. In 2019, before the pandemic, it was a $8.9 trillion industry globally, making up 10.3 per cent of the world economy, says the World Travel and Tourism Council. As a portion of global GDP, that’s almost two and a half times bigger than agriculture. Before coronavirus it was growing at a steady clip of 3.5 per cent a year, faster than the world economy on 2.5. On that trajectory, admittedly minus the Covid factor, it would be $18.3 trillion by 2040. Unfortunately, this would mean more emissions: China, second to the US in global aircraft emissions in 2018, is planning to increase airports to 450 in 2035, from around 235 today.

Investment, she says, is helping “decarbonised aviation grow wings”, though. She points to Airbus’s prototype electric aircraft, the hydrogen planes under development at California’s ZeroAvia, and Bedford’s Hybrid Air Vehicles, building hybrid-electric airships capable of hopping across the Atlantic. Boom in Denver is developing supersonic jets running on a combination of biodiesel and renewably generated liquid fuel.

How we holiday is sure to change in a post-pandemic age. After a year gazing at four walls, some can’t wait to be somewhere different. Others have saved a bit of money not taking three annual breaks they would anyway have quickly forgotten. She thinks we’ll take fewer trips from now on, but hopefully “we’ll consider it a rare treat,” and make more deliberate choices.

Ultimately, she ventures, what we crave on holiday is not just being in a different place but a different frame of mind, among different people, seeing different things. We break our old habits when we decide to go overland. Invigorating adventures, green transport, and community support all sit nicely together: Even when embarking, Gregg says, we’re already where we need to be.

The Flightless Traveller: 50 modern adventures by land, river and sea by Emma Gregg is published by Quercus, £22.00.

Pádraig Belton

Pádraig Belton writes on a range of topics for the BBC, while completing a doctorate in politics at the University of Oxford. He’s a volunteer driver for St John Ambulance.

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