Tourism and Climate Change: Beauty and the Beast?


The tourism industry is made of four vital cogs; airlines/carriers, hotel chains, tour operators, and the consumer. All four are capable of greenhouse gas emissions and thus, liable/guilty for carbon and nitrogen footprints, which means that there are consequences on the climate by our need to be travelers, burgeoned by our sense of needing wanderlust.

First, it is now known that the consumer is liable for the carbon emissions that are part and parcel of a trip to a travel destination. If I can make it into the nitty-gritty aspects, the denim jeans we wear when travelling has a carbon footprint of ~2 kilo grams of carbon dioxide to manufacture; the wrappers and cartons of fast food at the airport, are all emanating carbon legacies. Furthermore, burning fossil fuel is still the engine of the aircraft industry, that is a duopoly between Boeing (Seattle based) and Airbus (Toulouse based).

It is now known that the travel destination can be both, a polluter or a victim, of climate change. For example, events which burn fossil fuel leave behind a footprint to global warming, through the enhanced greenhouse effect, while the climate-change dependent phenomena, such as coral bleaching, heat waves, desertification, cyclones and floods, all discourage tourism. Therefore, the consumer is encouraged to engage in sustainable tourism and not to be a liability to a climate change impacted world. This can be achieved by investing in voluntary carbon markets to offset their expenditure (carbon and nitrogen footprints), an assured way of bringing down their footprints to a world that is fighting to keep the temperature below 2oC compared to the pre-industrial age.

Calculating both the carbon and the nitrogen footprints should be at the disposal of the travelling consumer, and apps which are able to do that should be available on mobile devices or just a click away in the tour operators’ website. The conscience needs to sense the thresholds, without which, we will not feel the guilt that is brewed by our own careless actions. This is why similar to pictures of lungs and mouths that are cancerous legacies of smoking/betel and areca nuts, there should be pictures of climate change related destructive forces on airports and on other travel related screens. For example the Great Barrier Reef is now a sad sight of its once former glory with a handful of coral bleaching effects that have arisen from climate change. This is why a picture of the loss of living coral can be a wonderful PR exercise as well as a timely truth.

The hotel trade is a staunch culprit of nitrogen and carbon footprints, due to a myriad of reasons. The air conditioners that are in operation for long periods of time in hotel rooms, the overused electricity, thicker scented toilet paper, and the excess wasted food that have larger urea and thus nitrogen (nitrous oxide) footprints as well as carbon footprints emanating from staples such as rice and wheat, which in reality can be seen as “wasting a carbon offset”. Let me explain that: Carbon source (leaf) to sink (grain) is a method by which we fix/assimilate carbon dioxide using photosynthesis and transport it, which actually is the most hackneyed and commonplace type of carbon offsets. Therefore, foot waste is the utter wastage of carbon offsets, that were once stored as harvests of grains. There are solutions, such as simple “warning” signs that should be prevalent in hot spots of tourism, just like the hackneyed ending to an email, asking not to be printed.

The tour operators are not just the main culprits nor are they the consumers, but they too are vital cogs in the carbon and nitrogen footprints that arise from tourism. One of the most critical ways in which carbon is wasted is by printing our lengthy paper tickets and the cardboard covers that are the armor of an airline ticket. This can be appeased by again having e-tickets that can be used by our portable devices such as mobile phones. Technology should be a facilitator and not a pariah. Tour operators should be able to invest in the voluntary carbon markets just like the consumers, knowing that lessening the carbon footprint is a trusting way of prolonging or perpetuating nature’s heirlooms. Providence is not just to beautify an aperture, be it pupil, shutter or lens, it too needs to be preserved as the most valuable ecosystem – mother earth or Gaia -, without which we are dust in the wind.

In all, we are the keepers of this planet, a Goldilocks sphere that is fast been eroded of our green garments. This is why REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of forests) needs to be an effective short term solution and a long time vehicle to perpetuate our planet. Still when the North comes to the doorsteps of the south, in place such as Amazon rain forests or lush tropical forests of Africa, they should do that with a sense of having the “little people” as the key short term beneficiaries and the turquoise globe as the end utility, otherwise, this exercise of carbon offsets can become a barrier to local indigenous livelihoods, and thus propagates a sense of carbon colonialism, that is not conducive to yielding best practices for the preservation of mother earth. This is why the practice of enhancing forest carbon stocks, needs to keep an eye on biodiversity of plant species and thus ensure that the forests are conducive to natural wealth in gene pools, species and practices and livelihoods based on indigenous knowledge.

In all, wanderlust is a good thing. It can be the best of things, to let wanderlust be a vehicle of educating our minds of the supreme diversity of evolution’s harvests. Serendipity is there in natural selection and we should keep that in mind when reforesting or afforesting, knowing that there are local communities that are depended on parts of those native plant species for survival.

So tourism is a wonderful asset to ignorance or narrow mindedness and for respecting diverse customs and rituals. Still we are ethically bound to undertake tours with a sense of letting nature perpetuate from its own basic arsenal of plant parts, microbes and fauna. We cannot be vandals that leave behind carbon and nitrogen footprints at will. We are all foot soldiers of Gaia, perpetuation being our long term goal. So let us become conscious that we need to travel with responsibility, to ensure that we vandalize little or nothing, and thereby beautify our sensors, while letting the natives live harmoniously with nature.

Tourism is a good thing, make no mistake there. We just need to make tourism less invasive and less detrimental to the booming carbon and nitrogen stocks in the atmosphere. 415 ppm carbon dioxide is a warning number to us all. Anything more, can be an Armageddon of tipping events that will make us all fall. For example the third pole, the Himalayan mountains, which is a hotly-pursued travel destination, are slowly losing their pristine snow caps due to climate change. We need to be ethical travelers, and our consciences should dictate that; even something as exquisite as a beautiful landscape should not be over harvested by our feet, palms and pupils. A horrendous truth stares back at us – the carbon and nitrogen footprints are only the dreaded imprints of our human footprints, where we go to become selfie narcissists.

Dumas was right – united we stand, divided we fall. Tourism heed !

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