Tourism accounts for roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s a sector that is projected to keep growing.
That’s a big concern for Richard Sharpley, professor of tourism and development at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.
He has been intrigued by the meaning of tourism and why we as humans feel compelled to travel since he went on a backpacking trip around Asia in the mid-1980s. That was a different time. Social media didn’t exist, there were few low-cost airlines, and there was no Fridays for Future movement raising awareness about the emissions from flights, for example.
DW’s environment podcast “On the Green Fence” spoke to him about what motivates people to travel, and whether growing concerns about climate change could eventually lead to a shift in our behavior as tourists.
DW: Going on holiday is something that many people in the Global North are used to doing every year. Why is traveling something that we feel compelled to do?
Richard Sharpley: It’s a really interesting question, and I think it’s one that nobody’s really been able to find a definitive answer to yet.
In the early days of what became mass tourism, the key drivers have always been money, time and technology. In other words, as soon as we’ve had the ability to travel, and the means to do so through trains, planes, cars, we have done so.
There’s an intrinsic desire amongst most people to explore our planet. There’s this sense in modern society that somehow we will find a better existence, we’ll find ourselves, we’ll find something different or we’ll find happiness by going on holiday. In a sense I think we’ve almost been conditioned to become tourists, to engage in tourism during the year at particular times, to the extent that I think a lot of people engage in tourism without actually considering why they’re doing so.
There’s also this aspect that we all strive to be as cosmopolitan as possible, right? So in a way, in some circles, if you haven’t been to certain places, you almost have the reputation that you haven’t “lived.” How strong a role does that play, do you think?
I think that varies. There are plenty of people who will go to the same place every year, year on year, because they’re comfortable and familiar with it. To them, tourism is a means of relaxation. On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of people, I believe — and it’s manifested in the increasing popularity of the so-called bucket list — for whom collecting places is part of identity formation.
It becomes one aspect of how people see themselves and identify themselves against others. These are the people who accidentally let their passport pages be visible at the airport so you can see all the stamps in it. It’s a superiority thing if you’ve traveled more than anybody else. Participation in tourism is becoming an increasingly complex sociological phenomenon because it’s part of identity, it’s part of leisure. And in this era of social media, that kind of identity role has been enhanced.
I think the ability to go on social media through Instagram or Facebook or whatever it is and tell people and share your experiences is a key driver of tourism. It’s not a concern as such, but what it is doing is transforming the nature of the tourist experience in a negative sense.
In my view, people are experiencing less and less the places they are at. They might be there in body, but not necessarily in mind, because a lot of people are constantly thinking: “How am I going to present myself to my social media group back home through my posts on Facebook or Instagram?”
The short answer is no. This is the great challenge for the future of tourism within the context of global warming in particular: can we change the way we travel? My belief is we need to reduce the amount we travel.
A lot of research has been done into the extent to which tourists are willing to adapt their behaviour. And even those people who regularly consume or behave in an environmentally friendly fashion — whether it’s what they buy, whether they recycle or whatever it might be — research has found that they actually temporarily forget their environmental credentials, that they behave like normal tourists. They do suffer some kind of eco-guilt, but nevertheless they continue to travel, they continue to fly.
Travel is now seen as a right, not as a privilege. It’s long been my view that the only way to achieve any kind of change in behaviour will be through