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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Responsible Holiday Making in the Age of Consumption

All this recent coverage of young environmental activist Greta Thunbeg’s around-the-world trip by sailboat has forced environmentally conscious travellers to reconsider the ethics of air travel, and question what they can do to reduce their impact on the planet while globetrotting. It’s not exactly a new revelation that air travel has a massive carbon footprint, with a single trans-atlantic flight dishing out more greenhouse gases than the average person in the United Kingdom does all year. One flight from the U.S. to Asia, or Asia to Europe can produce more than five metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions, and a flight from the east to west coast of the U.S. produces at least one metric ton. 

The stats are terrifying – and certainly convincing. But for some reason, the dire environmental consequences of air travel are not quite enough to dissuade the majority of us from hopping on a flight whenever we wish to take a holiday or travel.

At the same time the business of ‘voluntourism’ – which was once touted the most selfless way to holiday – has attracted huge controversy in recent years as research increasingly goes to show that such programs have more negative than positive impacts on the communities’ and individuals’ lives they affect. You know the type of holiday I am referring to: month-long stints volunteering at an African orphanage, volunteering at an Indonesian wildlife sanctuary, or helping protect coral reefs in Mauritius. University students might want to spend a school break or part of a summer giving back, or perhaps even to improve their CV, while adults or churchgoers might want to participate in holiday more on the selfless side, or fulfil a lifelong goal of helping others. Volunteer holidays, destinations and programs have garnered a reputation as the best places for year off internships and for those experiencing a midlife crisis, giving do-gooder participants the impression they are truly helping a community in need. I can say this – I have been that person, several times in fact. But the ramifications of a seemingly innocent volunteer program designed to help ‘save’ victimised animals, people or communities are often not as good as we think. The business of voluntourism condones an unhealthy relationship between the Western world and the poor, and makes the false presumption that development is not possible without the intervention of Western people. Even worse, it perpetuates a dangerous cycle which sees charity projects operated by the “first world” not just failing to address the root of the poverty problem, but profiting from it.

Is there any way of winning? It seems that before we’ve even landed at our destination, and even if the holiday involves hard work in remote communities (rather than cocktails on a beach) we have somehow done wrong. But also interestingly, it is millennials who are driving the shift to more sustainable consumption. Time and time again, it is this generation who is seen advocating for behavioural change and imploring the rest of us to do things ‘greener’ and more ethically. In fact, while 66 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, a more impressive 73 percent of Millennials are, making them the most conscious consumers of all of us. And they have money to spend, a lot of it, in fact. It is therefore in the interest of the travel industry to evolve, in order to offer more sustainable holiday choices to holidaymakers.

At the same time, it is also up to consumers to decide how much of an impact they wish to have on the world, and adjust their holiday habits accordingly. There are several things travellers and holidaymakers can do while holidaying to ensure as little an impact to the planet and its communities as possible, which are:

  1. Where possible, always, always, avoid flying. Of all the modes of transport, short distance aviation causes the most pollution per kilometre. If a stopover is thrown in, it is even worse. So if the train, bus, ride-share or car is an option, opt for these instead. 
  2. If you must fly, always opt to off-set your Co2 emissions. Doing this ends up being pretty cheap, actually, less than the addition of an extra piece of luggage that’s sure. If money is an issue, scrap the second suitcase and save planet earth instead (please). 
  3. Remember that it’s not just the environment you need to consider: it’s all very well avoiding air travel and avoiding plastic for your month-long sojourn if the impact your travels have on a community are just as disastrous. As mentioned, some kinds of voluntourism involve directly working with a community or project, for example, working at an orphanage that you also fund the operations of for one month. While this might seem like the right thing to do, just consider what will happen when you leave. The children who came to love and depend on you will be faced with your absence, and the orphanage will be left to fend for itself financially in the months that follow, therefore needing to adjust its spending on meals, education, clothes, etc. Consider just how meaningful your contribution and impact is before embarking on any kind of ‘humanitarian mission’.
  4. Choose to travel with sustainable tour operators, such as Intrepid, which has invested more than £2.5m into grassroots projects worldwide, was one of the first carbon-neutral tour operators, and which has sometimes donated 100 percent of season profits to support a local cause. For example, it donated all its Nepal season profits to help rebuild the country after the 2015 earthquake.

The rest is common sense. Pick up what you drop, consider who you give your money to, respect the local culture, avoid eating red meat if you can and walk wherever possible. Happy holidays, conscious travellers. 

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