Airplane flying in a blue sky

The aviation sector of the tourism industry has a heavy environmental footprint. | Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

February 16, 2021

Let’s state the obvious right upfront: Flying is the elephant in the room for the tourism industry.

Those working in the industry have known for years that aviation has been our weak spot when it comes to addressing climate change. Greta Thunberg turned the world onto flight shaming a few years ago, yet, we still turned a cheek and shrugged it off with a “yes, but …” complete with a litany of excuses:

Yes, but we didn’t offer single-use plastics. Yes, but we had an electric fleet of vehicles. Yes, but we donated part of our profits to a local non-profit charity.

Yes, but aviation is responsible for 1.9% of greenhouse gas emissions, 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions, and 3.5% of effective radiative forcing. That is simply the truth. Try as we might, we can no longer deny this.

There are several sustainable aviation technologies being tested and tried. For example, Japan Airlines recently flew its first commercial flight using a sustainable aviation fuel. Yet, widespread and large-scale use are still far into the future.

In November 2019, Costas Christ, founder of Beyond Green Travel wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times that stated: “Don’t get me wrong. As a conservationist and sustainable tourism expert, I am an advocate for a more responsible approach to tourism. ... While I recognize that flying is harmful to the climate, I also know what will happen if, in their understandable concern for climate change, travelers stop booking trips to go on a wildlife safari to Africa or decide to forgo that bucket list vacation to South America. Conservation and poverty alleviation will suffer twin blows.”

It’s a clever and common “yes, but” statement, and it feels spookily prophetic now.

The truth is, though, that coming out of the pandemic pause, we can’t shy away from this issue any longer. That’s not just because of the negative environmental impact. According to a recent survey by the European Investment Bank, 74% of respondents said they plan to fly less once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

So now that the industry has been stripped down to its bare vulnerabilities, it’s time to honestly ask this question: In a world where the climate emergency must be considered, what is the tourism industry going to do about flying?

A Hyper-Localized Focus

Historically, one of tourism’s key metrics has been international arrivals, but it’s time to embrace the full potential of domestic travel. Instead of touting the idea of “traveling like a local” for fly-in visitors, destinations should seriously consider how they actually welcome locals and what story they’re telling them. Because, the truth is that, in a rush to give travelers a “local” experience, many locals have been pushed out of their neighborhoods and favorite haunts.

Destinations and tour companies catering to domestic travelers are in a unique position to offer experiences to showcase a different perspective and tell a more interesting story. It is also a chance to sow pride and care within the community. It’s going to be quite some time before less restrictive international travel takes hold, so it’s worth investing in and prioritizing domestic markets now.

The bonus to a localized focus? Domestic travelers have the potential to be your biggest word-of-mouth cheerleaders. 

Cast a Wider Domestic Net

About six months before the global lockdown, I had a fascinating conversation with a tour operator who just couldn’t stomach the idea of flying anymore. Working in the tourism industry, she knew she faced an uphill battle. She had to figure out how to attract travelers who wouldn’t fly in without attracting those who would need to.

Her company is based in Europe, and she made the decision to only offer her website in the languages spoken in countries that could reach her destination by train. If other travelers found her, so be it. But she decided not to actively find them.

Other tour companies are experimenting with this model as well. For example, Much Better Adventures launched train-friendly trips for its UK- and European-based clients, touting the idea that the journey is part of the adventure.

Invest Aggressively in Carbon Removal

As important as getting rid of single-use plastics is, it’s simply not enough. It is essential to invest heavily in initiatives like carbon removal and rewilding programs. The tourism industry will only become sustainable if it is sustainable with intention by default. That includes investing in proactive environmental projects as part of everyday operations.

It is a great first step that tourism has declared a climate emergency. Now the industry as a whole must put pressure on governments and high-level tourism organizations to make real and necessary changes across all industries. The tourism industry touches every corner of the globe. This unique position offers an opportunity to use that wide network and reach to activate necessary change outside the industry and within the destinations it impacts.

Introduce the Non-Flying Story to Influencers

For far too long, fly-by journalists and influencers have told destinations’ stories. While there is value in sharing the “fly-by” perspective, destinations and travel service providers should cultivate relationships with domestic content creators. Like domestic travelers, these more locally based content creators have a unique perspective that can and should be cultivated.

Keep in mind that flying is simply a means to reach a destination. Like Much Better Adventures’ tactic, you can use transportation as part of the story. Malmö Tourism (Sweden) partnered with buses and ferries to launch its flight-free influencer campaign. Influencers were asked to document their journey as well as the destination as part of the campaign. 

Reserve Flight for Special Occasions

To be clear, this certainly isn’t to say that we should give up flying altogether. That’s not only unreasonable for people needing to get around the world for a variety of reasons, but there are many destinations and small island nations that need aviation to survive. If we’re going to lift the whole industry up, it requires supporting these destinations. And, if people are going to fly, let’s ask that they reserve it for those occasions when they have little choice.

As inexpensive as flying is for many people, it is far less accessible and exceedingly expensive for many others. Flying is a privilege, but for those who have the privilege to fly when they travel, it’s often a throwaway activity. We need to reframe flying as something special — and something to be reserved for special occasions — so that we appreciate the ability to do so and respect the sacrifice being made for our convenience.

From Industry Professional to Global Citizen

In turning a blind eye to the flying problem, the tourism industry both kept itself alive and dug itself into a deeper environmentally destructive hole by flying all over the globe to attend travel-related conferences, conventions, and networking events. The tour operator who decided to limit offerings to those people who spoke a language within a train ride away voiced concern about maintaining her professional network in an environment that so heavily promoted professional success through in-person events.

To be sure, there is value in in-person events, but COVID-19 has proven that we can successfully hold virtual events as well. Perhaps it’s time for the tourism industry to cut back on its “nice to attend” events to just a few key in-person events around the world each year. Let’s be honest: That would also help all of us figure out where, exactly, to place our in-person time, money, and attention. And we’d be more likely to appreciate those events rather than burn out.

We are no longer just professionals working in the tourism industry. We are global citizens too. As such, we need to recognize and appreciate that we can't give ourselves a pass and pretend the climate emergency is some other industry’s problem to solve.

Our friends, family members, and followers are watching how we act. As a person working in the tourism industry, you influence the actions they take. If you say one thing (“Responsible tourism is essential for our planet’s future.”) but act a different way (“I have three round-trip flights to make this month.”), you can not expect people to take you seriously.

As an industry, we must hold the mirror up to ourselves. What do you see when you look into the future?


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