Reconciling the Evils of Carbon Emissions with the Benefits of Adventure Travel

2 July 2018

People working in adventure travel are passionate about its advantages over other forms of tourism for many reasons: It can provide meaning and satisfaction to travelers who enjoy engaging and enlightening experiences, and it can serve as a mechanism to preserve wildlife and nature. For businesses in areas lacking economic opportunity, it can offer a path to greater financial security. And yet, one hard fact about adventure travel is that it often involves long-haul air travel, which contributes significantly to global carbon emissions and climate change. Recently, researchers studying the impact of air travel on carbon emissions estimated tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Local guides in Tierra del Fuego share information about their culture and the climate changes they are experiencing with travelers. © ATTA / Hassen Salum

While some travelers might say they plan to travel less in light of the carbon impacts, the overwhelming trend in tourism is for continued expansion. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) notes tourism’s direct growth of 4.6 percent is outpacing the global economy in 2018 for the seventh successive year. Adventure travel businesses report growth year after year, with the majority of business owners saying the driving factor behind that growth is new customers. Tourism growth can have many positive benefits, and yet the problem of air travel emissions is inescapable. With this in mind, it is worthwhile to weigh adventure travel’s benefits against the negative implications it has for global emissions.

First, consider how tourism participates in the overall energy system. Tourism uses a few of the big offenders when it comes to carbon emissions — not only airplanes but also ships (small ships for expedition cruising and ocean liners) and cars. Replacing the current oil- and gas-powered equipment with planes, ships, and cars fueled by renewable energy will take time.

The company Ampaire, for example, is developing its first zero-emission passenger and cargo airplane. Founded in 2016 by a team originating from leading aerospace and academia institutions (including Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, Caltech, Stanford University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Southern California), Ampaire is trying to develop all-electric powered commercial flights that are affordable, quiet, and environmentally conscious. According to a presentation by the company’s vice president of technology strategy and international relations, Susan Ying, there are currently 76 companies around the world working on electric airplanes; it is reasonable to expect they will eventually succeed. However, making the funding available and supporting these innovators who are designing the energy infrastructure of the future will take persistent political will, money, and time on the part of people from all parts of the world.

In a series of recent lectures, David Hone, author of Putting the Genie Back, described “seven big steps forward” needed to protect the earth’s climate:

  1. Change of consumer mindset;
  2. Energy efficiency;
  3. Carbon pricing;
  4. Electrification of final energy;
  5. Growth of new energy systems;
  6. Carbon capture and storage;
  7. End of deforestation.
Who will insist on the sweeping changes needed? Who will vote for the laws that will bring about these changes? It will have to be consumers pushing for these changes. Activating these people to care enough to demand a move away from an energy system powered by fossil fuels — demanding carbon neutrality and carbon negative activities — is at the heart of the vast array of changes that must be made.

Adventure businesses and guides have a unique opportunity to be part of a global shift in consumer mindset through the experiences they provide. The experiences travelers have in nature, with wildlife, and through interactions with people who live differently are grand opportunities for awakening and change. Of course, adventure businesses already know this.

Spotting howler monkeys in the foliage on one of the islands in Gatun Lake in Panama. Immersing travelers in wildlife experiences like this may offer an incentive for them to conserve and preserve their habitat. © ATTA / Hassen Salum

Recent research about travelers motivated by a desire for transformation combined with decades of anecdotal evidence is convincing. Taking this a step further is the Antarctic Travel Experience Project, which looks beyond what motivates travel to what actually results from travel experiences. This project studies motivations for visiting Antarctica along with the lasting effects of traveler experiences after returning home. One of the project’s key features is to understand whether travelers’ experiences affect their opinions, understandings, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, or other aspects of their lives. Studies like this provide greater insight into the specifics of how travel experiences can educate and enlighten travelers, inspiring them in the role they can play to help humanity make the changes necessary to transform our current way of life.

Adventure travel companies should seize this moment to lead the way, taking confidence from their firm understanding of why travelers choose unconventional adventure experiences as a foundation to do more. Knowing travelers want an expanded worldview, a chance to learn, and an opportunity to feel deep connections and experience “transformation” provides an entry point for sharing precise details about the causes of climate change and how it affects the places they visit. Encourage travelers to continue the transformation process by providing ideas for changes they can make in their daily lives once they return home. Of course, many adventure companies already provide information about the environment and climate change, especially those operating in places like the Arctic and Antarctica. Yet the final piece of this puzzle — helping travelers consider more specifically how they can act on this new information — is something upon which our industry can improve.

Second, it is worth considering adventure tourism in the context of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The first goal is “no poverty.” Adventure travel’s benefits in emerging markets center on enabling entrepreneurs, many of them working in post-conflict or post-natural disaster areas. These are places where tourism jobs provide income and livelihood, contributing significantly to achieving this goal in places where it often seems furthest from reach. Poverty is well known to contribute to decisions and behaviors that can exacerbate climate change, such as choosing to harvest trees or other natural resources for short-term gain even though this may cause irreversible damage over the long term. By reducing poverty, adventure tourism becomes part of the climate change solution set.

An increasing number of adventure travel companies are making an effort to offset their carbon emissions. The Adventure Travel Trade Association is doing something similar; 4,000 trees were planted in Salta, Argentina, so the Adventure Travel World Summit 2017 could be a net-zero event.

Finally, take note of the variety of ways adventure companies are leading the way in eliminating waste from their trips by pioneering carbon-negative travel alongside traditional carbon-offsetting efforts and redesigning offerings to incorporate less fossil fuel-based transportation. The adventure business community understands, perhaps better than most, the importance of healthy ecosystems for business success. It counts many champions among its ranks who are ready to share all they are learning with others in the travel industry. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has highlighted the valuable contributions of Natural Habitat Adventures, the world’s first carbon neutral travel company (carbon neutral since 2007), SNP Natuurreizen, and Terres d’Aventure. These are just three examples from a global community of thousands.

While it is clear we have a steep, uphill climb ahead of us to accomplish the broad changes needed to limit Earth’s rising temperature, tourism has two very influential upsides that offer reason for optimism and hope: Even as it uses air travel and contributes to global emissions, tourism can be a powerful lever in bringing about the necessary and broad changes in consumer mindset related to consumption and energy. And, by providing economic opportunity — after all, tourism is responsible for one in five jobs around the world — it contributes to ending poverty, a central factor holding us all back from achieving climate goals.

With these considerations in mind, it seems the positive effects of adventure travel outweigh the negative aspects. Adventure travel can bring about the consumer awareness and behavioral changes necessary to spur a global energy transition, and, along the way, provide deep economic benefits at the grassroots level.

Share your thoughts online in ATTA’s Climate Action discussion board in the Adventure HUB. The topic will also be discussed in depth in the Adventure Travel World Summit session Extending Adventure’s Impact: How Adventure Travel Professionals Can Implement Climate Action in Their Businesses and Beyond, led by Ted Martens from Natural Habitat Adventures and Gert Nieuwboer of SNP Natuurreizen.

This article is part of an Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) initiative addressing important topics identified as critical to the protection and continued advancement of the adventure travel industry. Each initiative — eliminating plastics, women in leadership, climate action, and young leaders — has a dedicated team focused on building awareness of, advancing educational opportunities in, and creating a lasting impact on each of these areas within the adventure travel industry. We invite you to visit the ATTA’s initiatives page where you can access reports, read the latest news, participate in active projects, and join conversations within the membership community.