There’s a Backlash Against Flying: Is the Adventure Travel Industry Ready for Its Impact?

27 November 2019

Born in Sweden in early 2019, the flygskam (flight shame) movement has focused international attention on an industry already under the climate crisis spotlight. And, arguably, for good reason: Nearly 4.6 billion passengers will take to the air in 2019, which is 130% higher than the number of passengers in 2004. At the current rate of growth, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts passenger numbers will reach 8.2 billion in 2037. All commercial operations in 2018 created 918 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — a 32% increase in emissions over the past five years.

Given that flying is inherently folded into the tourism industry — and that international arrivals make up a significant portion of many destinations’ tourism dollars — those working in adventure travel should, at the very least, be aware of the landscape. Further, it’s time the industry seriously considers how it will adapt in a way that both mitigates its ecological footprint and ensures a healthy tourism future.

All flights are increasingly criticized for outsize carbon emissions. Because flying is inherently part of tourism, the industry’s answers to the outcry are bound to be complicated.

The Bright Side of Flight Travel

Setting aside the harm flying has on the environment for a moment, it is important to consider the positive impact the travel and tourism industry has on many destinations around the world.

Tourism makes a big difference in global economic development, particularly in less-developed countries. In least-developed countries (LDCs), tourism represents 7% of total exports of goods and services and 10% of non-oil LDCs. In small island developing states, tourism made up 8.6 million jobs in 2018, an increase from 3.2 million jobs in 1995. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sector generated $8.8 trillion USD in 2018, employing 319 million people. With the injection of tourism comes increased prosperity and development in infrastructure, agriculture, and other services.

And for travelers, the ability to hop on an airplane and get halfway around the world within a day offers an unparalleled educational opportunity. Nothing else delivers a lesson in history, humanity, environmental awareness, and cultural understanding — not to mention tolerance, humility, compassion, and empathy — like traveling.

Anti-Flight Campaigns on a Global Scale

Despite the positive impact flight arrivals have on many destinations, the backlash against flying is growing. The flight-free 2020 campaign out of Sweden is expected to have 100,000 signatories by the end of 2019. A British arm of the campaign is also gaining steam. And this isn’t a new idea: The Flying Less campaign, aimed at academia, has been in existence since 2015.

Paired with flygskam, the trends of tagskryt (train bragging) and #jagstannarpamarken (#stayontheground) are also gaining momentum in Sweden. And, in Sweden, as with much of Europe, opting to take the train as an alternative mode of transportation is an option. According to a survey published in May 2019 by Swedish Railways, 37% of respondents chose to travel by rail instead of air in comparison to 26% in fall 2018 and 20% in early 2018. The survey also found the total number of trips on the rail line have been increasing, up 5% last year to 31.8 million and then another 8% in the first quarter of this year. Business trips have increased 12%.

But Sweden as a destination isn’t just sitting on a trend; it’s actively supporting efforts to get people off of airplanes. The country’s government is expanding night train options and adding new departures. Domestic flying in the country has also decreased. According to Swedavia, which operates Sweden’s 10 busiest airports, domestic passenger numbers in October decreased almost 5% compared to the same month last year, which has been a common trend throughout all of 2019.

In Germany, the Green Party put forth a proposal that the country should work toward making all domestic flights obsolete by 2035. Right now, 16% of the country’s flights are for domestic destinations. The government recently passed a climate package with core elements related to an increased cost of flying and financial relief for traveling by train. According to a statement from the German National Tourist Office, the destination is well positioned for the future by today’s standards and it promotes a sustainable tourism product.

Beyond Europe, a high-speed rail between Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, holds promise for shaking up the country’s most popular domestic flight. And the Pan-Asia Railway Network, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is another rail development project that could offer an alternative for flying.

On a global scale, a survey conducted by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum and released in August found that one in seven people say they would avoid flying, even if it means using more expensive and less convenient alternatives. Further, 29% of people would switch to alternative transport options if they cost the same as flying and were as convenient. Frequent flyers showed the strongest support for switching to low-carbon alternatives.

Destinations and Operators Respond

Aware of the environmental footprint flight travel requires, many tour operators invest in carbon offset credits for their staff and clients. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) is making this even more accessible for its members through a new bulk carbon purchase program, Neutral Together, launching in January 2020.

ATTA member Linda Staaf, owner of Woods & Water, has taken her environmental commitment even further by significantly reducing her own flight travel and encouraging others to do the same. A few years ago, the Swedish world traveler focused her company’s efforts on the international market, but everything changed in the fall of 2018. Initially spooked by the negative social impacts of tourism, Staaf began researching the climate crisis’ environmental impacts. “When I look around, I still see so many people not acting as if the climate is a problem. Everyone is just talking, but they are not acting, which gets me thinking that they don’t really understand what kinds of problems we are starting to have,” she said.

Determined to act, Staaf originally thought about leaving the tourism industry altogether but then settled on traveling far less herself (flying only once every fifth year versus three times a year) and realigning her company’s marketing efforts. “I want to create as few emissions as possible and do whatever I can to be a part of the Paris Agreement coming true. That’s why I can’t work with international marketing and tour operators from overseas,” she said. Though Staaf said she wouldn’t deny international visitors interested in her company’s offerings, she specifically and actively targets travelers living within Scandinavia and northern Germany. The company’s website, which used to be in English, is now in Swedish with an English section. And, she emphasized, this selective marketing strategy is not to draw attention to her company. “I’ve been losing business, losing customers, by doing this,” she said. Yet, Staaf said she feels so strongly about the need to make major changes to mitigate the climate crisis that it’s worth it. “It’s my heart saying no. I just can’t do it.”

Looking Toward the Future

“I’ve been talking a lot with other tour operators about this, and a lot of people say, ‘It doesn’t matter. Tourism is only 8% of the problem. Flight emissions are only 5%. I just have a small business, and in the big picture, I’m nobody,’” Staaf said. “The thing is, if everyone is thinking like that all the time, then nothing is ever going to happen. Things really, really need to change.” Even if flygskam hasn’t impacted their bottom line yet, the adventure travel industry needs to prepare for a world in which travelers are increasingly aware of and concerned about their environmental footprint as a result.

For tour operators working in economically developed destinations, this may mean taking a page from Staaf’s playbook and doubling down on domestic travelers who have the means to spend money on travel. “You don’t have to stop working in tourism, but you can work with markets that are nearby or within the continent you’re working,” she said. Developing and enhancing local tourism products and marketing efforts can reach domestic travelers enthusiastic about exploring their own backyards in new ways. For offerings targeted toward international travelers, tour operators can encourage longer trips and deeper experiences that support and seek to better understand local communities.

Even as destinations benefit from tourism, they are also the ones that suffer from environmental degradation. On the heels of the flight-shaming movement, this is an opportunity for destinations to partner with and support non-flight transportation development such as rail lines and trail tourism. Destination representatives also need to communicate to travelers how they can experience the destination in a manner that is more environmentally friendly and sustainable once they are on the ground. In some cases, this may mean putting strict limitations on the number of visitors in certain areas (such as Machu Picchu) or implementing tourist taxes to help offset environmental damage inflicted by their visits.

Tour operators and destination alike should use travel experiences to educate people on how the climate crisis impacts the local environment and people. But they also need to use their collective power to demand action from political leaders on a global level.

As the flight-shaming moving continues to dominate headlines, both tour operators and destinations would be wise to recognize the new reality in which the industry is working. As long as the climate crisis persists — and it shows no signs of abating — and flying continues to stamp out a heavy carbon footprint, the travel industry will find itself in a complicated struggle. How it responds — individually and collectively — may determine the viability of its future.