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What's behind our addiction to travel?

Neil King | Natalie Muller
May 21, 2021

Humans have long been driven by a desire to explore the planet and visit faraway places. But with tourism's toll on the environment now calling our globetrotting habits into question, some say it's time for change.

Three young women take a selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice
The rise of social media has changed the way many people think about tourismImage: picture alliance / Zoonar

Tourism accounts for roughly 8% 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.

Dr. Richard Sharpley
Richard Sharpley says we should reduce how often we travel to help the planetImage: YASUMORI SUI

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.

A woman stands on a rock above Moraine Lake in Banff, Canada
It's never been easier to reach distant places, but how we get there and how we behave will determine our travel footprintImage: Norbert Eisele-Hein/imagebroker/picture alliance

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?"

Would you say that awareness about the environment or sustainability is changing the way we travel?

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 behavior. 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 ecoguilt, 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 behavior will be through regulation and pricing.

What kind of regulation do you envisage?

I certainly do envisage a significant rise in the cost of air travel, and it becoming more of a luxury again in the future. I'm old enough to remember when tourism was just the summer holiday, and you would look forward to those two weeks a year when you would go on holiday. It was distinctive, it was special, it was meaningful. Whereas nowadays it is so easy to travel.

When you can travel all the time, in my view at least, it loses the excitement. It loses its meaning. I've used the term "obesity of experience," and I think, particularly in Europe and elsewhere, we are becoming obese on experiences. I think people will eventually begin to realize that to enjoy tourism, let's do a bit less and really savor it when we do travel.

Crowds fill Las Ramblas, the main boulevard in Barcelona
The Spanish city of Barcelona draws millions of tourists each year, most of which arrive by planeImage: Nano Calvo/ZumaPress/picture alliance
A Boeing 737 flying in the sky with orange- and gray-tinted clouds in the background
Flying is one of the most carbon-intensive ways to travelImage: Christian Bodlaj/Chromorange/picture alliance

Some critics, for example a very liberally minded, globalized person who thinks that the market regulates all and everything will be fine, they might say this sounds like a socialist police state that's bordering on an eco-dictatorship. What do you say to them?

I completely understand that. Up to a point I'm as in favor of a neoliberal democratic country economy where everybody has freedoms to do what they want to do, to be who they want to be and spend what they want to spend. Certainly, in the developed world, we've all benefited very heavily from that.

Tourism is just one of many, many things we consume on a regular basis that we enjoy. And it's all part of this growth-based neoliberal economy, which is understood as driving progress, development, happiness and so on. There are numerous destinations, societies, countries around the world which are entirely dependent upon tourism.

Arguably, we need to overall consume less to achieve this balance across the world to achieve equity and justice. And certainly tourism is one thing where there is no justice and no equity, because it is environmentally a very destructive activity enjoyed by a relatively small proportion of the global population.

What about younger generations, who might resent the fact that they're being asked to travel less while their parents had the chance to go everywhere they wanted. Do you see any sort of rifts within society over this?

I fully recognize that that's one of the major issues. Of course, it's very much based on the argument that young people's parents — my generation and my parents' generation — have enjoyed very rapid improvements in our standard of living. But at the same time, we're the generations who, through that creation of wealth and enjoying ourselves so much, have actually underpinned the destruction of the global environment.

And yes, undoubtedly there will be resentment on the part of younger generations who might believe their freedoms and opportunities have been curtailed through the activities of the older generation. But I think they are also sufficiently aware to realize that if they were to continue in the way that earlier generations have behaved, then they won't have a world to live in.

Richard Sharpley is a professor of tourism and development at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

This interview was conducted by Neil King and has been edited for clarity and length. It features in this episode of "On the Green Fence."