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Many want to travel sustainably — but then they don't

Felix Schlagwein
August 19, 2019

People are now aware of climate change. But almost no one wants to do without a holiday flight or cruise. A CO2 tax could change that, says tourism expert Wolfgang Günther.

Man standing at the edge of a steep cliff face
Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/P. Frischknecht

DW: Europe has experienced the second summer with record temperatures in a row. Will we soon be spending all our holidays in the cooler forests of Scandinavia while the beaches of Southern Europe are deserted?

Wolfgang Günther: No, because first of all there are no precise forecasts about what the next summer will bring. People know from experience that the weather in the north can sometimes be unstable and rainy and that in the Mediterranean area you probably have stable warm beach weather.

But there are also many other factors that play a role when it comes to travel decisions, from friends' and acquaintances' stories to articles in newspapers to personal travel experiences and expectations. The weather is therefore only one of many deciding factors. That is important to know, in order not to overestimate this factor. A holiday destination is not booked because of the expected weather in the next summer or winter, but because of the image that the holidaymakers have of the destination in their heads.

But are there holiday destinations that are essentially threatened by climate change?

That is actually a question of how far you want to look into the future. So far, of course, we are aware of climate change, but travel behavior has only changed marginally, if at all. We expect this to continue over the next 20 years. There are, of course, exceptions, especially if you look at the local level and individual branches of tourism. We assume that extreme weather events will increase. They are already adversely impacting some tourism infrastructure. Just think of a national park that offers hiking tours as a tourist attraction. Now heavy rain falls and washes away the hiking trails. The park and the local tourist providers then lose turnover, have to spend a lot of money on repairs and the customer is disappointed. This is already happening today and we assume that it will happen more in the future.

And how will this affect coastal areas?

We expect sea levels to rise by about one meter by the end of the century — and these are cautious estimates. This means that beaches will change. Tourism infrastructure will then have to be better secured or tourism regions will have to consider whether they can and want to maintain their infrastructure at all in the event of such a rise in sea levels.

You just returned from your vacation. Did you take climate compatibility into account when planning your trip?

Yes, I'm trying to be consistent. We went on a cabin hiking tour in Norway. Last year we went to Sweden and were able to book a good train connection. Unfortunately, this year that didn't work out, and we had to go by car. But at least we were five people in the car, we even took grandma along [laughs]. Flying is out of the question for us as a family and we only take the car if there is no other way.

Portrait photo of Günther Wolfgang -  biologist and an expert in sustainable travel.
Wolfgang Günther is a biologist and an expert on sustainable travelImage: NIT/Frank Molter

This will certainly make you a role model for many people. A majority of Germans take climate change very seriously. Nevertheless, when it comes to their own holidays, most Germans are not prepared to limit their options.

Well, I don't know if I'm a role model. But we have investigated the phenomenon you mentioned. Some 60% of Germans said they want to travel sustainably, but then usually they don't. However, this is not necessarily because sustainability is not important to them, but because, as mentioned at the beginning, there are many factors that are important for travel decisions. The issue of sustainability is one of many.

But you don't travel to protect the environment or improve working conditions for people in the tourism industry. The intention is rather to discover something new, to relax, to have beautiful experiences. And for many, the journey should also be sustainable. But the holidaymaker weighs up all the options. As a result, most people's travels are not very sustainable yet.

You talk a lot about "sustainable travel." What does that mean in practice?

This can be answered in different ways. It depends on what is important for the individual person. At the moment, the CO2 balance is justifiably very much in the foreground, and the lion's share here consists of travel to and from the destination. Then, of course, mobility, activity and accommodation at the destination also play a role, albeit a rather small one compared to the arrival and departure. Do I drive around with the car or do I go hiking? Do I sleep in a five-star hotel or in a small hut? Do I go to the amusement park or the countryside? These are all things that play into the environmental footprint.

As far as social compatibility is concerned, it starts with the booking. Do I book with a big travel chain or do I want to promote local providers? Do I then buy regional organic products locally or don't I care? Sustainable travel, however, does not exist as a registered trademark with fixed content, but always depends on which aspects of sustainability are most important for suppliers or travelers.

And what would have to happen to make travel more sustainable for all of us?

If sustainability is calculated on the basis of carbon footprints, then we are already discussing the issue. We would have to impose a CO2 tax, and make CO2 emissions more expensive. This would make energy-intensive travel more expensive and therefore less attractive.

There is still room for improvement when it comes to offering and making visible offers of sustainable travel. One could promote these offers and create incentives for climate-friendly modernization. At the same time, consumers need to understand what criteria their travel should meet and invest more time in research to find more sustainable travel options. And they should then approach the travel companies directly about the aspect of sustainability so that they understand that the issue is important to the customer.

Wolfgang Günther is a biologist. He is head of the section "Sustainability in Tourism" and is an associate director of the Institute for Tourism and Resort Research in Northern Europe (NIT) in Kiel. Below you will find further information on the impact of climate change on tourism and tips for more sustainable travel.