Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Bio-regional tourism greener, argues WWU enviro dean

by June 18th, 2013

Tourism has a more pronounced effect on the world than the average tourist realizes. Whether they travel by air, sea or land, the long-distance tourist needs to appreciate the effects on the broader environment, the climate, and their own region and home. It’s more socially responsible, economically beneficial and ultimately more satisfying to travel closer to home, in one’s own region, than to distant lands. These were the key messages from Steve Hollenhorst, dean of Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, in a lecture earlier this month at WWU’s Biology Building titled, “The Trouble with Tourism: Rethinking Travel in the Age of Climate Change.” His talk was the final of the Huxley College speaker series.

“The Trouble With Tourism”
In “The Trouble with Tourism,” Hollenhorst attempted to raise environmental awareness around the tourism industry while asking potential tourists to think about the implications of their travel and to consider investing instead in their own cities and homes. 

The tourism industry bombards potential travelers with energy saving strategies designed to make them seem energy efficient and eco-friendly, Hollenhorst said. Except travel really has a huge impact on humanity’s carbon footprint. 

“No matter how you cut it tourism is an energy hog,” Hollenhorst said.

Tourism’s greenhouse gas impact: varying estimates
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the transportation sector is the leader in U.S. man-made carbon dioxide emissions. As well, 2011 Environmental Protection Agency data show that transportation counts for around 28 percent of total U.S. anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. 

Zeroing in on tourism specifically, the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that it accounts for about five percent of global CO2 emissions from man. However, UNWTO also notes that classifying transportation and tourism as always distinct from each other can be nearly impossible and so estimates of how much of transportation constitutes tourism are difficult.

Long air flights have a big impact on emissions

“One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or Seattle produces about 2.5 tons of CO2 per passenger, which is more than that person will produce on average with their car in a year, and more than somebody in a developing country will emit in her lifetime,” Hollenhorst said.

His suggestion is to travel closer to home using more energy efficient methods instead of fetishizing far-away places and their cultures. Tourism teaches individuals to be bored with their own homes and encourages a need to get away in order for people to enjoy themselves, he said.

Championing bio-regional tourism
Hollenhorst advocates what he calls “bio-regional tourism,” meaning tourism within one’s own region and eco-system. This means that potential tourists living in Seattle would visit the Puget Sound, the Cascades and other cities in the area instead of traveling far away. This will save money for the traveler and direct more tourism spending to the traveler’s own area, Hollenhorst said. 

Hollenhorst argues that money spent in faraway destinations usually does not help underdeveloped tourist countries as much as it helps the tourism industry itself. In contrast, money spent between local residents in their region has a greater economic impact in that area than it would on other places, he said.

Hollenhorst also believes it is easier to establish more meaningful relationships in a person’s own region than trying to establish one in a short period abroad.

In order to shift to a more bioregional tourism approach Hollenhorst emphasizes a mode shift in the way tourists travel. This means instead of overseas trips, taking a train or driving a car. When possible, tourists should also use human powered modes of transportation like bicycle or more efficient forms like mass transit systems to reduce carbon impacts, he said.

A defense of tourism
Loni Rahm, President of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, who was at Hollenhorst’s presentation, emphasized the economic and cultural benefits of tourism.

“As a 25-plus-year tourism professional, I take great pride in the prevailing values and philosophy behind tourism,” Rahm said. She did not endorse Hollenhorst’s idea of money being more valuable when spent close to home and not having as much value when spent abroad. Money made in Whatcom County from tourism has been substantial, she said. 

”County wide visitor spending in 2012 reached a record $595.5 million, up more than 10 percent over the previous record-breaking year,” Rahm said.

Rahm also believes that life-long relationships and cultural exchange are priceless reasons to travel abroad. 

Ultimately, Hollenhorst wants tourists to be mindful of their travel by considering their own homes and taking their carbon impact into account. 

“If tourism can stop being out there and start being right here, then we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly,” Hollenhorst said.

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