The Climate Costs of Tourism: we are all locavists now — let’s stay that way!

Originally published at http://www.desertreport.org on June 9, 2021.

We’ve all thought it while stuck in our contracted pandemic worlds of home, zoom meetings, grocery runs, and local exercise circuits. We can’t help but think, “I can’t wait to travel again.” Like starving castaways, we fantasize over the places we will go, things we will see, people we will meet. The travel bug is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that to many the pandemic travel restrictions have felt like a grievous loss. Even folks living in or near the vast public lands of the desert southwest are hungry to get back in an airplane to venture further afield.

As we start jumping on airplanes again, everything will be comfortably familiar, and we’ll thrill to the newfound mobility we’ve longed for. We’ll soon be reminded of the downsides: cramped airplanes, crowded destinations, rushed itineraries, and of course the financial costs — plane tickets, car rental, gas and parking, overpriced hotels and restaurants.

When that happens, we’ll realize that something good has come from this forced immobility, a skill and talent that we should hold onto in the aftertimes. We’ve learned that we don’t need to travel, at least nowhere near as much or as far as we used to. By necessity, we’ve begun to discover our homeplaces — to find wonder and adventure right out our front doors. We gave up tourism for locavism, and we transformed ourselves from tourists to locavists. With this newfound capacity, hopefully we will soon ask ourselves, why do we subject ourselves to all this air travel? Why indeed.

A few years before the pandemic, my colleagues and I wrote an article called The Trouble with Tourism where we argued that in the age of climate change, airline-based tourism is simply not justifiable. As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism is also one of the largest emitters of carbon, primarily from air transport. We like to regard tourism as a green island in the polluted sea of our post-industrial economy, as an alternative to and an escape from the excesses of modern life. The reality is that tourism is quite profoundly a creation of our oil-dependent economy and cannot be an antidote to the very stiff of which it is made.

We also contended that to the extent tourism functions as escape from the ills of our petroleum-driven life, it detracts critical attention and investment from our home places and communities. Local place attachment is critical to pro-community and pro-environmental behaviors. The irony of tourism is that it encourages indifference and detachment from our homeplaces, everyday experiences, and local cultures. Tourism to distant places disrupts local place attachment by privileging distant, exotic places.

This mindset tends to limit our homeplaces to the mundane of family life, while holding back some part of ourselves for “other” places that we’ll one day visit. In imagining that we must travel to these “other” places, something is stolen from our homeplaces. By idolizing “other” places, tourism encourages us to set unrealistic standards of what constitutes a “good place.” In its siren song of escape, its beguiling mask of sustainability, and with the comfort we are doing good for the distant places we visit, we ironically are hurting our home places and killing the planet.

So we posed an alternative — locavism — as a “de-growth” strategy for the high-carbon, distant travel model of tourism. Breaking the oil dependence that haunts tourism would only occur, we argued, when local places are considered equally worthy of our wonder and respect. Such an approach is analogous to the local food movement, where locally produced food is favored over global food systems controlled by multinational corporations. The word locavore literally means “local eater.” Thus, we called a bioregional, or homeplace, tourist a locavist, or “local viewer.”

The article was mostly a thought piece. We knew that unwinding the industrial carbon-dependent tourism juggernaut was idealistic and unlikely to happen anytime soon.

And then came the pandemic.

At the height of the lockdown, international airline travel fell by 98% and domestic travel by 87% from 2019 levels. Overall, for the year airline travel fell by 60% for the year, with 1.8 billion passengers compared to 4.5 billion the previous year. Carbon emissions from aviation also fell by about 60%, more than any other transportation sector.

The result was a sort of forced experiment of the locavism idea. Overnight, people quit getting on airplanes and started walking, biking, and driving to local (within a day’s round-trip drive) destinations. Just like we reinvented the workplace, we reinvented our recreation to take place closer to home. (More Popular than Ever: Increased Visitation at CA Desert National Parks, Desert Report, December 2020) But the pandemic also revealed the lack of resilience in the public lands system after decades of disinvestment.

In the desert Southwest, people flocked to public lands in record numbers, many for the first time. Fueled by social media, outdoor spaces have been critical to visitors coping with the pandemic. Weekend use levels became the norm during weekdays, and average weekends became more like the busiest holidays. The pressure was magnified by the fact that many campgrounds and outdoor recreation destinations remained closed during much of the pandemic, which concentrated even more pressure on those that managed to stay open (An Interview with Death Valley NP Superintendent Mike Reynolds, Desert Report, March 2020).

Most of this pandemic visitation pressure in the desert Southwest came from urban dwellers hit hard by covid restrictions. Either because state and national parks were too far away, were closed, or they couldn’t get reservations, many visitors turned to national forest and BLM lands. Unable to get into campgrounds, camping in “dispersed” locations boomed.

With the increased use came huge problems. Managers contended with illegal off-road use, overflowing campgrounds and parking lots, cultural resource damage, mountains of trash, abandoned campfires, and increased crime. After years of cuts to personnel and operations budgets, managers just don’t have the resources to contend with these use pressures. Many new visitors don’t know, or don’t care, about the complex behavior rules and norms: where and where not to camp, drive, hike, collect, build fires, etc. Already overextended land managers just don’t have the time or resources to educate them. In Death Valley, managers reported that during one three-week period, staff and volunteers had to clean up 131 unburied human waste sites, 77 illegal fires, and 80 cases of vandalism < https://www.instagram.com/p/CLpwLuwn7cq/?igshid=6iqvh20j1v9t>.

While these local problems are a challenge, there is a bright side. All these new visitors are NOT getting on airplanes. Even with the gas consumed in their vehicles, the carbon footprint is a fraction of that if they would have travelled by air. And a growing number of them are finding ways to decarbonize their ground travel by using electric vehicles and human powered modes. That demand is fueling a revolution in alternative transportation infrastructure like bike lanes that make local communities more attractive for outdoor recreation, which could reduce the need to get in a car and drive to outdoor recreation areas.

Electric Vehicle Charging Station, Oasis at Death Valley. Photo by John Kukreja.

As people discover, or rediscover, their homeplaces, local entrepreneurs are starting to figure out how to turn this interest into business opportunity. Local tourism providers are finding ways to make local places feel exciting and new for people. Born of the necessity to connect with nearby residents rather than distant tourists, locavist messaging can be seen where local providers try to connect with local interest in exploring these places more deeply.

And while domestic airline travel is starting to pick up, it’s looking more and more like this summer’s international tourism business will be a bust, owing to uncertainties with covid outbreaks, vaccination rates, and closures. This means another locavist driven summer season for the outdoor recreation industry and land managers. With that comes the opportunity to further deepen people’s connection to these places. Hopefully we’ll also see a political consensus start to emerge on reinvesting in the stewardship and management of these places, including protection of additional areas that can then help meet the increased demand.

Marcel Proust once said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ This change in worldview, almost unthinkable in the beforetimes, may turn out to be one of the most profound societal changes that come from the pandemic. The more we look at it, the more we see that travel is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and with an open mind we can find wonder and adventure right out our front doors. With our newfound locavist knowledge, we will be better equipped to embrace our responsibilities close to home and resist the temptations to flee to faraway places. This change will involve enormous challenges, but if tourism can stop being “out there” and start being “right here,” then we will be one step closer to living rightly in the world.

Steve Hollenhorst is a Professor and Dean of the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. He is the co-founder of the University of Idaho McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS), and the West Virginia Land Trust. His research is in the areas of land use policy and management, land trusts and conservation easements, and environmental leadership.

Characteristics of Locavism

  1. Low Carbon: Locavist development is, first and foremost, low-carbon tourism. It involves not only shifting toward low carbon modes of transport, but also reducing the need for travel by ensuring a range of quality local destinations. This mode and distance shift is critical if we are to achieve any true emission reductions. Investment in local mass transit infrastructure would further reduce carbon emissions and increase amenity values close to home.
  2. Local Ecology, Economy, and Culture: Locavist development is framed by the ecological potentials and limits of a region, and suited to the culture and values of the community. In turn, locavist destinations are designed to engage visitors through place-relevant and meaningful experiences that explore local nature, people, places, history, and/or culture.
  3. Local Food, Energy and Materials: The success of the “slow food” movement exemplifies this shift. A similar “slow energy” and “slow materials” approach is steadily emerging. One way to conceive of locavism is as “slow tourism.”
  4. Human-scaled: Locavism embraces human-powered travel combined with mass transit. In the transportation planning parlance, this is known as mode shift, or changing the relative reliance on one higher GHG-emitting form of travel for another, such as from commercial airline to train, or from single-occupant vehicles to public transit.
  5. Homegrown Solutions: Locavist development relies on locally developed solutions uniquely suited to bioregions and homeplaces, over national and state standards and codes.

Originally published at http://www.desertreport.org on June 9, 2021.

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Professor and former Dean: Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Founder: McCall Outdoor Science School and the WV Land Trust.

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steve hollenhorst

Professor and former Dean: Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Founder: McCall Outdoor Science School and the WV Land Trust.