Our stance on transport – Responsible tourism issues

A great misconception about responsible tourism is: cars and planes = bad, trains and bicycles = good. But each activity in fact has its own pros and cons, each of which should be considered in the wider context of the vacation. Flying all the way to Indonesia may sound like an environmental disaster, but there are some marine conservation initiatives which are only able to exist because of volunteers traveling out there to help them collect data. Likewise with national parks protecting endangered species such as orangutans and gorillas; without visitors paying entrance fees, they would cease to exist. A railway vacation may sound like it gives you super eco credentials – but of course, many will involve flying halfway round the world just to get there. Even our small group cycling trips are accompanied all the way by support vehicles – so a lower carbon footprint is not something to be counted on. Read more about our stances on transport issues below.

Climate change poses a severe threat to those things that responsible travelers hold most dear – the welfare of local communities around the world and the conservation of nature. Sadly, aviation is currently the fastest growing contributor to climate change – so by flying great distances to see Antarctica, the Amazon Rainforest or the Great Barrier reef, we are arguably destroying the very thing that attracted us there.

So what can travelers do? Rather than flying more, we believe that we should all try to fly less each year, as part of a global effort to reduce carbon emissions. And we were the first travel company to say this publicly. However, grounding all flights from tomorrow would not be a realistic solution. Tourism is a huge employer of people (1 in 12 people according to WTO), particularly in the developing world where it is the fastest growing industry. If done properly and responsibly, tourism can be of considerable economic benefit to local communities and places a real value on local environments as well as cultural and natural heritage.
Here at Responsible Travel we are huge fans of train travel. It’s a great way to see a destination and has a much lower carbon impact than flying. It enables you to really travel like a local, and meeting new people from all walks of life while you do so.

But while we have a number of railway vacations in Scotland, and others which cover epic routes but which start close to home, many of our hugely popular railway vacations are in Japan, Africa, India or Siberia – meaning that a long haul flight is still required – negating any benefits of traveling by train.

However, overnight trains in countries such as Vietnam are both an immersive cultural experience and a way to cut out an internal flight. Journeys often require travelers to purchase snacks and drinks from roadside vendors, and to visit places that may otherwise be overlooked – in this way, they spread local benefits.
Plane, train and cycling

Walking & cycling
Once seen as the preserve of eco travelers, walking and cycling vacations are becoming more mainstream – and are two of the most popular activities on Responsible Travel. However, while some walking and cycling vacations – particularly those which are self-guided – definitely reduce emissions, small group cycling vacations are usually accompanied by a support vehicle, and small group walking tours which travel from one base to the next will have a vehicle to transport luggage – meaning that the saving is minimal. In many cases, of course, they also involve long-haul flights.

The benefits, therefore, are not always environmental – but socially, a walking or cycling vacation can have a hugely positive impact. They tend to step away from the beaten track visiting smaller villages, boosting the incomes of traders, restaurants and guesthouse owners who rarely benefit from tourism. Local guides can be used – and in the case of harder treks, such as the Inca Trail and in Nepal, local porters are also employed for each trekker – spreading the benefits more widely. Traveling by bike or on foot removes barriers that can exist between tourists and locals when large tour buses are used – you’ll be traveling like the locals, and with the locals.
Cruise ships
Less a means of transport, more a giant floating resort, large cruise ships have a wide range of social and environmental impacts. Yet the industry continues to grow, with over 21 million passengers in 2014. At Responsible Travel, we have a number of concerns about the damage caused by large cruise ships, including:
  • Waste management and the impacts of this on destinations and ecosystems (particularly coral reefs)
  • Workers’ rights and conditions
  • The lack of economic benefit to the docking destinations
  • Lack of CSR policies in place
  • There is also evidence that cruising emits more CO2 per passenger mile than flying.
We have raised these issues with the Passenger Shipping Association in the past, and while some cruise lines have begun to make progress on tackling these issues, you still won’t find any large cruises on Responsible Travel.

However, we promote many small ship cruises, sailing vacations and expedition cruises which have wonderful benefits for local economies, communities and even the environment. You can see them in our small ship cruising guide.

Read more about our stance on cruise liners
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