The travel issue |

The World’s Biggest Industry Also The World’s Biggest Polluter?

The Travel Issue | 1 November 2019
People Walking Beside Baggage Hall and Arrivals Hall Signage
Travelling is of course a fun thing to do. But do you know the negative effect of the world's biggest industry has on our planet? Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels/NOWJAKARTA

It’s been 200 years since the world’s travellers were propelled only by wind and muscle, embarking on month long voyages on incredible ‘clippers’ and impressive ‘ square–riggers’, and days-long journeys by horse–drawn coaches. It was the age of adventure, and of course, risk, but it did have one major advantage: it was all done fuel-free, pollution–free, powered by 100% renewable energy, and yes, that includes the horse’s food!

The world’s first commercial steamships were launched exactly 200 years ago in 1819, ushering in the era of connectivity and enabling something which had never before been possible—the overseas holiday! People had been touring across Europe for centuries, and the history books are full of voyages of adventure and (mostly) conquest or at least “discovery” and that wonderful European invention claiming overseas territories as their own. Columbus, Drake, Vespucci, Cook, Vasco da Gama, Cortez, Magellan, Cabot—and a host of others—put their names on the great voyages of discovery.

But suddenly there were large, safe, relatively speedy, vessels which could take people in comfort across the globe. “Book me on the Titanic immediately!” was the cry. So the travel agents began to see the possibilities of business and a gentlemen called Thomas Cook started the trend (which sadly ended last month!), and people were hooked. Holidays were no longer VFR based (visiting friends and relatives) but very much FIT based (free independent travellers) as the rich took their leisure and pleasure around the world.

Now, a few large ocean liners consuming mere tons of coal did little to harm the atmosphere, but they soon turned into many boats, trains and buses dedicated to the new ‘tourism’ industry and finally, in the 1960’s the jet aircraft arrived and the whole thing changed. Prices dropped, numbers rose and the era of mass tourism was upon us, and still is.

The early jets were horrors of noise and pollution, and there are those, especially the very popular Greta Thumberg, who say they are still a major problem today, though the modern air craft engines are astonishingly quiet and efficient, and some airlines are even fuelling with pollution-free LNG. But the problem still remains that when you add the whole industry up (car, bus, train to airport, etc.) then add on the hotels’ air conditioning, water and food consumption and other polluters, the travel industry probably does count for a major slice of the world’s pollution. But I would rather have 200 people on a quiet, fuel-efficient Airbus, than the same people on 200 motorcycles across Jakarta! Guess which is the bigger polluter? We do need to keep everything in perspective and proportion.

The great thing about the travel industry is that to a large extent it is self-regulating: hotels realize they have to get ‘greener’ to attract affluent travellers, airlines realize that fuel efficient aircraft reduce operating costs, and everyone wants to source products from their own country to reduce costs and reduce their carbon footprints. The industry is learning.

Now, we have to get all the destinations onside too. The Indonesian Ministry of Tourism has got on to the subject with some commitment creating STD’s (Sustainable Tourism Destinations) which are monitored by STO’s (Sustainable Tourism Observatories and rewarded by ISTA’s (Indonesian Sustainable Tourism Awards), all of which does bode well for the future—if—all are regulated and enforced correctly. This is the good news.

Of course the secret to really guaranteeing sustainability in travel is by reducing and enforcing pre-set limits of people arriving in a destination. Creating enforced carrying capacity limits to reduce cultural and physical pollution at the same time. This has been very successfully done by Palau, Bhutan and the Galapagos islands, and is spreading rapidly. 

But with the success of tourism, especially here, measured by the number of arrivals, it’s going to be hard to do. Everyone thinks that targeting increased numbers of tourist brings economic benefit. But there is so much more to it than that, and we have to change these erroneous measures of success now. If not, maybe it’s time to go back to wind and muscle?

And onward to our main theme! Have you been to Puncak lately? Read on to see what’s fresh in one of Jakartan’s most loved weekend retreat destination. Our Hidden Heritage series this time around takes you to North Lombok, where a treat of culture and nature awaits.


This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine November 2019 issue “The Travel Issue”. Available at selected bookstores or SUBSCRIBE here.