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A blog written for Comment is Free about Ed Miliband’s comments about how he will not act to curb aviation emissions because he doesn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”…

Very interesting – and telling – words this week from Ed Miliband regarding the so-called “right to fly”. The climate change and energy secretary told the Guardian that he didn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”, and would therefore not be seeking to include aviation within the government’s broad commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050.

“Where I disagree with other people on aviation is if you did 80% cuts across the board, as some people have called for on aviation, you would go back to 1974 levels of flying,” he said. Miliband picked out the airport within his own constituency, Doncaster Sheffield, as an example. “People in my constituency have benefited from being able to have foreign travel which, 40 years ago, the middle classes took for granted,” he said. “There are sacrifices and changes in lifestyle necessary. But the job of government is to facilitate them and understand people’s lives and what they value.”

What Miliband seems to be saying is that flying is now so important to people’s lives in the UK that it deserves to be treated as a special case. It should be largely immune to the tough targets and systematic transition that all other sectors are going to have to experience if exacting carbon reductions are ever to be achieved. So rather than have fair, across-the-board cuts, Miliband is firing the starter gun for every sector to throw up its hands and say that it too deserves special exemption. To take this to its logical conclusion, someone is going to have to make the decision about who deserves such favouritism.

If aviation is going to be allowed to grow and emit without restrictions, another sector is going to have to make up the shortfall. If we really love flying so much, who do we want this to be? The NHS? Universities? Local authorities? If we really want to start prioritising our most valued services and facilities in this manner, then we need to urgently have that discussion.

But I’m not comfortable whenever the class issue is thrown into the ring to support the aviation lobby’s argument. Miliband is the latest person to fall for this old chestnut. It has been a debating tool for years, but it never stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at Doncaster Sheffield airport, as Miliband is asking – even if it isn’t wholly representative. It accounted for less than half of 1% of the total number of UK passengers passing through our airports in 2007, according to the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures, but it does have the highest percentage – 94% – of so-called “leisure” travellers of all the UK airports. These are the types of passengers that come in for the most criticism when people are talking about the growth in discretionary flying over the past decade or so. (This category includes “visiting friends and relatives” – so-called VFRs – which is arguably the least discretionary of all the reasons to fly, but that often gets drowned out in this debate.)

What “class” are these passengers? And has there been a significant shift in their demographic profile over the years? ABC1-type analysis seems to largely ignored or viewed as inherently flawed these days, so let’s look at something most people understand – income. Civil Aviation Authority figures (pdf) for 2007/2008 say that the mean household income of leisure passengers using Doncaster Sheffield airport was £41,016. This compares to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, which state that the average UK household income in 2006/07 was £30,000. The mismatch doesn’t exactly lead you to shout “working class all aboard” – and this is for an airport you would consider to support Miliband’s argument given its higher-than-average volume of so-called “cheap flights”.

When the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University looked at the “socio-demographic characteristics of [UK] air passengers” in its 2006 report Predict and Provide (p29, pdf), it concluded that the “available evidence suggests that flying is largely undertaken by those in richer households, and that most of the growth in flying is coming from people in such households flying more often”. Again, it doesn’t exactly support Miliband’s argument that the skies are now awash with the working class, say, taking mini-breaks to Europe, or visiting their second homes abroad.

And all this in the week when the airline industry – already one of the most cosseted sectors in the world due to its advantageous tax breaks on fuel – is saying it is suffering an “annus horribilis“. Are we really going to fall for yet another well-orchestrated sob story from the world’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions?

A blog for Guardian Environment about a green tourist tax being proposed by the Maldives’ new environment minister…

With the rain coming down and the crowd in boisterous mood waiting for their beloved Paul Weller to take to the stage, it took a very brave politician to step before the microphone and make a speech about rising sea levels and carbon neutrality.

But this is what Mohamed Aslam did on Friday night at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Following a short introduction by Tim Smit, Eden’s founder and permanent source of renewable energy, the 6,000-strong crowd greeted Aslam with warm applause. Any home-grown politician would have no doubt received a one-finger salute, but Aslam spoke with genuine authority and passion on the issue of climate change as he is the minister of environment (and housing and transport) in the Maldives, the Indian ocean island state that now lies at the “frontline”, as he describes it, of any future rise in sea levels.

(By contrast, Prince Charles was jeered when he addressed the crowd by pre-recorded video to talk about his Rainforests Project and, somewhat incongruously, to thank Paul Weller and Florence and the Machine for playing at the Green Britain Day event, which was being controversially sponsored by EDF Energy.)

Aslam, an oceanographer by training, told the crowd that his country – which not only has to confront climate change, but has also had to recover from the 2004 tsunami as well as last year’s volatile presidential elections – now seeks “partners” to help it become the world’s first carbon-neutral country.

Once Paul Weller had completed the last of his encores, I got the chance to speak to Aslam about why he had travelled all the way from the Maldives to address the crowd in person. (I didn’t remember to ask him what he made of the main act, but did see him at one stage tapping his toes to Eton Rifles.) He said:

The science is sorted and politicians around the world have been going on and on about tackling climate change, but nothing really is being done. Ordinary people must stand up to this. I would rather speak to a crowd here at Eden than to politicians at Copenhagen. We want to make our problems everyone’s problems. We need partners. We want to invest in green technology. As a frontline state, we want to demonstrate this technology works. If we perish we want to show that we were trying to do the right thing. But we don’t want to be beggars and we can’t tell our people they can’t have development. There are 196 inhabited islands which need power. We use marine diesel generators now, but we can easily replace them.

It’s not long before we are talking about the subject of tourism and that fact that 60% of the Maldives’ economy is reliant on a wealthy few jetting in from thousands of miles away to spend two weeks in paradise. It’s a paradox that Aslam is ready to admit and one that his government is keen to address before the climate talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

“We will continue with tourism,” he said. “We have to. It will hurt us a lot to lose them. But we now want to reach out to tourists who visit the Maldives. They must help us go carbon neutral. A green levy for tourists is now being discussed by the new government ahead of Copenhagen.”

Aslam wouldn’t go into specifics about exactly how much tourists would be expected to pay – the cabinet is to discuss the idea shortly, he said – but he did say the revenue raised would be ring-fenced and only used to develop sources of renewable energy. Such a move would be both risky and controversial, though.

“Green” tourism taxes have been tried before, but were met with fierce resistance by tour operators and hotel owners who fear that the taxes drive potential custom away. In 2003, the Balearic Islands abandoned a modest “€1 per day per person” green tourism tax after just a year in operation, and when the New Zealand tourism minister mooted a similar idea last year it provoked an immediate industry backlash. However, the Maldives’ new government has already pledged to redirect some of the revenue it generates via tourism into buying a new homeland – possibly in Sri Lanka or India – for the time when its 300,000 islanders are finally forced to flee their homes and become environmental refugees.

It is rare to meet a politician who has such a genuine sense of urgency and priority when it comes to climate change. As he says, his frontline status demands it. But what, I asked him, is it like to live with the realities of climate change – sea level rises, coral bleaching, etc – so close at hand?

“It’s like a terminal disease for us,” he said. “It’s in our people’s minds all the time, but they also have to get on with their day-to-day lives. They also have to worry about reliable power, fresh water and sewage.”

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about a new price-comparison website that compares the environmental impact of flights as well as their price…

Price comparison sites now play such a major role in our travel choices that it’s hard to think of a time without them. They’ve helped to pull the rug out from under travel agents who used to be our only conduit to finding the best prices. It feels as if we’ve booted them out of their swivel chairs and taken their place at the bookings terminal instead.

It’s largely an illusion, of course. How do we really know that all the prices have been accurately and fairly compared? After all, the travel sector is notorious for its price volatility, where the cost of a flight or hotel can change by the minute. And how many sites are being compared when you make a search? Have any of them paid to be among the sites being compared? Have any been left out, as a result? The next logical leap will be a comparison site comparing price comparison sites. Don’t tell me, there’s one already out there.

You’re more than welcome to use this blog to list your favourite price comparison sites, or list your gripes, but that isn’t the purpose of this blog. Rather, it is to discuss the arrival of a new price comparison site – one that, yes, compares prices, but also compares the carbon footprint of the various airlines it lists when you make a search.

The Carbon Friendly Flight Finder is collaborative effort by The Carbon Consultancy, Global Travel Market and and when I had a little play with it this morning it seemed to do pretty much what it says on the label. Type in a search for a return flight from, say, London Heathrow to New York JFK leaving this Saturday and returning a week later and it tells you that Opodo is currently offering the best deal with an Air France flight priced at £270. (The most expensive option is an Aeroflot flight offered by Travelocity priced at £2,807. The mind boggles.)

However, it also tells you that the Air France flight has a “carbon ranking” of “3”, compared to, say, KLM (“7) or Virgin Atlantic (“1”), with “1” being the best and “10” the worst. The Carbon Consultancy says that the carbon rankings for each airline are not based on the actual emissions of that particular flight, but on an assessment based on a wide range of factors. You can read its a detailed explanation. But I’ll save you the hassle: all it is saying that the carbon ranking it gives to each airline is little more than an educated guestimate.

I welcome seeing this additional information published right next to the price, but in reality we’re talking about very small differences in fuel efficiencies between the airlines, especially when comparing them over long-haul routes. The variables that make the real difference over the same distance are whether the flight is direct or has to first go via a hub (which the Carbon Friendly Flight Finder does factor in), or whether, if it’s short haul, you are travelling on a jet or a turboprop plane.

Rather than being given a rather vague ranking out of 10, I would prefer to see the actual listings of grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre travelled. And, further still, see this compared against, where they exist, other travel options such as trains, ferries, and coaches. (See Fred Pearce’s recent Greenwash column for a discussion about making just such comparisons.) I would also like to see the airline’s carbon rankings accurately reflect the fact that the carbon dioxide they emit is done at high altitude which has a significantly greater impact on the climate – the so-called radiative forcing multiplier – than emissions down on the ground. It is only by making such comparisons that an accurate picture can be painted of the various “carbon rankings” of the choices that lay before us.

There’s a danger of losing perspective of the fact that by far the best option is to reduce the amount of flying you do, wherever possible, rather than fretting about whether or not flying with British Airways is a little bit better in terms of emissions than, say, flying with Virgin Atlantic. Flying London to New York with either of them will still result in well over a tonne of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere per passenger. And if you want one extra comparison, that’s broadly equal to one month’s worth of emissions resulting from the (non-flying) lifestyle of an average Briton.

As is the case with carbon offsetting (which The Carbon Consultancy promotes), I fear that such initiatives only ever really end up providing a comfort blanket for those who don’t wish to engage with the hard-edged environmental realities that now circle over our holidaying habits. Do they really offer anything more than the dangerous illusion of “job done”?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about the protests at Stansted Airport this morning…

When I first heard about protesters breaching the perimeter fence at Stansted airport on the radio this morning, my first reaction, given Plane Stupid’s previous actions, was to wonder why the campaign group hadn’t done something on this scale earlier in the year.

Protests of this nature had been effectively cleared for take-off in September by jurors at Maidstone Crown Court, who acquitted the so-called Kingsnorth Six of causing £30,000 worth of criminal damage while protesting at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in October 2007. The protestors successfully argued, for the first time in a British court, that their actions had a lawful excuse because they were trying to protect against climate change-induced damage on a far greater scale. I’m sure Plane Stupid’s defence team are already pouring over the details of the trial.

The protest has caused, on average, 90 minutes’ worth of delays at the airport. In other words, not too dissimilar to any normal day at a British airport. Yet I heard people on the radio this morning putting the protestors on a par with murderous Islamist terrorists. And the protestors are accused of losing perspective? I can understand – as do the protestors themselves – that people find their actions annoying and disruptive, but that’s the point.

Non-violent direct action rubs against the grain of popular opinion in order to get itself noticed amid a sea of self-interest, apathy and day-to-day distractions. It is born out of desperation and frustration that the normal democratic processes have failed, are flawed, or are corrupted by vested interests, despite clear evidence that the current path is dangerous or unjust. How many people now see Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Emmeline Pankhurst as criminals rather than heroes, despite the fact they all broke the laws of their day to protest for what we now see as worthy causes?

As the protestors said this morning, they see their actions as a last resort having already spent years trying to use the lawful democratic processes. For the past 20 or so years, an ever-broader consensus of scientists has warned us of the self-induced dangers of climate change. Yet, following our political leaders, we continue to sleepwalk towards an avoidable (although the clock appears to be fast running down) destiny. Aviation has, justifiably in my view, been singled out by the protestors as a sector that is still far from internalising its environmental costs and that continues to increases its emissions with little hope of reversal. Stopping airports from expanding any further is a sure way to throttle any extra supply.

It is ironic that today, the new energy and climate change minister, Ed Miliband, who sits within a government that has been staunchly pro-aviation, should be calling for “popular mobilisation” and “countervailing forces” to help drive climate change further up the global political agenda.

“When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation,” he said. “Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.”

Well, he got his wish this morning.

A blog written for Comment is Free about the UK government’s decision to give the go-ahead to Stansted airport’s expansion plans…

Invest in spade manufacturers. That’s my hot tip for those of you looking for a punt during these uncertain times. For this is surely a wonderful time to be burying bad news.

There was certainly something of the Jo Moore’s about today’s announcement by Geoff Hoon, the fresh-off-the-carousel transport secretary, that Stansted airport is to be given the go-ahead to expand its passenger capacity. Would he have dared do so at any other time given that it was just 72 hours ago that the government’s committee on climate change, chaired by Lord Turner (some week he’s having what with his other job at the FSA), said that the UK’s carbon reduction target for 2050 should be raised from 60% to 80% and include shipping and aviation?

Airport expansion seems to make about as much sense this week as looking for good savings deals in Iceland. Even if you put climate change concerns aside – a near-impossible ask when it comes to airports, I admit – then airport expansion still seems to be a dud. With airlines going out of business by the week due to high fuel costs, and consumers pulling up the drawbridge on their spending (which, presumably, will curtail the urge to pop to Europe by plane for the weekend), the growth predictions made by the aviation industry – and lapped up by the present government – now seem to be more than a little wide of the mark. The current economic situation is actually presenting the government with the perfect opportunity to gracefully retreat from its unpopular and unwise airport expansion plans – and yet it pushes on like Douglas Haig at the Somme. The plans for Stansted and Heathrow’s third runway should really be dead in the water by now – for example, how and with whom is BAA now going to raise the funds for these projects? – but still they refuse to whither. I wonder if Ed Miliband, as the new secretary of state for climate change and energy, was even involved in the decision. To be honest, it tells us much about the government’s true convictions on climate change whether he was or he wasn’t involved.

My bet is that the third runway at Heathrow really must now be a lost cause for its ever-dwindling number of supporters. The tide has now almost fully turned against it – the politics, the economics, the environment. Stansted’s expansion is very different because it doesn’t require new asphalt to be laid, just an increase in the number of flights using its current runway. But never content, its owner BAA still pushes on with its predict-and-provide pleas for a second runway. If any good is to come out of the turbulence of recent weeks it will be that such plans will now have to make an urgent forced landing.

Here’s my ‘no’ response to the question above published in the Observer’s Escape section

When you jump off that chair lift for the first time every season, fill your lungs with frigid air and glance at that mountain vista ahead, it’s hard not to feel a connection with nature. Immersing yourself in this environment is arguably one of skiing’s key attractions.

But strip away the glamour and the thrills and you are left with a list of environmental woes. And that’s not taking into account the fact that the busiest slope in any ski region is the line of aircraft descending to the airport. You cannot talk about skiing without mentioning climate change. Skiers, of all people, should be aware of the rapid changes occurring on the world’s mountain ranges. Glaciers are in speedy retreat and snow lines are rising quickly.

Skiers are not directly causing these problems, other than by being members of the human race. But the skiing industry is frantically, forlornly, trying to stave off the deleterious effects of climate change with a series of measures that will only exacerbate the problem in the long run. The arrival of snow cannons at virtually every major resort over the past decade is the most worrying of trends. Working through the night as the skiers’ attention turns to the delights of schnapps and fondue, these spray particles of water mixed with nucleating agents into the freezing air to create a blanket of artificial snow. A lack of the real stuff has forced the industry to rely on these machines, but their environmental impact is considerable.

Mountain Wilderness, a French conservation group that described skiing as “the cancer of the Alps”, says that 4,000 cubic metres of water are needed to cover one hectare of piste for a season – whereas a hectare of corn needs only 1,700. Across the Alps, it is estimated that artificial snow consumes the same amount of water each year as 1.5 million people. Incredibly, in some regions, tap water is used, but elsewhere river water is extracted from the valleys below and pumped back up the mountain.

This causes two problems. First, there is the energy expenditure: Mountain Wilderness says that it requires about 25,000 kilowatt-hours, costing about €150,000, to cover just one hectare of piste with snow for a season (that’s largely why the cost of ski passes has risen so much in recent years). Second, dumping river water at high altitude disrupts biodiversity because it introduces nutrients in the water into an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

Using artificial snow also means that the pistes now take up to a month longer than normal to melt in the summer, preventing many plant species lying dormant underneath from germinating and flowering, leading to huge muddy scars in the summer meadows where the pistes once lay. Just take a look on Google Earth at satellite images of, say, the Chamonix valley or Aspen during the summer months.

“Artificial snow is not the root of all evil, but it is very close,” says Sergio Savoia, the programme director of WWF Switzerland. “One of the biggest problems is psychological: snow cannons give tourists the idea that it is business as usual. But we don’t actually have much snow.”

Some low-lying resorts are experiencing winter nights that are too warm even to use snow cannons. There are reports that helicopters are being used to ferry snow to threadbare pistes in order to keep these resorts in business. In 2002, Italian police set up a task force to investigate the “theft” of snow from glaciers by the truck load in order to serve nearby resorts. The alternative is to abandon such resorts and chase the snow, by building new lifts and hotels further up the mountain. This is already being seen in some places.

But, despite the promises of resort owners, how environmentally sensitive can a concrete mixer really be when taken high up into a wilderness area and put to work?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about whether tourists should be blocked from visiting Antarctica…

There has been a rush of “see it before it’s gone” tourism in recent years. The advent of “climate tourism“, and its close relative “extinction tourism“, has been reflected in (and encouraged by, no doubt) travel journalism.

In March, the Miami Herald ran a travel feature with the headline: Global warming: 10 destinations to see before it’s too late. Last year, the Observer ran a feature in its travel section headlined 10 wonders of the vanishing world which celebrated threatened destinations such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Maldives – and then told you how to get to them (which attracted an angry reaction from some readers).

It is a worrying, if understandable, trend. I, too, would love to be able to see some of these places with my own eyes. Who wouldn’t? On the top of my list would be Antarctica. I grew up, like so many others, devouring the exploits of Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott and it would surely be an extraordinary personal experience to be able to go there.

To learn that these destinations may, if not quite “vanish” (I think there’s a few years of Antarctica left yet), then at least be degraded or altered by climate change in coming decades, is all the more a spur to book the journey for some.

I can well understand the human desire driving this type of tourism – just as I can understand why we want to climb to the top of mountains or reach out into space. But, if it means speeding a destination’s decline by us being there as tourists, then we shouldn’t be given free rein to do so.

Antarctica is one place where I believe that this applies more than anywhere else. In fact, I believe it is the one place in the world where a “no tourism” rule should now be implemented.

It is far too environmentally fragile a place for the heavy feet of tourists to tread. (It is also unique in not having an indigenous population to argue it needs the tourism dollars.) That’s not just my view – that’s the view of many scientists based there, including ones from the British Antarctic Survey. The UN environment programme also expressed concern about tourism’s impact in Antarctica in its 2007 report called Global Outlook for Ice and Snow:

“The projected retreat of sea ice is likely to lead to an expansion of tourism activities, as more sites will become accessible by sea and the season will lengthen. This, in turn, is likely to increase the risk tourism presents to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial ecosystems, as over 80% of the tourists land during their journeys. This will also present new challenges in maintaining the unique characteristics Antarctica presents for scientific monitoring and research on processes of global and regional importance … In order to address these challenges, a comprehensive regime on tourism should be developed, complementary to the Madrid protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, which provides a regulatory framework for human activities in Antarctica.”

The Antarctic Treaty came into force on 23 June 1961 (and, a little worryingly, comes up for “renewal” on its 50th birthday in three years time) with the somewhat vague promise of ensuring the ice continent became a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. For decades, it has been host to just a few scientists (although the Americans have pushed the boundaries way too far with their grossly oversized settlement at McMurdo Station and at the South Pole, with its new all-weather, coast-to-pole road).

But in recent years, it has blossomed as a destination for cruise ships, buoyed by the relentless demand for “adventure tourism”. During the 2007-2008 season, almost 35,000 tourists were estimated to have stepped ashore from their cruise ships in Antarctica, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (a coalition of tour operators established in 1991 that follow “best practice self-regulation” when it comes to minimising their environmental impact).

By comparison, just 6,704 tourists went ashore in 1990. This probably isn’t the time to discuss the inadequacies of the Antarctic treaty, especially given the looming fight over seabed mining rights, but one positive thing that could come of the 2011 renewal discussions would, at the very least, be the introduction of exceptionally strict rules about how tourists are to interact with Antarctica, if they are allowed to at all.

At present, tourism isn’t even mentioned in the treaty’s wording. Earlier this year, Simon Jenkins wrote, with a sense of boyish glee, about how he is now the proud keeper of a walnut-sized pebble that he picked up when visiting Antarctica. He went on to argue that the continent shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of scientists. I strongly disagree: I favour the precautionary principle in that we prove we can tread carefully enough as tourists elsewhere first – something we most certainly have not achieved yet – before we bespoil this pristine place.

Surely, we can show that as a species we don’t always have to “have” something just because we know it’s there, and as a result end up mishandling it. Surely, we can move away from the centuries-old attitude that mankind has dominion over nature. (And, no, I don’t agree with the view, so often argued, that you have to see these things with your own eyes to truly understand why they need protecting; I’ve never seen the Brazilian rainforest, but I understand why it shouldn’t be chopped down.)

I fear, though, that this is a forlorn hope: this week, Gap Adventures, the company that saw its cruise ship, the MS Explorer, sink off Antarctica last November after striking an unidentified object, announced that it had secured a bigger ship to recommence expeditions from January 2009. The momentum of tourism is, at times, mightier than that of a glacier.

I was recently interviewed by Tom Heap for an episode of Radio 4’s environmental strand Costing the Earth which focused on the environmental impact of tourism. It was first broadcast on Thursday, May 15, but is now available on the BBC’s iPlayer here. The show also spawned a feature on the BBC News website’s Magazine.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website about Benidorm’s eco claims…

Think of one of the world’s most derided tourist destinations. Now try to think of one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable tourist destinations.

It is unlikely that you came up with the same name for each, but the mayor of Benidorm was arguing this week that critics should stop mocking his city – which welcomes four million visitors a year, twice as many as Kenya – and realise that it is, in fact, a model for how popular destinations should manage precious resources such as fresh water and energy.

Ask someone who has never been to Benidorm what they think of it and they will typically speak in negative tones. Known as the “Manhattan of Spain” because of its long, thin strip of skyscraper hotels, Benidorm is also famous for its burger bars, British fish and chip shops, kiss-me-quick souvenir stands, karaoke nights and beer bellies on parade. The current ITV1 comedy about British tourists there reinforces most of these stereotypes for those who haven’t yet visited – and, to be honest, are unlikely ever to do so.

But Manuel Pérez Fenoll, the city’s mayor, is right to point out that the perception people have of his city is clouding their view about its environmental credentials. Most people assume that Benidorm is a horror show of over-development and environmental degradation. There is a lot of truth in this, of course, and Pérez is stretching his point slightly, but when set against the golf course-villa-pool-golf course-villa-pool template of tourism development that now runs for hundreds of miles along Spain’s costas, Benidorm is almost beacon of environmental best practice. (My heart sank this week when I read that Cuba now sees golf courses to be the best way to attract tourists.)

So how can the city be green? The reason is simple: Benidorm sustains the four million visitors it receives each year within just a few square miles, whereas when you spread the same number of visitors across a much wider area their per capita demands for water and energy increases massively. A tourist in Benidorm is using far fewer resources compared to, say, a tourist staying in a nearby villa that hugs a golf course and boasts a kidney-shaped pool.

When I visited Benidorm two years ago to investigate this subject for my book The Final Call, I sat in his plush office in city hall and interviewed Pérez. At the time he was – somewhat paradoxically, compared to his comments this week – boasting how the city had just built new golf courses and a water park to attract even more visitors, but he also stressed how well the city’s water system worked from an environmental perspective and how “the Israelis” had recently visited to see if they could learn anything from it. (In contrast to the golf course-peppered landscape that surrounds Benidorm, evaporation of its water, which is partly collected in rainwater reservoirs nearby, is greatly minimised by always keeping it underground in pipes; waste water is also recycled to replenish all the city’s public green spaces.)

A lot has changed politically in Spain since then with a fast-growing backlash against the country’s ill-conceived tourism developments. Part of the concern is the way they demand far too much of the nation’s imperilled and fast-diminishing fresh water supplies. Pérez’s views reflect this and his point shouldn’t be lost just because of many people’s prejudice about Benidorm and other destinations like it.

With the UN’s World Tourism Organisation predicting that the number of international tourists will have reached 1.6 billion a year by 2020 compared to 840 million in 2006, we are going to have to recognise that concentrating tourism in hubs such as Benidorm is one of the most environmentally effective ways of managing this increase.

But, crucially, these hubs must be well planned and managed. If not, they will make the same mistakes that Benidorm, Cancun, and others have made before them, ending up as bywords for over-development and, as a result, losing their appeal.

Benidorm’s first mayor – who died last week – said to me during my visit that one of his biggest regrets was seeing how his original plans for developing Benidorm in the 1950s were irresponsibly torn up and expanded during the 1970s and 1980s. If those that followed him had maintained a sense of foresight and discipline, he said, then Benidorm would not have developed the negative reputation it has today. Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned from Benidorm’s experience – both positive and negative – by those planning the tourism hubs of tomorrow.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about the rise of the ‘long-haul minibreak’…

When did spending more than 14 hours in a plane over a long weekend suddenly become enjoyable, rather than a punishment that befalls only the hardiest of business travellers?

What have I missed? Are airport queues no more? Has in-flight dining suddenly become a gastronomic delight? Does everyone now get a fully reclining seat and limitless leg room? Have they found a cure for deep vein thrombosis? Is there a pill to pop to nullify jet lag?

I only ask because it seems that we have now entered an era where “long-haul minibreaks” are becoming the norm for a well-heeled section of British society. According to a recent survey by Halifax, last year 3.7 million Britons chose to fly to destinations seven hours away or more in the pursuit of leisure. The travel insurer predicts that this will increase by a third this year meaning that 4.9 million tourists from the UK will be jetting off to places such as Hong Kong, New York, Vancouver, Dubai, Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro on so-called “breakneck breaks”.

“Better airline quality, the lure of winter sun, favourable exchange rates, and cheaper long-haul flights have created a boom in demand for long-haul mini-breaks, with millions of us enduring long flights for a weekend break on the other side of the globe,” said Paul Birkhead, a senior manager at Halifax.

Other factors are also promising to make this new form of entertainment more attractive, such as the forthcoming “open skies” agreement for routes across the Atlantic which is predicted to make such routes even cheaper. Throw in the proposed third runway at Heathrow and second runway at Stanstead and those living in the south-east – which the survey identifies as where many of the breakneck breakers reside – and millions more could soon be spending the weekend sipping mojitos in Manhattan rather than mowing the lawn in Marlow.

It is all madness, of course. This is exactly why environmentalists – and increasingly a wide coalition of other groups – are fighting so hard to rein in the growth in aviation. The popular myth that they are trying to “stop the poor from flying” is a convenient smokescreen. As Civil Aviation Authority data shows (see chapter three of this report), there is actually very little evidence, if any, that the era of low-cost carriers has suddenly “democratised the skies” for one and all, as the airlines and their lobbyists would have you believe. Anyway, the fight to stop airport expansion isn’t about stopping those that fly once a year to the Med for their annual two-week holiday, it’s about curbing the still relatively small section of society that is now addicted to “binge flying” – those that fly three or more times a year for leisure. These are the people who are driving much of the growth in aviation in the UK – and its resultant emissions, which currently account for about 13% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas burden.

And the addiction analogy is useful in this context because the more we allow such trips to flourish, the more “hooked” the travellers become. That’s exactly why so many people are fighting airport expansion – it’s an attempt to cut off the supply at its source.

But beyond the compelling environmental arguments that should dissuade those that promote and consume long-haul minibreaks, there lies, I feel, another interesting phenomenon: the ever-increasing degree of importance most of us attach to where and how we travel for leisure when it comes to sending out the right signals about our social standing. Why would anyone travel to, say, Hong Kong for the weekend other than to show off in the office or among friends the next week that they had done so? The reality is that once you’d accounted for the flying time, you would have had time to do little more than have a couple of nice meals, spend a few hours shopping and catch some sleep in an identikit hotel room. Would you really have even “seen” Hong Kong in that short time? Was it really worth causing such a disproportionately high environmental impact over such a short period for such a superficial example of travel-by-numbers?

Friends of the Earth was quite right to label such journeys as “indulgent”, given the fact that few in the UK can still claim ignorance when it comes to knowing about aviation’s environmental legacy.

We will always have a “sod you” section of society that does what it wants regardless of the consequences to others, but my own view is that they should have to pay a high price for their current freedom to wilfully pollute. Yet more tinkering by the Chancellor with aviation taxation is expected today, but another far more important influence is soon set to collide with and disrupt the growth in aviation – rising oil prices. Many airlines now buy – or hedge – their fuel more than a year in advance to try to outrun price pressures. With some predicting that oil could reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year, the era of cheap flights could soon be at an end, with or without the campaigning efforts of environmentalists.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Environment website about Virgin’s biofuel test flight…

I doubt many of us had probably heard of babassu oil before a Virgin airline test flight, partly powered by biofuels, made the short hop from London to Amsterdam yesterday.

The oil, which is produced from a palm native to the Maranhão Babaçu forests in the eastern Amazon, is typically used as a cooking oil, but is also used to make medicines and soap.

Well, if test partners Virgin, Boeing and General Electric get their way, this versatile oil will be able to add another string to its bow: propelling humans around the globe at 900km an hour.
Along with coconut oil, babassu oil was blended – 20/80 – with traditional aviation-grade kerosene and fed into just one of the Virgin test plane’s engines. The other engines were powered normally and we can assume the test went well because there were no big splashes reported in the North Sea.

If this test flight had taken place about five years ago, I’m sure it would have received near universal praise. Back then, biofuels were being touted as the great “green” alternative to fossil fuels. But in recent years, the more we have examined biofuels, the more problems have appeared – particularly in relation to their claim to being “carbon neutral”.

Branson, a master of PR, doesn’t seem to have timed this latest high-profile stunt very well. Just last week, the UK government was putting the brakes on biofuels by ordering a review of their environmental and economic damage. In recent weeks, Science has published several damning papers about the effectiveness of using biofuels to reduce emissions. And just hours after the test flight landed safely, the Financial Times was reporting that the UN’s World Food Programme is considering rationing food aid to the world’s most needy because of spiralling food costs which are, in no small part, being driven up by the demand for biofuels – which, at present, are largely made from food crops.

Feeding a starving child, or powering a flight to New York? It should never be a contest, but, following Virgin’s test flight, it now is. The very thing that the critics of biofuels feared is now becoming a reality. (I wonder if the crew of Virgin Galactic‘s sub-orbital spacecraft will be pointing out the biofuel plantations below to space tourists when the first flights take off in the next couple of years?)

One of the reasons environmentalists and others are crying foul over this test flight is because Virgin originally stated that it wouldn’t be using a “first-generation feedstock” (most of which are produced from food crops such as corn and palm oil) to produce its biofuel. In the build-up to the test flight, Virgin had been suggesting that the feedstock would be derived from algae instead. But as many biofuel producers know all too well, it’s much cheaper and more convenient to produce biofuels from food crops.

Rather than wait until an algae-derived biofuel was ready – which would probably be something to herald – Virgin felt the need to jump the gun so it could still claim to be the first airline in the world to trial a biofuel. As a result, it will now justly get the flack for using a feedstock that should be feeding people instead.

The hunt will go on, though, for a “drop-in” replacement for kerosene – one that doesn’t require a huge and costly change in refuelling infrastructure. If the aviation industry is to keep growing at its current pace, and yet still manage to reduce its emissions burden, it is clearly going to need to keep trialling new fuels. And the key hurdle is finding one that can meet kerosene’s “high energy density” – in other words, its oomph. A hard task, indeed.

But even if someone did manage to produce, say, an algae-derived aviation fuel, we are still a long way from it ever being used to power commercial flights for the simple reason that the aviation industry, by necessity, is a highly risk-averse industry. No one wants to risk the lives of 300 people travelling at 30,000ft. Therefore, it would take at least a decade before any such fuel was passed as safe by regulators. It’s for this reason that most industry commentators see kerosene remaining the dominant aviation fuel for at least the next two to three decades – a period for which a continued fast growth in aviation emissions is predicted. So will its arrival be too little, too late?

Personally, I welcome research into new aviation fuels, but worry greatly that the current focus means that we’ll end up with an alternative fuel that ultimately presents more problems than solutions. The one solution that just doesn’t seem to be able to fly at present is simply reducing the number of planes we send up into the atmosphere. But that would require a political fuel no one has yet seen the likes of.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website in the week tourism ministers met in London to discuss climate change…

Thousands of representatives from the world’s tourism industry descended on east London this week to attend the World Travel Market, a giant trade fair held each November in the cavernous ExCel centre in Docklands. As someone who has attended WTM in the two previous years, I can report that it is quite a spectacle. Pretty much every country on the planet – 202 countries this year – sends a delegation to staff a stand in order to try to court the industry’s key decision-makers to persuade them to send as many tourists as possible their way over the next 12 months. It’s like speed dating – but on a grand scale.

For anyone wanting to see where the power lies in what some claim to be the world’s largest industry, they only need to stand on one of the balconies overlooking the main floor and look at how the countries are spaced out. In the centre of the room, boasting stands that have probably cost tens of thousands of pounds to construct, are the industry’s most important destinations – the US, France, the UK, Spain, Dubai etc. On the fringes are those looking, hoping, to join the party. And countries such as Burundi quite literally have little more than a trestle table holding a few leaflets and are positioned far away from the main thoroughfares.

As I walked among the stands last year, listening in and watching deals being struck, I couldn’t help but wonder what WTM would look like in a few decades’ time. Would the same countries be dominating proceedings? Would WTM still even be operating? The trigger for these thoughts was that the Great Issue of Our Age (TM) – climate change – was a concept that had evidently been blocked from entering the hall by security. If one industry has dragged its heels over confronting climate change it is the tourism industry. This is a very strange response given that it, arguably, has the most to lose.

But that was last year. I was pleased to learn earlier this year that up to 100 tourism ministers from across the globe would be meeting at this year’s event to discuss how the tourism industry should address climate change. The UN’s World Tourism Organisation was to meet formally at WTM and discuss how it should approach the forthcoming UN climate summit being held in Bali in December. (Back in October it had drafted the “Davos Declaration“, which sets out the industry’s stance on climate change.) At last, I thought, sleeves are being rolled up. The industry is finally going to work out how to square the fact that it is a significant and fast-growing emitter of greenhouses gases, as well as also being extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Sadly, though, all the reports coming out of WTM this week suggest that while there’s been a lot of talk about the issue, there has been very little commitment to act in any meaningful way. For example, this is what Margaret Hodge, the UK’s tourism minister had to say:

“It is not for the government to deny people the right to travel. Or to deny the industry the right to respond to the demand for travel. It is a difficult task to try to square the circle of the desire to travel and the use of aviation and its growth… The tourism industry fuels around 5% of global CO2 emissions. But for every negative there should be a positive. There is a lot being done by tourism and aviation industries to reduce greenhouse emissions. There are strong grounds for us to be optimistic.”

This is little more than a rubber stamp for the industry’s “business as usual” stance, as far as I can tell. One of the major problems, I feel, is that tourism is so poorly represented, if at all, at cabinet level in most of the world’s governments. For example, Margaret Hodge is hardly what we might call at the heart of government, despite the fact that tourism is acknowledged as the capital city’s second largest industry. Just when the tourism industry needs a big prod by governments to move it in the right direction on this issue – yes, I mean far tighter regulation – it knows it will be treated with kid gloves.

There were some dissenting voices, however. To his credit, the ebullient and high-pitched CNN business travel reporter and anchor Richard Quest stood up and slammed the attendees for their inaction and mealy words:

“How many of you have a car waiting for you? How many have requested your hotel not to change your sheets and towels tonight? How many of you travelled here economy class? The business class seat is the most environmentally unfriendly on the aircraft. It takes more space, has greater weight and higher fuel burn… I have read the Davos Declaration in detail. I am none the wiser about what’s going to be done. I suggest and respectfully submit that more work needs to be done on changing the mindset rather than producing pamphlets of fine-sounding language… Ultimately, we have to change the mindset of the tourist, whether it is the business traveller or the vacationer. We are in this sinking boat together and we need to offer them realistic possibilities and procedures to help bale us out of it.”

Such an intervention is welcome, but I do wonder how long it will take for this industry to shake off this paralysis. Last week, Greenpeace in Spain released some mocked-up images of how some of the countries most popular resorts might look if sea levels rise as some predict. Each year, ski resorts report ever reduced snow levels. And just this week, the world’s small island states met in the Maldives – one of the UK’s most popular “winter sun” destinations – to discuss the impact of climate change.

When will this mighty industry properly face up to this ever-looming challenge?

To comment, click through to the Guardian’s website here…

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website on the day the A380 took off on its first commercial flight…

So the big bird has finally flown. The first commercial flight of the new A380 took off from Singapore this morning headed for Sydney, with a belly full of eager-eyed passengers, some donating up to $10,000 to charity for their place in aviation history. There has been so much fanfare accompanying this new superjumbo from Airbus that, to be honest, it’s a relief that she has at last pulled away from the departure gate with her first paying passengers. If this really was a paradigm shift in flying then it might warrant all this attention, but in reality it illustrates to me just how little we’ve travelled in terms of aviation innovation since 1970 when the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” first took to the air. It hardly compares to the “leap forward” made by Concorde’s first commercial flight just a few years later. I’m sure there will be many who marvel at this new plane’s engineering prowess, but the thing that really counts today is can this plane get as many people from A to B using as little fuel as possible? Much has been made about the A380’s green credentials and most of it, sadly, has been vastly overblown. The plane’s basic principle is sound – if something is going to take to the air it might as well have as many people on board as possible to maximise the fuel used. But on closer inspection the Airbus claims lose a lot of their lustre. Airbus’s website says that the plane will burn 2.9 litres of fuel per passenger for every 100km travelled, or, put another way, it will emit 75 grammes of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. This, says Airbus, is a better fuel efficiency than a hybrid car. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But how did it arrive at that figure? Well, I couldn’t find an explanation on the website, and I called the UK office but no one returned my call. So I’m reliant on the National Center for Public Policy Research in the US, who did manage to extract the details from Airbus. Airbus told them that the measurements were based on the A380 carrying 555 passengers at a cruising speed of 900km – but with no luggage or cargo on board. Singapore Airlines has said that its A380s will be set up in the traditional three-class configuration, but will be carrying “less than 480 passengers”. This is because it wants to give passengers more space – including those paying big bucks to travel in its much-heralded “12 ultra-luxurious suites”. (The A380 can, in theory, carry 853 passengers, but it is highly unlikely that any airline will utilise this, except perhaps on some short-range internal routes in, say, China and Japan.) Given that most of these passengers will have hand luggage and a suitcase or two, you can safely assume that the quoted fuel efficiency is going to be less impressive than it first appears. And don’t forget that it is rare for a passenger flight to take off without cramming commercial cargo on board too – or that carrying capacity among the so-called legacy carriers who are ordering up these planes (not in the quantity that Airbus had hoped for) is lucky to ever break through the 80% barrier. This could seem to be unnecessary nitpicking, but the far bigger concern for me is that Airbus predicts these planes will be in service for 40-50 years. With other airlines also investing heavily in Boeing’s rival Dreamliner, which has its own much-puffed “eco” claims, we can safely assume that these two planes will be the principal workhorses of the skies for the next several decades. These are the planes that will serve the huge growth that is predicted for the aviation industry over this period – and is what has triggered the huge concern about aviation’s fast-increasing environmental impact. This goes a long way to quashing any realistic talk of some huge techno fix laying just around the corner – blended-wing designs, hydrogen fuel cells etc – that would mean we would be able fly without a thought for the atmosphere that our plane carves through. Are airlines which have just spent billions of dollars on new planes really going to be in the market for experimental planes in the near future? Also, look just how long it has taken for the A380 to come to market. Aviation innovation takes decades to literally get off the ground – and so does fuel design – for the simple reason that regulators don’t like to take risks when hundreds of people are being flown at 30,000ft. Therefore, all this talk of biofuels for planes is fanciful in the short- to medium-term – and just look at all the hubbub that biofuels are already causing when it comes to verifying their true environmental credentials. The plain truth is that while these tweaks in efficiency are obviously welcome don’t believe the hype that they are anything more than just tweaks. That flight from London-Sydney, or wherever, will still come at a considerable carbon cost, whichever plane you are travelling in. Somehow getting fewer people into the skies is the key, not beckoning people onboard with inflated eco claims.

To comment, click through to the Guardian’s website here …

This Saturday (October 13) I’m taking part in a debate at Tourism Concern‘s AGM entitled, ‘Is it the Final Call for Tourism?’ It is taking place inside the Graduate Centre at the Tower Building, London Metropolitan University. Yes, I know it clashes with some important football match or other, but it promises to be an interesting and lively afternoon. The debate ‘kicks off’ at 2.45pm. Here’s how Travelmole is billing it (although I would add that I have never said that “tourism will indeed ruin the world!”, but we can certainly debate that notion on Saturday)…

Leo Hickman, author of the Final Call meets with Frances Tuke of ABTA to discuss whether it really is the final call for tourism – Tourism Concern, Saturday 13 October at London Metropolitan University.
Leo Hickman, journalist and author of the recent controversial book “The Final Call”, ABTA’s Press Officer, Frances Tuke, Lamin Bojan from Gambia Tourism Concern and Peter DeBrine, Deputy Director of the International Tourism Partnership will be discussing whether it really is the final call for tourism. The discussion is hosted by Tourism Concern and will be chaired by journalist and broadcaster Alison Rice
The discussion, which is bound to be lively, will focus on the impact of travel, and whether, as Leo Hickman claims in his book, tourism will indeed ruin the world!
Focusing on the excesses of tourism and its unsustainable growth, Hickman covers Dubai and its ultimate homage to consumerism, Thailand and sex tourism, climate change, China’s phenomenal tourism growth, the receding glaciers in Switzerland, countries that greenwash their tourism as a marketing tool, developers that pay no heed to the rights of their workforce and the fact that there are no checks and balances and no moves towards any regulation.
Tourism Concern would welcome the presence of those working in the tourism industry to contribute to the discussion. The audience will be encouraged to have its say. There has already been some strong debate between Hickman and Jeremy Skidmore in Travel Mole. Saturday, 13th October is the opportunity for others to join in.

Here’s a blog I wrote for the Guardian’s Travel website yesterday. To add a comment, click on this link…

Breaking news: Butlins are replacing their red coats with green coats. No, not really, but the British holiday camp operator has come up with a novel way to try and drum up more business – it is trying to convince us that to do our bit for the environment we should give up our foreign flights and holiday at one of its camps instead. (And there I was thinking that its line up of round-the-clock family entertainment was enough to pull in the punters.)

Butlins is puffing out its chest this week as its visitor figures for this year are up 5% on last year, despite the bad weather. It has commissioned a survey by to find out why some of us are shunning foreign flights and choosing to holiday at home instead – but is a little surprised to see that the reasons given rarely include “to save the planet”. In fact, only 1% of the 1,500 respondents gave this as their reason. Much more popular were airport delays (39%), luggage restrictions (27%), driving on the wrong side of the road (11%), foreign food (9%) and fear of flying (7%).

“Given current concerns over climate change, it’s a surprise that people are so much more deterred from going abroad by everyday things like driving on the wrong side of the road and not liking foreign food,” says Richard Bates, managing director of Butlins. “But the good news is that the overall net effect will be a reduction in people’s carbon footprints.” (I totally get the hatred of airport delays, but is “driving on the wrong side of the road” really worth giving up a trip abroad for? Irrationality, evidently knows no bounds.)

Butlins’ top brass may be scratching their heads, but it comes as no surprise to me that people don’t cite “climate change'” as a reason for giving up flying. I have never bought this idea that enough people are voluntarily going to raise their hands in the check-in queue and forego their flight just because you’ve made a convincing argument about aviation’s environmental impact. No one dares take a bone from a dog once it is in its mouth.

The people who do volunteer are always going to remain a single-percentage-figure phenomenon. That’s precisely why there is so much political discussion about green taxes for aviation.

Flying quite simply has to be much more expensive than it is now before a significant number of people start making greener holiday choices. Remember that the large majority of people who fly in the UK are the affluent middle class – there is little, if any, evidence that cheap flights have suddenly filled the skies with “the poor” enjoying multiple trips abroad each year, as the aviation lobby’s argument says. And even if that were true, it still isn’t a strong enough argument against price hikes as an effective way of deterring people from flying.

Some form of demand management is desperately required to slow down the runaway growth that aviation is experiencing due to artificially low pricing. Green taxation seems to be the best short-term answer, bar not building any more runaways.

Groups such as Aviation Environment Federation say that surveys show that green taxes would have to reach as much as £75 per flight before they start to have a serious impact on demand. The bottom line in this – as with any polluting act – is that the cost of flying should represent its cost to the environment, something it clearly does not do at the moment.

If, for argument’s sake, you accept Sir Nicholas Stern’s estimate that the environmental cost of each tonne of CO2 we emit should be priced at $85 (£45), then you can start to put a sensible environmental price on aviation. Therefore, one London-Miami return flight emitting broadly two tonnes of CO2 per passenger would need to add £90 to the current price – a hike that would surely make many passengers rethink the need to do that journey. (And this is ignoring the so-called “uplift multiplier”, which accounts for the additional climate change impact of emitting the pollution at 30,000ft – according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we would need to multiply the CO2 impact of aviation by a factor of 2.7.)

Crucially, I think that any revenue raised should be ring-fenced for environmentally positive initiatives such as grants for improving the energy efficiency of your home, or simply lead to tax cuts elsewhere so that green taxes are seen as “revenue neutral”. This way you at least have a chance of bringing some of the electorate with you. A huge mistake was made with the recent rise in Air Passenger Duty (APD) in that it convinced no one – not even environmentalists – that it was anything other than a cynical act of revenue raising by the chancellor.

It amuses me that today easyJet is trying to argue in its new report called Towards Greener Skies: The Surprising Truth About Flying And The Environment that the no-frills airlines such as itself already pay the full environmental costs of their flights more than four times over, due to being disproportionately hit by APD. It is instead arguing for a tax that reflects that some airlines – including easyJet, just in case you were wondering – operate less emitting fleets than others.

“The time has come to scrap APD and replace it with a ‘polluter tax’ that has at its heart a very simple notion – those that fly on airlines that pollute less, like easyJet, should pay less,” says easyJet’s chief executive Andy Harrison.

I don’t disagree with this sentiment at all, but we are talking about a saving of probably no more than a few pounds, pence even, due to the marginal differences in fuel efficiency between the different fleets. It is simply nonsense to say that easyJet passengers already pay more than four times the environmental cost of their flight. No matter how much you want to cook the figures, the simple truth is that we all need to start flying less – and 66% of flying by UK passengers is for discretionary leisure purposes – than we do now if we are ever to be serious about trying to reduce our carbon emissions.

But if you’re not sold on the idea of green taxes being applied to aviation, what else would you propose to reduce demand? Or will you not let anything – not even climate-change concerns – get in the way of your next holiday flight?

In the immediate aftermath of the Climate Camp protest at Heathrow, I was asked to participate in a debate on BBC2’s Newsnight. I’m not too sure why someone would want to put this on Youtube, but they have…

The Guardian published a comment piece by me on Saturday to tie in with the Climate Camp protests taking place this week at Heathrow. The piece looks at how much of the money we spend on holiday actually ‘sticks’ to the destination.

It will be a case of “heads down and don’t look up” for holidaymakers flying from Heathrow next week, if they want to avoid catching the disapproving eye of climate camp protesters gathered at the perimeter fence. But expect some of the tourists to reject the niggling twinge of eco-guilt – a twinge 93% of us now experience when travelling by plane, according to a survey by Lonely Planet this week – as they pass along this most modern walk of shame by offering the following soundbite to TV news crews: “If we all stopped flying abroad, it would destroy their economies, wouldn’t it?” It’s a popular refrain among those defending aviation’s right to unrestricted growth, but do we really sprinkle gold dust on each destination we visit?… continues

The Irish Times website is subscription only so I can’t provide a simple click-through link, but the paper recently wrote very positively about The Final Call. Here’s just a taster…

[Hickman’s] latest book, The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, is an excellent and thoroughly compelling analysis of flight-related tourism…[It] deserves to be read by those of us lucky enough to be able to fly on a regular basis. As Hickman points out, flying is not a necessity; it’s a luxury. Only five per cent of the world’s population have ever travelled by plane. Being an international tourist is a rare privilege, and Hickman’s book is a sobering, thoughtful and intelligent reminder that it is a privilege we need to be forcefully reminded not to take for granted.

As a result of the article, I’ve been asked to speak about the book on RTE Radio 1’s Today with Tom McGurk on the morning of Wednesday, August 1.

I’m taking part in an on-going Q&A on the forum at Please post any questions you have and I will try my best to answer them…

Thanks to Graham McKenzie, the MD of Travelmole, for asking me to respond to Jeremy Skidmore’s recent comment piece on the site. I take back my earlier comment about Travelmole not being open to alternative viewpoints. In case you’re not a registered Travelmole user, here’s my response in full…


“If, like me, you will not give a second thought about the impact on the environment of your holiday…” Give him his dues, Jeremy Skidmore certainly knows how to kick off a polemic. It got my attention, anyway, and judging by some of the reaction from Travelmole readers it ruffled the feathers of others, too.
But while it’s always fun to play the contrarian, I have to say – and I do actually agree with some of his points about APD and LiveEarth – that Jeremy’s comment piece left me stone cold.
Is his take on climate change really a representative view of the travel industry? After all, Jeremy is a former editor of Travel Weekly and a prominent industry spokesperson.
I speak as an outsider to this industry, but someone who has spent the past year observing it and investigating the various environmental, social and economics impacts – both good and bad – of the global tourism industry for my book The Final Call.
I have interviewed many dozens of representatives from your industry around the world, from chambermaids to CEOs, to gauge their views on not just tourism’s impacts on climate change, but also a range of other important but often muffled issues such as exploitative low pay, natural resource depletion, ecological degradation and sex tourism.
It saddens me to say that I was not greatly encouraged by my findings – I came across a lot of Jeremys on my travels. In truth, I think the travel and tourism industry is a long, long way from truly grasping the scale of the problems that lay before it – in some ways it reminds me of where the tobacco industry was about 40 years ago.
The scent of denial is thick in the air. I can’t think of any other global industry – you work for the world’s largest service industry, no less – which seemingly plays such a dangerous game with its key assets – the mountains, the coral reefs, the tropical islands, the rainforests etc. Once they’re gone, or at least tarnished beyond repair, then so is your industry.
Just from a position of self-interest, you would assume everyone in the industry would be doubling over backwards to protect and nurture these assets, if only to secure long-term business. Where exactly are you going to be sending today’s children on holiday once they reach adulthood?
And don’t forget just how much more pressurised the resources of each destinations will be once the tens of millions of tourists start arriving from places such as China and India, as the World Tourism Organisation is predicting.
Your industry should be leading on these issues, not be dragged kicking and screaming into this debate like a spoilt child which is used to getting its own way.
After all, it could be argued that you have the most to lose in the long term. Anyone who carries on with a business-as-usual attitude will surely be out of business in the not-too-distant future, not least because consumer attitudes – despite questionable surveys that suggest otherwise – are surely moving in only one direction when it comes to these issues.
I would love for your industry to prove me wrong – and some of the reaction to Jeremy’s comment piece gives me hope that his kind of viewpoint could soon become isolated – but I fear that too many of you are simply dancing around these issues.
For example, please don’t keep saying that carbon offsetting is the way to mitigate your industry’s climate-change impacts – it is a nothing less than a sticky plaster shielding a festering wound.
Easy answers are rarely the right answers. Sun-drenched beaches are wonderful places to stick your head in the sand, aren’t they?

Leo Hickman is a features journalist and editor at the Guardian. His latest book ‘The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays’ is published by Transworld.