Is Your Vacation Immoral?

An opinion piece in the Washington Post (registration required) this morning comes out swinging against the environmental and economic damage caused by mass tourism. And, lo, the readers’ responses are a bit cranky.

I admit, the piece immediately annoyed me. When a writer complains that the pristine beauty of the remote and exotic haunts of her privileged youth have been ruined by the uncouth masses, it’s going to come off as just a tad elitist. She was allowed to go there, but you’re ruining it.

And she doesn’t mince words:

Global tourism today is not only a major industry — it’s nothing short of a planet-threatening plague. It’s polluting land and sea, destroying wildlife and natural habitat and depleting energy and natural resources.

Well, now. That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for compromise. It seems that I can sit at home or I can help destroy the world.

Yet, despite the strong words, the piece is not a screaming polemic. The author, Elizabeth Becker, makes several important points and justly scolds the media for ignoring difficult issues surrounding tourism. And she offers a few examples of sustainable tourism that could serve as models elsewhere. 

Many of the people commenting on the piece wrote that it’s overpopulation, not tourism per se, that is harming the planet. There wouldn’t be too many people travelling if there weren’t too many people, period.

I have to wonder, too, whether those who choose to travel are really as culpable as Becker says, when put into perspective. She writes that “Tourism is now responsible for 5 percent of the world’s pollution, according to a recent study.”

But what if I choose to spend my money on travel instead of things that might cause just as much pollution or more. Am I more to blame for environmental damage than my neighbor who stays home — in a much larger home with central air conditioning and two SUVs in the driveway?

These are complicated issues. Becker is certainly right that we need to address them — just not by telling the middle class to stay home.


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