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Group of paper planes for Sustainable travel featureEoneren/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

We’re driving Croatia’s D8 highway, heading north along the Adriatic coast from Cilipi Airport. It could be any rural highway, until the turn where Dubrovnik’s old city comes into view. A few minutes down the road, we reach our rental apartment. It’s on a hill that overlooks the marina, port and Elaphiti islands. To the southeast is the old city – walled in the medieval era, shelled in 1991-92 during the Croatian War of Independence and repaired afterward.

Through the turn, our driver chuckles. “Some tourists ask me if the city was built by HBO – they ask what we will do with it now that the series is over.” He discusses Dubrovnik’s complicated relationship with tourists. Good for the city. No, not good. Lucrative. Their money helps the economy, he says. But many pass through without knowing much about Dubrovnik except that it was King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. But we can be friends with him, he offers, since we aren’t fans of the show. The fans, he says, arrive in droves.

Overtourism is a problem in Dubrovnik. Too many visitors, too fast, strain the locals by way of rising consumer goods prices and residential accommodations turned into Airbnb rentals that put pressure on real estate costs. Tourists also contribute to climate change. According to the World Tourism Organization, travel for leisure accounts for roughly 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions, largely propelled by air travel. This year, local airport traffic here is up 20 per cent so far, with 315,000 travellers arriving by air in May alone to visit the “Pearl of the Adriatic.”

Then there are the cruise ships. In 2017, the city swelled by nearly 750,000 visitors from these vessels; the year before, the Mayor of Dubrovnik asked locals to stay home to combat dangerous overcrowding from the cruise liners. These behemoths are known as floating cities. They are notorious polluters, wreaking havoc on air quality, emitting carbon like a Dickensian smokestack and dumping, as Forbes reports, “trash, fuel, and sewage directly into the ocean.”

As a contributor to environmental degradation and climate change, the tourism industry is in a macabre dance of death with itself. As the academic journal Nature noted last year, the old city of Dubrovnik is at risk of significant flooding thanks to rising seas. Indeed, roughly 40 sites along the Mediterranean are staring down rising waters, including Venice, Italy, Tyre, Lebanon and the Medina of Tunis in Tunisia.

My two travel companions and I will feature in the city’s June numbers. The day we arrive is sweltering thanks to this summer’s extraordinary heatwave in Europe. We feel each of the 36 degrees as we walk to the old town. The day before we were in Venice, which is also suffering from overtourism. I was there for research: a visit to Project MOSE, a series of massive underwater gates meant to prevent catastrophic flooding of the city and its surroundings. I’m working on my second book. It’s about the end of the world: threats to civilization, to the survival of humankind, including extreme weather events, fires, floods, and droughts, each of which is hastened and worsened by the CO2 emissions that make tourism possible.

I get to travel the world for this book, visiting cities and sites where the effects of a warming planet are already pronounced or where efforts are underway to forestall or mitigate those effects. I’m part of the problem. Flying from Ottawa to Rome. Driving to Venice. Later this year, off to the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Egypt. Perhaps the Arctic. Will the words I write produce a return on the carbon investment, externalized and so also paid by others, required to produce them? I hope so.

There are things that I can do to minimize my carbon and tourism footprint. Travel less and visit less popular destinations. Pack lightly. Buy carbon offsets (all the rage again, in part thanks to flight shame – personal or social embarrassment related to flying caused by a recognition of the environmental impact of taking to the skies). Nudge family and friends to do the same. In recent years, I’ve adopted, with some success, a mix of the first three tactics. This year, I’m adding carbon offsets and nudges. I think of these schemes the way I think about tipping in restaurants – if you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to dine out.

Whatever I do to reduce my role in climate change and overtourism, it won’t be enough on its own. Same for you. Collective-action problems are structural and collective conundrums require structural and collective solutions. You can implore individuals to fly less, turn off the air conditioning, eat local, recycle and just generally do their part – and that’s fine and good and necessary – but people respond to incentives and trade on habit, short-term impulse and social cues. If flights and cruises are affordable, plentiful, and socially acceptable, people will take flights and cruises. If commuting by car is cheap and convenient, we will commute by car. If industry is permitted to pollute with impunity, industry will pollute with impunity. If we are permitted to decarbonize slowly, to burn oil and gas cheaply, then we will decarbonize slowly. That’s the trap.

The future of tourism cannot look like its past if there is to be any future for tourism. Those of us who shuffle around and those who govern or sell to us ought to make that the guiding principle of an industry that must immediately evolve to become carbon-footprint conscious and sustainable. That effort will take a mix of regulations, technological innovation, industry practices and social norms.

It’s a tough way to live, doing carbon calculus day to day, hand-wringing while wondering if your efforts make any difference, wondering if there’s any point if others aren’t doing their part. Government, industry and the tourism community need to develop an environment within which individuals can live sustainably and in which they can be ethical travellers, paying the full and true cost of their movement. But individuals shouldn’t be let off the hook. We ought to work to save ourselves from climate change and preserve the destinations we visit for future generations – and future television series.

The impact of travel, by the numbers

It’s a big world, but many of us flock to the same places. Of the 1.4 billion international tourist trips that people took in 2017, half a billion of them were to the 300 most popular cities, according to the World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC). Shanghai, Beijing, Paris, New York City and Orlando were the five most popular destinations.

Many destinations have already begun various efforts to combat overtourism. In August, the Italian government announced it would be rerouting cruise ships from the central part of Venice, in hopes, in part, of reducing overcrowding in the UNESCO-listed city. Amsterdam removed its iconic “I Am Amsterdam” sign due to overcrowding in 2018. The city has also limited Airbnb rentals and has banned new tourist shops from opening in the city centre.

A study conducted by the WTTC and released earlier this year examined 50 cities around the world to see how well prepared each of them is for tourism growth. Looking at such things as tourism management, infrastructure and environment, the study compared these factors to the cities’ projected tourism growth between 2017 and 2027.

London, Dublin, Madrid, Berlin, Miami and New York City were identified as “mature performers” that are “in the most favourable and ready position to manage the current levels of growth,” according to the report.

Cities found to be most at risk of suffering the damaging effects of overtourism are Cairo, Jakarta, Delhi, Bangkok, Bogota, Mumbai, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Manila and Ho Chi Minh City, which were all singled out in the report as having inadequate resources for dealing with tourism growth.

22 Tonnes

Amount of greenhouse gas the average Canadian produces each year, according to a report by Climate Transparency, a coalition of international climate organizations.

1.294 Tonnes

Amount of greenhouse-gas emissions produced by a roundtrip flight from Toronto to Vancouver.

83 per cent

Amount that CO2 emissions from international aviation have increased since 1990, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

25 per cent

Amount of a plane’s emissions caused by takeoff and landing. Flying nonstop is better.

17 per cent

Estimated reduction in the number of loads of laundry washed by hotels that request that guests reuse their towels instead of using fresh ones each day, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

150 Tonnes

Amount of fuel a mid-size cruise ship, carrying approximately 2,800 passengers, can use each day, emitting as much particulate matter as 1 million cars, according to Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), a German environmental association.

2 per cent

Amount of the world’s carbon emissions caused by global air travel.


Amount of plastic bottles Marriott International expects to save each year, on average, for a 140-room hotel by replacing individual soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles with bulk dispensers in its showers.


How much carbon dioxide do different modes of transportation produce, per passenger for each kilometre?

  • Train: 14 grams
  • Average car: 55 grams
  • Small car: 42 grams
  • Bus: 68 grams
  • Plane: 285 grams

(Source: European Environment Agency)

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