“I thought I better come see the bears because the next time I am in this country they will be all gone.”
— Polar bear tourist in Churchill, Man.
Ecotourism. Sounds so responsible, or least, non-exploitative. But let’s face it: Anyone who flies long-distance to get close to some endangered piece of nature at risk from climate change is doing their bit to push those species that much closer to extinction. A paper published recently in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism tries to quantify the irony. “The carbon cost of polar bear viewing tourism in Churchill, Canada” (Subs req’d) looks at the carbon footprint of the polar-bear viewing industry in which, despite its remote location on the western shores of Hudson Bay, is still the cheapest option for almost everyone to see the species in its natural habitat. Jackie Dawson of the University of Guelph and her co-authors also ask the larger question:
Is there a long term future for tourism in globally peripheral destinations such as the Arctic?
After reviewing the threat facing polar bears from receding ice, toting up the ice-melting emissions associated with getting to Churchill and enjoying the scenery (photo at right from Offbeat Travel) for an average of five days, the authors surveyed and interviewed the tourists. What they found is not surprising, but depressing nonetheless:
Thirty percent of the respondents do not understand that air transportation contributes to climate change, and although 46% of tourists indicated that they would be willing to buy carbon offsets for their holiday transportation emissions, a significant barrier to this is an almost complete absence of knowledge as to what a carbon offset actually is, how the money is used to mitigate against climate change and which companies are reliable.
Of course, this assumes that carbon offsets actually offset carbon emissions, a notion that is subject to much debate. The fact is, the only reliable way to reduce one’s travel-related carbon footprint is not to travel. Given the naivete of a large number of ecotourists, that doesn’t really matter, it seems. So Dawson et al. do some more math and come up with a suite of offsets and transportation technology shifts that could give Churchill a carbon-neutral polar-bear viewing industry at a cost of just $22 a tourist, each of whom is, on average, responsible for 165 tonnes of CO2 — about eight times a typical household’s annual budget.
Considering that 70% of polar bear viewing tourists indicated that they were willing to pay more for the same polar bear viewing experience than they had in 2007, and the proposed offsetting programs (i.e. “carbon conscious” and “carbon neutral”) do not reduce revenues for polar bear viewing operators, the companies should seriously consider the implementation of the program.
If only it was that easy. Globally, air travel only contributes about 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s growing, and carbon-neutral bio-jet-fuel is years away. Is there a future for peripheral tourism? Yes, but only if we’re willing to continue to overlook its contribution to climate change.
I am reminded of the reason so many people support the caging of large animals in zoos and aquariums: because they provide a surrogate education opportunity for those who can’t afford to see the animals in the wild. The idea is that zoo visitors will leave better informed about our responsibility to wildlife. Does the experiential benefit of flying all the way to Churchill justify the climate costs? Not if this paper’s findings are to be believed.
(Incidentally, you can take a 2.5-day train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill, but the track’s in rough shape and long delays are common.)
Dawson, J., Stewart, E., Lemelin, H., & Scott, D. (2010). The carbon cost of polar bear viewing tourism in Churchill, Canada Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18 (3), 319-336 DOI: 10.1080/09669580903215147