Foreign Holidays, Flight Shame and Post-Pandemic Adaptation of the Aviation and Tourism Industries to Climate Change

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Aviation, travel, and tourism create jobs and make an important contribution to well-being. Nevertheless, these industries also create carbon and other pollutants.”


Yesterday, (24 June) Rachel Maclean, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, proclaimed in the House of Commons that “it is vital that we get the travel industry back on its feet”. In a debate on COVID-19 and support for the aviation, tourism and travel industries, Gavin Newlands, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (SNP) highlighted the plight of families whose household income is linked to aviation. He noted that the UK airline industry has a higher debt ratio compared to many international competitors as other countries had provided predominantly non-repayable COVID-19 related grants. According to his calculations these grants totalled £23 billion for the US, nearly £8 billion in Germany, £6.5 billion in France and £3.2 billion in the Netherlands.

There is no question that those involved in the aviation, tourism and hospitability industries have had their lives turned upside down with COVID-19. Nevertheless, it is critical that the post-pandemic debate on the reopening of these industries is placed within a longer-term debate on restructuring based on adaptation and mitigation to climate change focusing on reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants.

According to the ONS there were 93.1 million visits overseas by UK residents in 2019 resulting in expenditure of $62.3 billion. Of this, 58.7 million were for holidays with 44 million travelling to countries within the EU. Spain was the most popular destination followed by France and Italy. There were 40.9 million visits to the UK with overseas residents spending £28.4 billion. Evidently, in 2019, UK residents took on average 1.9 holidays abroad.

Aviation, travel, and tourism create jobs and make an important contribution to well-being. Nevertheless, these industries also create carbon and other pollutants. In some European countries flight shame has emerged as one response to the tensions that exist between flying and climate change. In Germany flight shame is labelled Flugscham, in the Netherlands vliegschaamte and in Sweden flygskam. Flight shame is a form of cognitive dissonance in which there are tensions between an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Travellers experience flight shame knowing that their actions are contributing to climate change, but they continue to travel.

I have a confession to make. I have never visited Italy and I have never been on holiday to Spain or France. Last time I holidayed overseas was in 2002. My problem is that I am unable to justify creating environmental pollution and contributing to climate change by an activity whose sole purpose is leisure and recreation. For me, I have no need to visit Italy and thus there is no necessity to create travel-related carbon from visiting this country.

Governments have a challenge on their hands. They must develop effective solutions that will decarbonise everyday living. There must be radical alterations in everyday living and in attitudes to tourism. Nevertheless, the aviation industry supports 65.5 million jobs worldwide and enables $2.7 trillion of global GDP.

No one has a right to fly or to take a foreign holiday. In any case, flying is not an inclusive activity that is equally enjoyed by all. Flying and overseas holidays are something enjoyed by those more advantaged. In the UK, 70% of all flights are made by the wealthy 15% of the population and 57% of UK residents do not fly abroad.

This is the year of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), but it is also the year when all politicians, policymakers and journalists must acknowledge that the aviation and tourism industries must be radically restructured to reduce the contributions these sectors make to climate change. This is a difficult challenge. The wealthy 15% of the UK population will proclaim that they have a right to fly and to take as many overseas holidays as they can afford; many are taking more than 1.9 foreign holidays per year. The aviation industry will highlight the loss of jobs and the negative economic impacts.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation and tourism industries implies that this is the time to begin a discussion about restructuring as one response to climate change. The current UK media and political debate, however, is focused on the expansion of the Green Travel list and the surge in people booking foreign holidays.

For me, my 2021 holiday will not come with flight shame, but with extraordinary experiences in some extraordinary places in England. By holidaying in the UK, I avoid airports and travel delays, but I also support local employment whilst trying to minimise my carbon footprint.