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.

Have your say...

  • Peter Lee
    1. At 6:41PM on 30 July 2021, Peter Lee wrote

    There are several problems with this piece but the obvious flaw is failing to provide anything that adds to our knowledge of the problem or provide any hint at a mechanism that could work towards a solution. The only solution that you seem to offer is shaming people with fewer choices than privileged academics.

    You are clearly jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon and your credentials for climbing aboard that particular vehicle are validated by your claim that you have no need to visit Italy and so “…there is no necessity to create travel-related carbon from visiting this country.” However, you could equally apply this logic to any other country. Indeed you could apply it in future and decide not to visit the many “...extraordinary experiences in extraordinary places in England” that you profess to have enjoyed.

    So what kind of bandwagon is this? How do you get to these extraordinary places in order to enjoy these extraordinary experiences? Is the bandwagon electric powered? Or do you pull it along? Does the bandwagon that you occupy also have members of an organisation that was placed on a list of proscribed terrorist organisations [] with whom you flagellate? Or perhaps you all glide on some hidden device that enables your frictionless travel through time and space?

    You see, the 'inconvenient truth' is that, as privileged academics we have all made many carbon emitting flights to many countries over our careers. Of course this depends on the degree of success and ability to fund these adventures. Nevertheless, the demands of conferences and travel over time will have an impact and will reduce either the appetite or desire to take a flight to Rome or Madrid or anywhere else for recreational purposes. But as privileged academics we have all enjoyed those benefits, the difference here is that you now adopt a moralising tone.

    Privileged academics, like yourself, that may be approaching retirement will have benefited from the post-war settlement of the welfare state as well as considerable advantages bestowed by final salary pension agreements. This gives those of us to be in this position to exercise considerable choice and flexibility in where we live and where we choose to spend the rest of our days. Of course there is a considerable literature on residential mobility, segregation and propensity for ‘like-mindedness’. The data on incomes and the correlation with higher incomes in rural and suburban areas as people migrate away from the cities is well established and correlates with age. So many of us will enjoy our later years with a comfortable pension, no housing costs and the ability to choose to live in a nice part of the country – perhaps an extraordinary place such as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Indeed we enjoy extraordinary benefits and lifestyle choices. In these circumstances, especially with a backlog of experiences and t-shirts to prove it, why would anyone bother travelling abroad?

    But the flight shame that you adopt is not a solution. It is merely divisive. Moreover, as it is propounded by someone with privileges and an excess of experiences of the extraordinary on this crowded planet, what you add to this debate is meaningless.

    You decide to shame others and contribute to additional pressure (e.g., environmental, economic inflationary, political and cultural division) on the extraordinary places and extraordinary experiences in England whilst moralising about people poorer than you. Many people who have less choice will of course take the market option, which you support, and fly cheaply to Malaga because St. Ives is off limits. As a market economist who has publicly stated that, quote: “David Harvey is crap” and someone who has no time for Marxism, you resort to imitation academic debate and moralise others about their behaviour; behaviour that you and we, as privileged academics, have enjoyed abundantly.

    Flight shaming in Sweden reduced flights in 2018 because Sweden is a more socially cohesive country and has a Gini coefficient that is more comparable to Japan than the UK and US. People are shamed because they can exercise other options and choices, but there are still losers. Shaming people that have no choices only creates resentment and pushes people away from the bandwagon that you sail along on.

    So please stop the shaming and provide ideas that can arrive at solutions that create unity and sustainable travel options so that we balance the extraordinary with the realities and mundanities of people’s lives.

  • Vlad Mykhnenko
    2. At 5:45AM on 03 August 2021, Vlad Mykhnenko wrote

    After having spent 17 months locked down in inner city Birmingham, we have just flown away for a foreign holiday to rebalance the mental health of a family of 5. Does this make us horrible people, I wonder?

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