Last week, I attended the Vacation Matters summit in Seattle. As I noted in a previous post, the conference’s rallying point was the Minimum Paid Leave Act, which, if passed, would rescue the U.S. from being the only industrialized nation that lacks a paid-vacation law.
But there is also another side to this issue: the place at which vacation law closely intersects the future of sustainable tourism. Simply put, when we Americans are taking vacations, we’re not doing it very well. At the conference, Worldchanging ally John de Graaf showed us a 10-minute clip of his current documentary in which the filmmakers interview visitors to Yosemite National Park. While we see crowds dashing from cars to designated viewpoints — my favorite image is of a man talking on his cell phone while distractedly snapping a photo of a jaw-dropping vista — a park ranger informs us that the average visit to Yosemite, a 1,200-square-mile park, lasts five hours.
It’s this point that inextricably links paid vacation laws to sustainable tourism. Americans love environmentally unsound vacations — power-boating beerfests, three-day Cancun bacchanalias, check-your-mind-at-the-door packaged tours and cruises. The cultural psychosis that prompts Americans to travel this way is multi-layered to say the least; however, a major factor is the devaluation of vacation time. With fewer days of vacation to look forward to, Americans face New Year’s Eve–level pressure every time we plan a weekend trip. Just as we binge on food, on consumer goods, and on pop culture minutiae to anesthetize ourselves enough to continue the grind, we too binge on travel.
Paid-vacation law is the first step towards sustainable tourism; you can’t have one without the other. When asked to recommend “green” vacations, tour operators and travel magazines give two standard answers: voluntourism programs and sustainably run soft-adventure trips. And both are terrific options, but they require time to plan and fully enjoy. Traveling in less destructive ways (trains vs. planes, for example) requires time. “Cultural immersion,” the holy grail of adventure travelers and academics, requires time. Caring enough to make good decisions requires time. Continuing to preach sustainable tourism to Americans without first securing their basic rights to time off is self-defeating.
Another thing that struck me during the two-day conference was how good it felt to be surrounded by people who work in sustainability related fields but are unabashedly enthusiastic about tourism. Several speakers at the conference shared stories and data on the transformative nature of travel. Indeed, my first question to any sustainability professional who doubts the place of travel in the global prosperity equation is: Have your travels in any way influenced or aided your work, or more simply put, have they influenced the best decisions you’ve made in your life?
Yet in many environmental circles, the lexicon of global prosperity is missing its entry for travel. True, this is has to do largely with airplane emissions — the travel industry’s biggest quandary — but it distresses me how many environmentalists are unwilling to include in their global endgame fantasies a scenario in which we figure out how to help more people travel. Right now the prevailing attitude is “I’ve seen the world. It’s really great — life-changing, even. But don’t you leave the country unless it’s in a kayak.”
Just as we need to start thinking of vacation time not as a “perk” but as something vital to our health, we need to start thinking of travel not as a “privilege,” but as something necessary to our emotional and intellectual development. If achieving and maintaining large-scale sustainability requires most, if not all, of us to have a global cognizance, than we must figure out how to protect the mechanisms that get us out into the world. This is not just a Global North mandate. People in the Global South suffer from just as many cultural misperceptions as “narrow-minded” Americans, largely because unless they emigrate, they never experience the realities behind the American mythos. It may not be the best example in the context of tourism, but I wonder if suggesting sustainable forestry practices to Global South landowners wouldn’t carry more weight if they could see up-close the meth-addicted, economically decimated, former logging communities of the Pacific Northwest.
We need the things — down time, travel — that encourage us to make good decisions, seek out new information and experiences, and understand through primary experience the planet we’re trying to save. Paid vacation is the baseline; sustainable tourism, the “above and beyond.”
It’s fitting that Take Back Your Time Day on October 24th coincides with Bill McKibben’s 350 Day 350.org, which refers to the 350 parts per million carbon-reduction goal towards which we should all be striving. At the conference it was suggested that the two could be rolled into one metaphorical and literal Chill Out Day. Apropos of the interconnection of vacation time, travel, and sustainability, I would ask two things: every travel industry professional gets behind the paid-vacation bill, and every sustainability professional resists to the urge to relegate travel to the relics of an unsustainable past.
This article is part of a weeklong guest author series on sustainability issues in travel and tourism. Read more:
Vacation Matters: North American Summit Looks at Time Poverty and Vacation Law
Vacation Matters: Resources for Further Reading
Carissa Bluestone is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She helped create Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and continues to consult on Worldchanging’s book ventures. A former editor at Fodor’s Travel Publications, she has spent 10 years in the travel publishing world, editing and contributing to guidebooks and online publications.
Photo by author.
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