Mass tourism developed by taking advantage of cheap and abundant energy. But those days are over and we are all going to have to reinvent how we holiday. But as I found out, that is no easy task.
PARIS — I had a wonderful vacation, thank you for asking. At the same time, I couldn't let go and relax fully because one question has been on my mind all summer. Is my vacation sustainable? In other words, will my kids be able to take the same kind of vacation 20 years from now?
The preparation was rather encouraging. I unplugged everything in my flat except for the refrigerator. But then, it turned nasty. I traveled by car. And it was not even electric — worse, it was a high-polluting diesel vehicle. Yes, I am blushing as I write these words.
Limiting carbon footprint
But what else could I do? It is hard to get used to the idea of not going through Provence to visit my parents, who hardly move anymore. And then to ignore the family home where I have been going since my childhood, in a small Corsican village. And afterwards not to pop to my mother-in-law’s house, in the south west of France. It is hard too to do all of this by public transport with children and luggage.
It has become inconceivable to live there without a car.
Well, at least I did not travel by plane. I did that to limit my carbon footprint, of course, but also to limit my spending because prices have skyrocketed, not to mention that the cost of car rentals on the island of Corsica has doubled.
But to reach an island, the only solution is the boat. And for now, there is no sailing ferry. When the old ferry moves away from the quay, in the port of Marseille in the south of France, black smoke reminds us that its motor is not electric, even if said smoke is filtered.
A car-less holiday?
In the village where I grew up, it is not much greener. Certainly, water flows in abundance at the source in the mountain. When you shower, you don't have to pump water from a groundwater table that is in danger of running out. But it has become inconceivable to live there without a car, even if only to go grocery shopping.
When I was a kid, the baker and the butcher used to regularly drive by with their vans, and Ambroise the grocer would come by from time to time with his Citroën DS station wagon to buy gas bottles that he would then sell in his store. But the grocery store closed down a long time ago, the butcher only comes by once a week now, and the baker from the village uphill died at the beginning of the summer — apparently without anyone taking over.
The vast majority of products on the island now come from the mainland. It is difficult to ask an island that is not self-sufficient in winter to feed seven times its population in summer. If you can find oil, veal, wine, cold meats, cheese, local vegetables (my brother-in-law’s are succulent), everything else comes by trucks that take the boat and run on diesel.
In the mountains, the nights are mild and the houses are pleasant without air conditioning, that’s something. But of course, the beach is 500 meters downhill and 15 kilometers away. When my mother was a teenager, she sometimes walked down to the beach with the village’s youngsters. They had to get up early and the walk seemed long on the way back. So they only went to the beach once or twice every summer, and they spent the following days remembering it.
Provence highway in the southeast of France
Hard to resist air-conditioning
Nowadays, if I listened to my kids, we’d have to go swimming everyday. Anyway, we have to go grocery shopping, right? Come on, everyone get in the car. After all, it is possible to drive the way down in neutral. And on the way back, as it goes up, the engine consumes more fuel.
I will have to reinvent my vacations.
In the south west of France on the mainland, separated from Marseille by 700 kilometers of asphalt, it is different. It's all flat, and the shops are less than a 10-minute walk away. Except that they close early, and that I had to drive 15 kilometers one evening (having no bike) to buy two lemons.
It's all flat, but the heat is stifling, even long after the fires were extinguished. As there is no air conditioner, we don't turn it on. But if there was, it would be hard to resist.
What would greener travel look like?
What could a cleaner vacation look like? First, we would have to give up jet-skiing. Jet skis consume a lot of energy, make a terrible racket and are not very reassuring for swimmers. I don't like it, so it's not a big sacrifice.
Then it gets complicated because the smallest effort seems gigantic. Driving is essential because choosing between my parents and my mother-in-law is inconceivable. Not going to the beach anymore… would it still be a vacation?
And this is only the beginning of the story. I’ll have to take the plane only as an exception, prefer the train or a small car (and therefore take less stuff). I’ll have to avoid going to places where crowds of tourists gather (which are rarely the ugliest places). I’ll have to travel closer, slower, to colder places (and even give up going to the wonderful Greek islands).
Also I’ll have to refrain from pumping scarce resources like water. And have you evaluated the carbon footprint of your week of skiing? Tourism has developed on a large scale since the second half of the twentieth century, taking advantage of abundant and cheap energy. This era will come to an end one way or another. I will have to reinvent my vacations, so will you. And we won't just have to reinvent our vacations.