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Travelling ‘broadens the mind’ – but the age of inexpensive global trips has come to an end | Vince Cable

Travelling ‘broadens the mind’ – but the age of inexpensive global trips has come to an end | Vince Cable
To curb the effects of the climate crisis, travel will become more expensive and there will be less of it

For much of the summer, the news has been led by reports of changes in the traffic lights governing foreign travel. With increasingly optimistic news of how we are progressing to a “normal” state of affairs, we can claim our God-given right to enjoy summer holidays by the Mediterranean. And we are reassured that we are not going for selfish reasons to improve our suntan but to save thousands of jobs in the beleaguered reiseindustri. Doing good by doing well.

Deretter, on Monday I woke up to be told that, thanks to our collective short-sighted behaviour – including unnecessary travel by greenhouse gas emitting vehicles and aircraft – the planet will be totally uninhabitable by the time my latest grandson reaches my age at the end of the century. Talk about mixed messaging.

Perhaps it is time to take a dispassionate look at the costs and benefits of our foreign travel. Det er (or was until Covid) a lot of it about and it is economically important. Before the pandemic Britain had almost 40 million foreign visitors a year, many of them tourists, supporting – we are told – more than 2.5 million jobs. Det var 73 million overseas trips by Britons supporting the British travel industry and millions of jobs overseas often in poor countries, without alternative employment.

Let us look at the benefits. The old slogan was that “travel broadens the mind’” That has however become a jaded cliche. The beach resorts in Croatia or Ibiza aren’t much different to those in Barbados or Mauritius. Fish and chips taste the same in Benidorm as they do in Blackpool.

But that is perhaps too cynical. A lot of people, especially those going through independent tour operators, or back-packing, are genuinely interested in the customs and cuisine of the places they visit and return better informed and (often) more open-minded. The same is true for inward tourism. The fact that more than 100 million Chinese travelled abroad every year, at least until the pandemic, was a major factor inhibiting the fall of a new iron curtain.

The economic impacts are also massive. Estimates vary but there is a consensus that tourism (widely defined) accounts for around 10 per cent of global GDP and of employment. Some countries survive economically on the back of it: southern Europe; Caribbean islands; countries with a rich cultural legacy and exotic fauna. In the pandemic, some of them have been driven into extreme poverty or indebtedness and have seen the collapse of conservation or a descent into lawlessness which will keep tourists away for good.

But the economics are ambiguous. Tourist spending could be on other things and employment could be in other jobs. There isn’t a fixed supply of either. And for countries like the UK where almost twice as many people travel overseas as come here, we could argue that the net effect is negative. If we dig a little deeper into the jobs – bed-making in hotels; selling ice cream on hot days; serving or cooking in cafes and restaurants – we may be talking about poor pay, seasonal employment. If such positions are fewer and farther between, demand may grow for better life-long education so that people can retrain in other fields.

To set against the economic benefits of tourism are the environmental costs. Many of us are trying to relate the environment to our personal lifestyles and are getting confused as to what is right and wrong. My wife and I decided this summer to staycation in the UK (to avoid all the hassle of going abroad): good. We drove from the south of England to the north of Scotland: dårlig. But the car is a hybrid: sort of good. When we checked the carbon footprint we discovered with some relief that we had generated one-fifth the carbon of going off to Majorca and sitting on the beach; but a great deal more than going to Bournemouth with our bucket and spades.

What we do know is that it is unreasonable and absurd to subcontract environmental policy to individuals. A handful of people conscientiously following the advice of Allegra Stratton to freeze their left-over bread or foreswear meat will not have the impact we all hope for. To make a difference governments have to cut collective demand for environmentally damaging activities. If we are to avoid draconian and authoritarian bans that means we have to penalise those activities financially. This can be done honestly and transparently by taxing the carbon people generate, or stealthily through carbon trading or regulatory change.

It certainly means substantially higher taxation of aviation – taxing the fuel or the travel ticket – and of the use of petrol and diesel. Simple really. But it is remarkable how many self-appointed “green” spokespeople shy away from the truth about necessary pain. They concentrate instead on demonising the western companies who extract the hydrocarbons from the ground. Those big beasts are an easier target than the general public but unfortunately cutting supply without cutting demand will simply lead to a switch to other suppliers – Saudi Aramco or Gazprom. Another dodge for avoiding pain is the use of carbon “offsets”; maybe I lack the intellectual subtlety to understand what seems, at first sight, like the modern equivalent of mediaeval indulgences to pay for one’s sins.

It is better to be straightforward and to spell out the fact that much travel will become more expensive and there will, as a consequence, be less of it. Some will opt to keep travelling and do less of other things. Some are sufficiently well off that they will be unaffected, which will create a sense of unfairness that has to be tackled in other ways (taxing income and wealth). Countries and companies that depend on travel will have to treat Covid as a rehearsal for a bigger, long term, justering. The golden age of global travel may well be at an end.

It is, selvfølgelig, possible – indeed likely – that the public will reject this environmental puritanism. They may feel that this is another fad of the global elite and want the government to concentrate on practical problems like sorting out the confusing Covid restrictions that are screwing up their annual holidays to the sun. In the short term, new, heavily discounted fares on transatlantic routes to get to Disneyland or the Big Apple will be more appealing than Code Red warnings on the climate.

Around the world, governments will have to lead not follow if my grandson (and everyone else’s) is to avoid seeing heatwaves, forest fires and flooding as a grim but inevitable norm.

Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party