How To Explore The World Without Harming It

We recently published a guide to Helsinki in which we gave details of how to get there and back without flying. In the comments below the article, a reader wrote, “I think you have to concede that it’s a little disingenuous to pretend that people will be going to Helsinki by train and boat … very few will be willing to allocate six days of the holiday just for the journey. It’s simply not a practical suggestion.” The rise of low-cost flights over the past 20 or so years means we have become so accustomed to flying everywhere for our holidays and short breaks that the idea of taking so long over a journey has become unthinkable. We expect to maximise our time in a location and minimise our time in transit. But maybe that has to change. Another reader put this into context, “In the 70s it was customary to travel around Europe by train (or bus, or hitchhiking). I’ve travelled between Finland and the UK many times by train, and it is quite a pleasant experience.”

Travel can have a magical transformation on individuals and communities. We hope through our pages to encourage people to explore the world, to discover, first-hand, locations they may only have read about in history books or novels; to open themselves up to new experiences and tastes; to meet people with different ideas and perspectives; to try out alternative lifestyles; to immerse themselves in beautiful landscapes; to have fun. Our writers tap into the joy of new experiences, whether it’s the exhilaration of swimming through a city, as our writer did in Basel, or the thrill of tackling Ireland’s Big Five adventures. And we know that our readers are adventurous and well-travelled because every week we feature their tips from around the world. But we also recognise the need to help tackle the climate emergency by reducing the number of flights we all take. Environment journalist, John Vidal explored the dilemma that “people like me, cursed with loving travel” now face, when he reported on the Swedish concept of “flygskam,” or fly shame. And he referred to people applying the idea of the “flexitarian” diet – where they cut back on their meat consumption dramatically but not completely – to flying.

The majority of locations we feature in the Guardian’s weekly travel section do not rely on flying to get there, with most easily accessible by train and public transport. These range from Greek island-hopping odysseys to cycling holidays through Europe and city breaks served by train or ferries. Our Local’s Guide series is one of the most popular and widely read features because each one is written by a local resident in the spirit of showing a visitor around their favourite affordable haunts, rather than the big-ticket attractions. Food and drink is probably the easiest way into another culture, and there can be no better recommendation for somewhere to eat and drink than from someone who lives there. We’ve been tapping into local people’s tips since Twitter started more than 10 years ago, and have found bloggers all around Europe to compile lists of their favourite cheap places to eat and drink. On our website, we have a long list of guides to alternative cities – Łódź, Genoa and Utrecht, Berne, Burgos and Bristol, for example – rather than perennial hotspots affected by over-tourism, such as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice. One of the benefits of flying less, of course, is the opportunity it affords to explore the rich and varied landscapes of our own islands. Over the summer, we ran a popular series of stories called car-free coast, in which the writer Phoebe Taplin explored the British seaside on foot and by bus. An avowed public transport enthusiast and non-flyer, Dixe Wills, shared 20 of his favourite campsites accessible by train and bus. And Kevin Rushby set out on a UK expedition to less-visited locations that would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive to get to by car.

We still occasionally run stories on long-haul destinations when there is an important initiative or project that benefits the environment or local community, such as the development of community-led tourism start-ups in Chilean Patagonia following the launch of new national parks in the world’s most ambitious rewilding project. Tourism accounts for one in 10 of the world’s jobs and is vital to some destinations. Kevin Rushby, our principal travel writer, explains, “All around the world, people in disadvantaged communities have been working to set up projects that rely on tourism, and so flying. I’ve met hunters who’ve become wildlife guides, fishermen who are now diving instructors, farmers who get cash for showing visitors their land and life. In Kenya, the great migration route has been saved by Maasai herders clubbing their land together as conservancies rather than selling to hoteliers and intensive farming interests. Those conservancies are reliant on overseas visitors who pay to see wildlife.”

The Travel website now also features a carbon calculator, and we have written about various carbon offsetting schemes – which allow people to balance out their carbon footprints by investing in clean energy projects such as solar or windfarms. Our travel section is printed and distributed in the UK but our articles online are read by a worldwide audience, so in some instances, readers do not need to fly to the places we are writing about. John Vidal’s article about reducing the number of flights we take quotes Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, “I don’t have a no-fly policy, but rather a fly-less one … If we are going to fly, it should be for truly extraordinary and important reasons. Otherwise, we shouldn’t go, or we should take a slower form of travel and arrange for a longer visit.”

Returning to that article on Helsinki, there’s another Scandinavian lifestyle trend that has emerged as a positive counterbalance to “flygskam,” and that is “tagskryt” (train brag). Another reader of the article captured its spirit perfectly in the comment, “The journey is the holiday. Just think of all the places you see along the way.” Because, of course, we’ve been doing long-distance slow travel since the 1970s, as was pointed out. That was the decade when the Interrail scheme was launched. And, as Wills said when he revisited the Interrail experience this summer after a 30-year gap, “How many of us have cherished memories of zipping inexpensively across Europe – delving into new and thrillingly esoteric cultures, befriending the locals, mangling their language beyond all comprehension, and enjoying all manner of mind-broadening episodes.”

Credit: Andy Pietrasik for The Guardian, 19 October 2019.