From sustainable vacations to hopping a shuttle into space, we’re looking at some very different future travel possibilities. Ecotourism expert, Gregory Miller, shares tangible tips on how to be an environmentally-conscious traveler and Rose Eveleth, host of “Flash Forward,” describes what a journey to Mars might look like.
Ecotourism and Future Travel Trends
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Today we’re traveling in time, for a look at the future of travel. We’ll explore some visions for travel trends here on earth and we’ll head up to space to find out some of the latest ideas for the future of intergalactic tourism. I’m Jordi Lippe-McGraw, filling in for Nisreene Atassi and I’ll be your guest host for this episode of Out Travel the System. Joining me here to share their visions for the future of wanderlust are two guests, Gregory Miller is the executive director for the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) in Washington D.C. and Rose Eveleth is a science writer and the host and producer of the “Flash Forward” podcast. Her show imagines future scenarios and then explores how possible those futures may be.
So, let’s start with travel here on Earth. Greg, I understand you obviously have a passion for responsible or sustainable travel. What did your last sustainable vacation entail?
Gregory Miller: I took my family to Ecuador. I’m a South American specialist by training as an ecologist and I wanted to show my three kids and my wife the Andes, Amazon and the Galapagos Islands. I put together a trip that entailed the fewest number of flights and I worked with local operators to look behind the scenes of how the Amazon Lodge operates, how they manage water, using solar power, etc. The same goes for the Andes; I think you can travel to some extraordinary destinations, minimize our footprint and also support organizations, companies that are local, that are showing good commitment and practice to sustainable tourism.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: When was the first time that you visited the Galapagos?
Gregory Miller: The first time was when I went to work there, I was selected to be one of the early naturalist guides for the Galapagos National Park in 1978 believe it or not, and I was one of 15 international guides that managed the nature tourism that was going on in those very early days of the Galapagos. So, I’ve seen the islands over a course of 40 years.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: What have you noticed in terms of the changes in the Galapagos for better or for worse?
Gregory Miller: Well for better or for worse, certainly the number of tourists has increased. There have definitely been impacts, but I can say with confidence both as a travel professional and as an ecologist that if ecotourism was not put into place in the 70s, we probably would not have the Galapagos Islands today as configured. There is still an extraordinary one-of-a-kind experience there and we’re protecting the vast majority of the endemic or unique species of plants and animals that are found there.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: What is your vision for sustainable travel of the future?
Gregory Miller: People are looking for ways to reduce their footprint, to work with better, more responsible travel companies, sustainable destinations, etc. I’ll just use one interesting example, a Norwegian company just came out with a new hybrid cruise ship and while that’s not going to satisfy the immediate market, the fact that that industry and at least one ship manufacturer was looking to move in that direction is encouraging. I think you’ll see consumer interest there drive a more sustainable tourism marketplace.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Now Rose, you’ve actually imagined on your podcast a future that eliminates the use of commercial flights in order to cut back on carbon emissions associated with air travel, which is a very hot topic right now. Can you tell us a little bit about that episode and how realistic do you think that would be in the future?
Rose Eveleth: I will say that this is not something that anyone’s really proposing. It was more of a thought experiment as some episodes tend to be, of what it would really look like if we tried to do this. What would happen if no one could fly commercially? It was more of an interesting thing to explore than something that I think is likely, so don’t worry you can still fly! A couple of the things that we talk about in that episode are that it’s not just commercial flights. That’s obviously going to change the economy for many places. There are lots of places in the world whose primary industry is tourism and if tourists can’t get there on airplanes, which is largely how many people travel, then those economies would collapse. Beyond the commercial space, we also had an interesting conversation on that episode about potentially not being able to buy certain kinds of flowers in the store, because those flowers had to be flown here from somewhere else. Everything is so accessible now and it feels like of course we can just get on a plane and fly somewhere. But if we were to remove that, it would have such a huge ripple effect on so many different things. All the food in the grocery store would be different, life would be different in that cities and towns would probably be arranged slightly differently. You wouldn’t necessarily go to college in a completely different city than you grew up in, and then go work in a totally different city. It was a fun window into what a world might look like without that and a way to talk about how we structure our communities and our lives around this amazing ability to be able to fly places.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I mean, planes are obviously here to stay. They might find new technologies to be able to make it more responsible, efficient, or better for the environment. What other ideas for sustainable travel do you imagine might actually have a place in the near future?
Rose Eveleth: There is an idea that people have right now that I don’t think has really been tested fully. The idea that if you can’t go somewhere in person for whatever reason, whether it’s because it’s not accessible to you, because you are disabled, or you don’t have the money, there are people and companies now who are interested in building virtual reality experiences, to be able to experience a place without actually traveling there. Obviously it’s not the same, I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s the same, but it might be a way for particularly fragile destinations experiencing over-tourism to actually accommodate millions of people or all the people who want to see them. Then, of course, there are also people who maybe want to experience a place without having to travel or don’t have the access to do so. I’ve done a couple of these and I think it’s still really in the early days, but there are lots of conversations about virtual reality right now. Again, I don’t think anyone is arguing this would fully replace a trip to the Galapagos. There are so many things that are part of traveling, like smells and just being there is different. I’m curious to see how that goes.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I want to talk about more trends in just a second, but Greg I want to turn it to you and ask if you have any tangible tips that people can take away for after listening to this where they can feel like they are being a responsible tourist? What are the little things that we can be doing right now to be more responsible travelers?
Gregory Miller: One of the things that we’re really trying to promote is making smart choices in terms of doing a bit of research and seeing whether the destination they’re interested in is suffering from over-tourism or perhaps not using the best, most environmentally-conscious practices. Seeing if a hotel is locally owned and managed and whether you will really have the kind of experience that you anticipate. We really promote finding as many direct flights as possible and minimizing the total number of flights. Just to add to Rose’s comment about virtual reality, one of the things we are promoting is not necessarily VR, but staying closer to home and looking at the concept of staycations. Using either public transportation or maybe making a small drive to a place that they probably haven’t looked at. At CREST, we really feel strongly that people should travel, it’s a great way to understand and be a global citizen. Tourism actually plays a major role in the economies of over 125 countries. Activities that are destructive such as deforestation, habitat loss, growing of cattle and livestock in the developing world, you add all those together, it comes up to close to 24% of the greenhouse gas emissions. If you look at the number of countries that depend on tourism, which is based on an experience economy, as opposed to slash and burn, habitat loss, etc., which produces a higher magnitude of greenhouse gas, if they didn’t have tourism as their major point of economic development, many of these countries actually would shift back to a destructive, extractive economy and there could be a very negative cascading effect there. That’s why it’s very important for us to balance and people who travel responsibly and make smart decisions should feel proud that they’re doing something and that they’re actually supporting a sustainable local economy.
Rose Eveleth: I want to echo what Greg said about having more local experiences because I think that really is in many ways the future of travel. There are certain places in the world that are amazing, but most people live relatively close to something that they’ve never been to before. Especially if folks are in the United States, there’s just so much in this country that you can go see, that I think people would be surprised by. The cool thing about that is you can show your friends locally, you don’t have to fly them to the Galapagos, right? You can just drive them to this really cool thing that you found. I think that’s also a great community-building thing, to really be rooted in where you are, where you live. Today, so many people live in places they didn’t grow up and they don’t necessarily have that connection to the community. I think that in the future, as we start to look at a world that might be slightly more precarious because of climate change, because of all of these other things, having a sense of community and having a connection to where you live is actually going to be very important for all of us to feel good in the future and be happy, grounded and safe.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: I live in New York City and there are entire neighborhoods that I’ve never been to before and I’m sure they’re fabulous. I’m sure they all have great food and really cool things to see there, but I just haven’t gone to them yet and they’re right outside my door. Just a subway ride away!
Rose Eveleth: Take that 3 train.
Gregory Miller: If you look at the five boroughs in New York City, you have almost 29,000 acres of parkland. In Central Park alone, there are more species of birds than in the entire United Kingdom. Most people don’t know that. One of the things that I want to emphasize is that as individuals, you can really become an influencer, especially with the social media conduits that we have today. If you go out in your own backyard or nearby parks and you share and you demonstrate positive constructive behavior, and say, “I did this, I selected this operator for this particular reason, I’m going a little off the beaten path. It’s less of an overused tourist site,” that is going to have a positive multiplier effect. So that concept Rose mentioned of community, people can be really positive influencers in this.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Yeah, absolutely. Now, Rose getting back to you just for a second, with our feet still planted here on Earth, what other travel trends besides VR are you excited about for the future?
Rose Eveleth: I think the thing that I’m most excited about right now is not quite sustainable travel, although it’s not not sustainable travel, is a lot of destinations are making changes to accommodate more people. For example, Machu Picchu recently made a couple of changes so folks who use wheelchairs can actually access that place. I think that’s really amazing. There are so many people who would love to visit these places, but oftentimes these sites were built thousands of years ago and can be really hard to access. Seeing both tour companies being more open to providing tours tailored to disabled folks and the places themselves updating infrastructure to be more accessible to those people is something I’m really excited about.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: So, we’ve done a little bit on the ground, let’s lift-off towards space for a moment. Rose, in one of your previous “Flash Forward” episodes called Lonely Red Planet, you imagine traveling as a tourist to other planets. Here’s a clip from that show where you speak with your guest about snowboarding on Pluto in the year 2155.
“You might want to snowboard on nitrogen ice on Pluto, for example, and it’s 1/10th Earth’s gravity. So, it takes a little while to get up speed, but the nice thing is there’s very little atmosphere so you can really get up to speed as long as you’re willing to wait that out and keep going down the mountains. I’d recommend the Hillary mountains on Pluto for skiing and snowboarding.”
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: The episode goes on to imagine how realistic a tourist trip to Mars would be. Would you tell us a little bit about what you learned, including how long your vacation would take and what your stay might be like on Mars?
Rose Eveleth: The voice you heard is me, and then Jana Grcevich, who is a co-author of a really fun book called “The Vacation Guide to the Solar System.” It’s a really interesting way to learn about all the different planets, I highly recommend it. It’s a great gift book and it’s really beautifully illustrated. The idea of going to Mars is something that has captured science fiction lovers’ imaginations for a very long time. Mars is this planet that we can see in the sky really easily and it’s really alluring. Actually, going to Mars would be relatively challenging and take quite a long time. Once you get there, it would actually be really dusty. We know that there’s dust on Mars, but one thing people worry about, and if you’ve seen the movie The Martian, you might be familiar, is that there are these dust storms. Now, The Martian takes a little bit of creative liberty with what that might look like. The dust storms are not really as dangerous, but it would just be everywhere all the time. A lot of people that I talked to said that one of the most annoying things about going to Mars is that you’re just going to constantly be battling against the sand being everywhere, mucking up all of your equipment and that’s after you’ve spent six months on a spacecraft to get there. So, you wait until the planets are lined up as close as possible and that’s every two years. You take your six-month trip and you’re probably going to want to wait until the planets are lined up again so you then spend two years on Mars and then you spend your six months getting back — it’s a very long vacation. One might say, maybe not even a vacation, it’s you’ve just gone to live on Mars for a couple of years, but I’m sure it would be beautiful. I think many people would sign up to go to Mars, but it might not be quite as sexy as it seems in the movies.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Yeah, it just sounds like the worst experience. But in reality, a Japanese billionaire is expected to be the first tourist to land on the moon in a SpaceX rocket. We don’t know how much he’s paying, but trips to the International Space Station have reportedly cost about $35 million for our space tourists. When do you think space travel will actually be accessible for the average human?
Rose Eveleth: It’s a really good question and it depends a little bit on what we mean when we talk about space travel. So, some people when they say “space tourism” they mean just going up into orbit and then coming right back down. That is expensive, certainly, but will get cheaper and cheaper as more of these go up. If we’re talking about landing you on the moon and actually having you get out of a craft and walk around, I would assume that if you’re spending that much money and you actually get to the moon, I personally would want to be able to get out of the vehicle. That is a lot further away and it’s really hard to say because so much of it is going to be dictated by a lot of these private companies, as opposed to NASA or the European Space Agency, who are really focused on the non-commercial side of things. There are always going to be billionaires who will pay for something like this, but the amount of money it would cost to make it affordable for you and I…
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Oh, I have $35 million laying around, don’t you?
Rose Eveleth: Yes, just like regular people. It’s going to take a lot longer and it would require a lot of money and policy changes about how often you can launch things and how we launch things. There’s just a lot of logistical questions beyond technology questions and those are often the harder ones to solve than questions like, “How can you make enough rockets?” We know a lot about how to make rockets. It’s really about, “How do we make sure we’re doing this responsibly and safely?” Obviously some percentage of spacecrafts that go into space fail and fail catastrophically, such that anybody who was on that spacecraft would be dead. When you started talking about commercial travel, astronauts who sign up to go on NASA, or to go to the International Space Station, they’re assuming a certain level of risk. When we get on an airplane, we really don’t expect that airplane to have a high chance of crashing. If we are talking about sending “regular people” to space, I think there’s an open question as to whether or not the risk profile will ever actually be low enough that a company would be willing to send a lot of flights into space, with people like you and me on it.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: The future of travel is really a big topic that we can certainly pursue again, but the question I have for both of you is, why do you think travel will still be important in the future? Greg, do you have a thought on that?
Gregory Miller: I think it’s inherent in human behavior. We’re a migratory species, we’ve evolved moving around. There’s a constant level of curiosity. The development of the human brain is such that I think it demands to have that kind of experience. I would say that people are always going to be looking for that kind of extraordinary experience and enrichment, but it’s all relative. I would say that someone who’s never experienced a great natural place and then sees the Grand Canyon for the first time will probably have as transformative and deep an experience as someone who may go to space because they’ve had so many other experiences. I think what’s important for us as we look forward to the future trends in travel, is that people are demanding more responsible travel and they’re looking for and underscoring the importance of sustainable tourist destinations. Whether they’re natural, or cultural heritage places, both for today as well as for future generations so that people can share with their children, and grandchildren, experiences or maybe even places they grew up or had a particular experience.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Rose, do you have a thought?
Rose Eveleth: I agree, humans are curious. Humans want to know what other people’s lives are like and that manifests in so many ways. That manifests in reality television, we want to know what other people are doing and we want to watch — we love watching each other. I think so much of travel is going and seeing that actually we are alike, we’re all people, no matter where you are. I think that there is just an element of curiosity that humans can’t really turn off. We want to know what’s out there and that’s also driving a lot of people’s desire to go to space. We want to know what it’s like to be there, we want to know what it’s like to go and see it. There is an angle to sustainable travel when we talk about space travel, which is that, humans are covered in microbes. We have our own biology on Earth, we don’t actually really know that much about the microbial community that may or may not exist in other places. There is a big conversation right now within the space exploration community about being ethical and sustainable in the way that we travel and making sure that we’re not accidentally seeding some of these places with our own microbes. NASA does this by maintaining super clean rooms for all of their probes and stuff like that. When we start talking about sustainable travel, there will be a conversation about, how do you ethically and sustainably do this without messing up these other places? Even just by landing on planets that can be sometimes a very intense, traumatic thing, when we’re putting craters into the moon or into Mars that may mess up the microbes. So, it’s a conversation about taking care of not just our Earth, but our universe now that we have the power to impact all of these other places. I think that is going to be an interesting conversation that we haven’t quite really had yet, but will be coming in the future because we just can’t help ourselves. We just can’t not go places.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw: Thanks for listening to Out Travel the System brought to you by Expedia. Follow Expedia on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to join the conversation about travel. We’d love to hear your travel stories and questions about Earth and beyond, and don’t forget to subscribe. I’m your guest host, Jordi Lippe-McGraw, filling in for Nisreene Atassi. Happy travels!