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Are Mass Plane Travel and Mass Tourism Unsustainable?

The coronavirus pandemic is just a symptom of systemic problems the industries cannot resolve.

A passenger wears a face mask on an almost empty Swiss Air flight from Hamburg, Germany to Zurich, Switzerland, on March 22, 2020, in Hamburg, Germany. Airlines worldwide have had to cut back flights as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)

A passenger wears a face mask on an almost empty Swiss Air flight from Hamburg, Germany to Zurich, Switzerland, on March 22, 2020, in Hamburg, Germany. Airlines worldwide have had to cut back flights as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)

“Ah, for the days when flying was a gentleman’s pursuit! – before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and ‘jet off’ to Raleigh-Durham.” —Robert (“Sideshow Bob”) Terwillinger, The Simpsons, “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming."

In recent weeks, the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effect on the airline and tourist industries has been graphically evident. Airlines cutting flights by 50 percent or more while hurtling towards bankruptcy; passengers in chaotic airport scenes as they try to get home before travel bans; Venice, Paris, Rome— for once— resembling ghost towns; leviathan cruise ships forlorn and empty, like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

This might not be a temporary bump in the road for these industries, but a precursor to their long-term viability if they do not radically change their business models. Observers have for many years questioned the environmental sustainability of both industries. What’s more, airline travel has become so onerous for passengers that a consumer rebellion could be brewing even without fears of infectious disease.

Tourism has long been cursed with an inherent paradox that recent events have thrown into sharp perspective. Since about 1980, airline travel has gradually ceased to be an adventure (in the positive sense), and come to resemble the Stations of the Cross. From nonexistent cabin service, to checked bag fees (causing the need to shoehorn everything into the overhead, forcing delays both entering and exiting the plane), to intricately tiered fees imposing a rigid class system (like the accommodations on the Titanic), to shrinking, jammed-in seats making the airliner resemble a winged sardine can, the lot of the traveler is not a happy one.

And all of that is simply what happens on the plane. Since 9/11, airports have come to resemble mini-Soviet Unions, with every passenger under quasi-military discipline (including the requirement to “hurry up and wait,” familiar to every GI). There are subtle indignities like removing belt and shoes, and what has been described as “security theater” (it is in practical terms all-but impossible to take inert liquids into an aircraft restroom and mix them into an explosive, given the need for a pressure vessel and freezing temperatures, but maybe the vast wastage of water bottles is economic stimulus for the concessionaires’ $2 water on the other side of the checkpoint).

Is all this flying really necessary? Perhaps the current virus outbreak will teach businesses sending their employees hither and yon that all the fancy teleconferencing gear they’ve bought is actually usable. And possibly the reason business travel has heretofore not been perceived as a burden is because it can be expensed. That may change as the health, as well as environmental, costs of plane travel become more pressing.

Under a distance of about 400 miles, airline travel for any purpose makes no sense, either environmentally or in terms of convenience. But Americans, seemingly alone among developed nations, are shackled to airlines if they don’t want to go by automobile. High speed trains would solve the problem, but there is no will to build them, given higher priorities like multi-trillion-dollar stalemates in the Middle East and tax cuts for billionaires.

The entire tourism industry faces dilemmas on a similar scale. The paradox of tourism has been around for centuries. Samuel Johnson, the sage of 18th century London, was asked about his trip to visit the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland: was it worth seeing? “Oh, it was worth seeing, he replied. “It just wasn’t worth going to see.”

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I was reminded of Johnson’s witticism a couple of months ago when I was inveigled to go to Thailand. “Sure,” I thought. “Why not?” But interminably long flights across the International Date Line jet lagged me into uselessness for a few days in each direction. And although it occurred significantly before coronavirus peaked in East Asia, a subliminal but nagging fear of contamination accompanied every flight. And that was only the travel portion.

Thailand, slightly larger than California but with 30 million more people, is already a densely populated nation. At best a middle-income country, it simply cannot handle millions of foreign tourists. Resort regions like Phuket are vastly over-touristed and overbuilt with perpetually jammed roads, and showing signs of chronic pollution. And this was after the Christmas peak of European tourism and in the midst of local complaints that tourism was down because of the then-local virus problem in Wuhan.

Bangkok is now a polluted, overgrown Soylent Green stand-in, its city proper more heavily populated than New York. There might be more motor vehicles per capita there than in a comparably-sized U.S. city, with two-stroke motorcycles and tuk-tuks spewing out massive amounts of pollution in addition to noise that would wake the dead. (A single afternoon’s use of one two-stroke leaf blower emits more pollution than a V-8 Ford F-150 Raptor driven cost-to-coast; keep that in mind when contemplating that the GOP dearly wants to abolish the EPA).

These phenomena are of course not limited to Thailand. All over the Third World, scenic places have become colonized by a metastasizing, lopsided overdevelopment due to mass tourism, one that not only ruins the point of going there in the first place, but also makes the local people dependent on an economic monoculture as pernicious in its own way to their unique cultures as the Central American banana plantations.

As for the developed world, once our current crisis is over, you’d better forget about contemplating the timeless beauty of the Venus de Milo at the Louvre,  or retracing the steps of Thomas Mann’s characters in a misty, twilit Venice. The Louvre is as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve, while a seven-story tall cruise liner dropping anchor rather spoils the view to the other side of the lagoon where Venice’s spires evaporate in the moody dusk like wraiths.

Since at least the medieval religious pilgrimages, tourism has been heavily ridden by the clichéd and the formulaic. But since the invention of the jet airliner, mass tourism has been swamped by the kitsch sensibility – the domestication, familiarization, and commodification of the so-called exotic experience. Disneyfication is no longer confined to Anaheim and Orlando, but suffuses African safaris, Icelandic jökull expeditions, and visits to Laotian hill tribes.

Mass air travel and mass tourism are inextricably linked, and you don’t have to be Greta Thunberg to acknowledge their environmental unsustainability as currently configured, quite apart from negating the very reason for visiting something that is supposed to be outside of one’s routinized experience. We need hardly add that the effects are contributing to the distinct possibility that Venice itself may sink beneath the waves altogether, although in the case of Miami’s South Beach, my feelings are more ambiguous.

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