Can we find a more environmentally friendly way to travel to and from island destinations, considering the negative impact that flying has on the planet? This is a question posed by Susanne Becken, as she highlights the importance of tourism to island economies despite its harmful effects on the environment.
One of the greatest obstacles in transitioning away from fossil fuels is aviation, which is often overlooked. This presents a significant dilemma for Pacific Island nations. Currently, it is virtually impossible to travel to these islands without using kerosene as fuel.
Air transportation links families throughout the area and enables necessary trips, such as for medical or educational purposes. Additionally, flights play a crucial role in the expanding and significant tourism sector. This industry is currently the largest contributor to the Pacific’s economy and has the potential to bring about numerous developmental advantages.
As island states with high levels of vulnerability, it is crucial to work towards eliminating the use of fossil fuels in the region. The urgency to transition away from these fuels is now a significant part of the global climate framework, as seen in the agreement made at Cop28 in Dubai this week. In March, representatives from Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, Niue, and Solomon Islands came together to negotiate the “Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific.” This topic was revisited during the Pacific Island Forum in the Cook Islands in November. However, the realities of the situation and the important role of tourism in the region make this task more complicated.
Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, Pacific Island countries welcomed 1.8 million international visitors through air and cruise travel. The energy consumption and resulting emissions from these modes of transportation have not been accurately calculated, but are expected to be significant. A crucial initial step would be to accurately measure and record these impacts in order to fully understand the magnitude of the issue.
The pandemic-related closures of borders allowed for the emergence of important discussions about the appropriate amount and types of tourism for the island’s specific context, including its distinct cultures and delicate environments. Fiji is aiming to move away from the traditional mass-tourism approach that relies on international hotel chains, and instead focus on locally-run eco and cultural tourism opportunities. Some nations have faced challenges with their existing, smaller tourism businesses due to an influx of visitors, as seen in Vanuatu with the increase of large cruise ships. The Cook Islands are striving to adopt a sustainable model of tourism that leaves positive impacts on the islands.
There are indications that the tourism sector in the Pacific can adopt more sustainable practices. In the case of short trips, such as from Rarotonga to Aitutaki (approximately 260km), or possibly from Samoa to Tokelau (around 550km), electric planes could be a viable option. Regional airlines may even be able to offer flights up to 1,000km. A different network tailored to the region may prove to be more effective than the current options. However, this would only be feasible if there is an adequate supply of renewable energy, as air travel is still extremely energy-intensive.
The main priority is to increase the production of renewable electricity on the islands. All Pacific Island countries have a lot of work to do in order to rely solely on renewable energy. Even Fiji, which has the highest percentage of renewable energy, only uses 30% of its total energy from renewable sources. Additionally, it would be advantageous to actively work with potential partners to transition the regional aviation network. For instance, there could be an opportunity for start-up companies to test new technologies on shorter routes within the islands. This is already happening in Alaska, where ZeroAvia and Alaska Airlines are collaborating to launch a hydrogen-electric flight in 2024 between Anchorage and Kenai.
Ultimately, there should be more focus on finding ways to boost tourism revenue without relying on high numbers of visitors. Conducting studies to determine which types of tourists bring more positive impacts could help inform more specific and effective marketing approaches. These benefits may include financial gains, but they could also be measured in terms of support for conservation efforts, contributions to local communities, or even lower-than-average environmental impact.
Clearing the Pacific Islands of fossil fuels is an admirable goal – and the whole world must follow suit should we want to make any progress on keeping global warming well below two degrees. However, the current investments into growing tourism will make it harder to achieve the vision. The long-term future of the region depends on effective climate action, and how to achieve tourism growth sustainably needs to be part of that conversation.
Susanne Becken, PhD, is a professor specializing in sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Australia.