Can I travel anywhere with a clear conscience?

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Countries are like people – none is perfect and none is absolutely beyond redemption (one hopes).

Only in the oldest and simplest of western films (and I like westerns), the most tribal of politics and the most intolerant of minds are people good or bad with no shades of grey in between.  You’re not perfect and neither am I – but nor are we wholly bad (at least I’m not, and I’m sure you aren’t either).

Driven grouse shooting isn’t all bad – it’s just, in my opinion, overall pretty damned awful.

So when it comes to countries, which may have wildlife in them that we’d love to experience, which countries are at the top and bottom of the list of ‘it’s acceptable to visit’ considerations?  And how do you decide?

Here are some thoughts of my own before I give you some options to assess.

If we start with ‘the world is my oyster’ and I have the time and money to go anywhere I like, which isn’t true, then how do I choose where to go?

For me, it’s not all about wildlife and landscapes but those are very strong drivers of choice.  But even then there are some parts of the world which I’m not that keen on visiting. These include South America (stuffed full of birds I know but please don’t try talking me out of this as it makes life simpler), Antarctica, Asia east of India (most of which is China), tropical Africa, most ocean archipelagos, Iceland and a few other places.  Looking at that list, it cuts out almost everywhere south of the equator except Australia (which I’ve visited once but only Queensland), NZ (never been) and southern Africa (quite fancy it).  On the more positive side, I would love, all other things being equal, to visit the USA (and maybe Canada) many more times, see more of Europe (including eastern Europe in which I am not much-travelled), North Africa and the Middle East, Russia and a bunch of ‘stans’ and a return visit to India (one visit).  So, I’ve hardly cramped my style by excluding much of the southern hemisphere.

So I’ve got a vague and not at all well thought through wish list, of sorts. Now I’m not going to visit all of them for reasons of time, expense and guilt about carbon emissions – but I’ll probably go to some of them in the next decade (in fact, let’s be honest, I hope I will).

If you offered me the chance to visit only one ‘new’ country (new to me) in the rest of my life it would probably be Costa Rica – on the grounds that it is full of birds, everyone I know who has been there raves about it and it appears to have a good environmental record and welcomes ecotourists. If Costa Rica were geographically situated where Ireland is then I’d definitely go there.

And if told I could keep going back to one country which I have visited before, but only one, then it would be a toss-up between the USA and Spain – so I guess Spain must win on carbon grounds.

In the last 15 years or so I’ve turned down many trips, many expenses-paid trips, to places such as Argentina, South Korea, Greece, South Africa (more than once) and Israel.  I know for sure in some cases, and suspect in others, that the fact that I didn’t travel didn’t mean that there was less travel as someone else took up the opportunity instead.  And you’ll notice (perhaps – but if you didn’t then I’m telling you) that I eventually cracked and went to Israel (partly because I persuaded myself it was for a good cause and partly, let’s be honest, because I was very keen to visit – see here).

So, that’s a bit of information about what I have done in the past – but that is the past. How should I, and you, approach the future?

These are some mental sieves I use for discarding countries to visit which might be on my wish list: how they treat people, what their environmental record is, how much carbon would be emitted by my visit, how much I think I would enjoy it, would my visit encourage things to change in the right direction, how many mosquitoes are there, would I be safe, can I get by in the language and how much it would cost? And, yes, that’s a mixture of apparently altruistic and clearly selfishly personal considerations.

So here are two questions for you to answer, please (if the survey box below looks empty to you then you can try this link instead




El Rocio, Donana National Park




36 Replies to “Can I travel anywhere with a clear conscience?”

  1. Hi Mark,
    Am I right in thinking you posted a link to a survey at the bottom of your post? When I click on the box, nothing happens.

    1. Paula – hmmm. Sorry about that, and thanks for telling me. Have another look and try the scrolling down bar on the right hand side? Responses are coming in so it works for some people.

  2. I think you highlight one of the big problems the world faces. We are almost all willing to clamber aboard international flights and help to burn all that carbon, yet we use environmental considerations to decide on the destination. We can all find ways to justify this travel (carbon offsetting for e.g.) at the same time as knowing, deep down, that it’s unjustifiable.

    I couldn’t see the questions though I’m in a holiday home with rubbish wifi so it might just be that.

    1. One of the concerns about climate change is species loss. But if “we” don’t travel to Africa, Asia and (sorry Mark) even South America, the national parks in those places which preserve many iconic species will lose their revenue stream and inevitably close. If people stopped travelling to visit wildlife it would be disastrous for many developing countries. By all means offset your carbon, it’s relatively easy to do, but don’t write off all international travel. Some of it is essential for conservation.

      1. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Everyone can find a way to make a special case as to why their own contribution to damaging climate change is acceptable, even necessary. The ‘support to local communities’ argument is very handy as it works almost everywhere.

        1. Tourism is definitely a double-edged sword. Support to local communities is real though. Ultimately the environmental cost of carbon emissions strengthens the case for high-cost, low-impact tourism though, if visiting far-flung places.

          Carbon-offsetting seems very cheap too if it is real. I can offset 2 tonnes of CO2 (the amount used in a year by a family car in UK or a return flight to Miami) for £12.

    1. Martin – yes that would make it difficult! Sorry about that, and thanks for telling me. Have another look and try the scrolling down bar on the right hand side? Responses are coming in so it works for some people.

  3. I’ll be interested in the results, as I face very similar dilemmas in my own holiday choices. Many years ago I decided not to take a trip by air more than once a year – I wasn’t willing to commit to never flying again, with everyone else being encouraged to fly as much as possible I’d just feel like a mug without a suntan.

    It’s a workable compromise for me, between moral purity and not being a holier than thou fanatic. Fortunately I love France and Scotland, so I can happily forgo flying entirely some years. I’m comfortable with my compromise.

  4. ps – for a short break in spring, I’ve heard amazing things about Norway’s arctic North Cape, which is a lot more accessible than I thought. The Lofoten Islands sound pretty good too. Norway is very expensive indeed but the north can be done at a slightly less extortionate rate than I’d thought before, if you’re prepared to live very frugally.

  5. Nope, survey doesn’t work for me either, but then, I’ve not been able to use the like buttons for over a month now. ( BTW scrolling down bar on right? Can’t see that either)
    Enjoyed the piccie of El Rocio though, lovely country Spain as long as you stay away from most of the coast. Grazalema NP is a favourite.
    We drive down in the winter with our dog for a couple of months and hope that the fuel we burn is a little offset by the fuel we save at home.
    Also we make a point of always wearing our binos. If the locals can see their birds are an attraction, they may be less keen to shoot them. (Moor owners, please note)
    They may even be persuaded not to kill them with Diclofenac!

    I do think there is a case in many countries, that increased tourism may help to save wildlife. And travel will become more efficient in the future. That’s not ideological, that’s fact.

  6. The clincher argument here must surely be climate change.
    It takes a vast amount of fossil fuel to keep 200-300 tonnes of metal six miles above the ground for several hours at a time. There is no practical alternative to fossil-carbon based fuels for aircraft and they also do a lot of other damage to the atmosphere by emitting oxides of nitrogen at high altitude. Their contrails are another problem.
    One recent estimate was that, to fly one person from the UK to Florida and back, emits roughly as much carbon dioxide as the average family car emits in a year (i.e. a great deal of carbon). That’s not the whole plane, that’s just one seat.
    So anyone thinking of taking a plane ride to go and watch wildlife, or even attend a conference on conservation, needs to ask themselves how much damage their flight is doing to the climate, and how much damage that is doing to wildlife, including birds.
    The good news is that high speed rail is being developed across Europe which offers a much lower-carbon (not alas carbon-free, especially ultra-high-speed rail) alternative to flying. Countries like Spain are becoming possibilities for non-flying visits. Or you can go places by ship, and watch the seabirds en route.

    1. Jon, I’d love to go by TGV. But thanks to the perverse economics, its unaffordable for me to go that way beyond Paris, but the same trip by plane with untaxed aviation fuel and subsidised airports is as cheap as ever.

      If govts were remotely serious about climate change they’d tax aviation fuel and not tax the energy used by trains.

      (in passing though, Hi Speed rail is pretty energy hungry itself – not as bad as flying to be sure, but way worse than you would think.)

      One idea that’s doing the rounds I like is that everyone should get one take-off a year without airport duty, but the second is more expensive, the third much more, and so on. 75% of flights are taken by 15% of the population – what’s really changed since I were a lad is not annual holiday flights, but the explosion in cheap weekend break flights. While that continues, people like us not flying at all ever is just gesture politics.

      1. You’re quite right about relative levels of fuel taxation, of course. Why is the Scottish Government proposing to cut air departure tax?
        I believe you’re right about ultra-high-speed rail too. The figure I heard was that the energy benefits v flying progressively disappear as you go above 180mph. As the main benefit of HS2 etc. is to free up space on the existing network for slower passenger trains and freight, it’s unclear why the very high speed option is, expensively, being pursued.
        Your point about weekend flying is also right, but if even one flight a year nearly doubles your carbon footprint and we are already seeing visible sea level rise and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, what price nature?

    2. Rail is not anything like as carbon -free as many people like to think. There are huge amounts of carbon emissions involved in the infrastructure. Every 100kg of concrete used produces 100kgs of emmisions. (I think)

  7. Oh dear, this is all a bit like reading the Guardian on a bad day – very depressing. Don’t worry, Mark – the plane’s going anyway.

    1. Yes, travel really is a dilemma for any thinking person, particularly wildlife enthusiasts.
      Since the beginning of time mankind has travelled, often on regular, seasonal migrations and I suspect the urge is in our DNA. Unfortunately, we have become conditioned to doing it at speed, involving highly polluting options because our transport now is based on fossil fuels. I have always liked the idea of individuals having a carbon ration but I’ve no clue how such a system could work. One thing, however, that I have absolutely no time for is world ‘twitching’. How any self respecting birder can regard chasing world lists as acceptable I do not know. It has nothing to do with conservation.

      1. I am not a twitcher myself but I think you are being a bit intolerant here. If I have understood Mark’s question correctly, we are considering travel for the sake of it here, as opposed to travel for professional or other ‘serious’ purposes. That being the case, I can’t really see why it should be morally inferior to travel with a view to adding new species to your life list, if that is your thing, than, say, visiting museums and art galleries. Whether we are racking up the air-miles in pursuit of a few new bird ticks, to sample the ‘authentic’ food and culture of your chosen location, to see great works of art or just to bronze your epidermis, the impact is the same.

        1. Agreed Jonathan, I am profoundly intolerant of people who bemoan the effects of climate change on the natural world but are, nevertheless, quite happy to ratchet up their carbon footprints in order to indulge themselves.

          1. The word you need may be found between “hypocotyl” and “hypocycloid” in a good dictionary

    2. But Bob, it isn’t going anyway. It’s going because Mark and Fred and Jane and Bill and Radha are all going, and if enough of them (us) stop going the flight won’t make money and will stop too. That’s the dilemma.

      1. Jbc, it was a slightly tongue in cheek comment but I don’t think you need agonise too much. I’ve done a lot of world birding, seen amazing birds and places, met some wonderful people along the way and put money into local economies. No doubt I’ve used way more than my ‘carbon ration’ but I have no regrets: as has been said about the wildlife parks of Africa, “use them or lose them”.

  8. Amazing how many conservationists manage to find a reason why they are going flying and they have a right to trash this planet.
    There is probably nowhere better than Scotland for any conservationist to visit.
    What rubbish about flying all over the world thinking(sounds like a bad excuse)that they are benefiting wildlife and those country’s.

    1. Wildlife tourism is not “trashing this planet”. Some forms are obviously better than others but in most cases the plane really will be going anyway – the percentage of wildlife tourists compared to others flying must be tiny. If you have not been to a country like, for example, Ethiopia, been taken round by a local driver and a guide who are immensely proud of their country, its heritage and its wildlife, then you are the poorer and the world is not a better place as a result. If wildlife tourists do not go to such places and put money into the local economy, the wildlife will be lost and the people will be poorer.

  9. It’s not rubbish that wildlife tourism supports wildlife and communities. It’s a fact. In Botswana foreign tourists contribute 10% of GDP and in northern Botswana the safari industry is the biggest employer. By far. That proportion is rising and supports one of the largest networks of protected areas in the world, but despite that the wildlife is under continual pressure from the country’s cattle industry. These are real national parks and reserves, not sheep farms and grouse shoots. If you travel to Botswana (or Costa Rica or Bhutan…) and pay to see their wildlife you are helping to fund and justify the conservation of those ecosystems. If you additionally offset your carbon footprint I struggle to see much wrong with that. Without that money many of these governments are under pressure to convert that land to agriculture. Fewer lions, fewer tigers, fewer wild places. Not what I want to see.

    Also, are all those condemning people who fly vegetarian? Beef requires “28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.”

    And what about pets? One large dog has a carbon footprint equivalent to a medium-sized car.

    A meat-eating pet-owner is on dodgy ground criticising anyone boarding a plane.

    Save your ire for resource use without any ecological upside. Like Nascar racing.

    1. Bob and Hugh,just like I said you are masters of excuses.
      By the way try fattening a chicken on grass,what a laugh that comparison.
      Shot yourself in the foot as chicken needs cereal to fatten which you are obviously against.

      1. Thanks Dennis. What you see as a problem, I see as part of the solution to another problem. We are just going to have to agree to differ! Bob

  10. I haven’t bothered about filling in the survey. I’m a confirmed local patch person. I usually travel by bicycle or walk, and I only travel a bit further afield occasionally. It is decades since I flew anywhere. However, whilst I am very focused on the need to address the causes of climate change, I also understand that the personal sacrifice thing is pretty meaningless. This problem is only going to be addressed with globally coordinated action. In the overall scheme of things, the contribution of naturalists, birders etc, to the overall problem is miniscule. Focusing on the personal carbon footprints of birders and naturalists is a diversion when the vast majority travel for flippant reasons.

    The latter bit isn’t a justification, and the only problem I see here is one of justification. I’ll come to this shortly. The personal responsibility thing is a red herring. In no other sphere of social policy is it left to personal responsibility. Governments don’t just say we’d far rather you didn’t use recreational drugs, carry knives, shoot people etc. They try to coerce people into behaving in a certain way with a big stick. Even when they just try to give people a nudge there are big financial inducements, and anyone with a very low carbon footprint is well aware there are no rewards for having a low carbon footprint, as generally you are treated like a third class citizen for making these sacrifices.

    I’m never judgemental because of this. Also the idea that by making personal sacrifices you are creating some sort of merit is derived from religious practise and not what actually works overall i.e. efficacy. A very small minority of people making often only partial contributions, like a few celebs driving hybrid cars whilst jetting all over the world is self-kidology. It makes no overall difference to the big picture.

    However, the use of justifications is definitely part of the problem. Such as the contribution which eco-tourism makes type argument. There is a failure to look at the big picture and use joined up thinking. Biodiversity is only conserved and safe when whole areas of habitat are conserved. Tourism pays for the upkeep of small reserves relative to the wider areas they are present in – contingent to that tourism continuing. This failure in thinking should be familiar to any British conservationist. Our little protected areas in Britain can be a diversion when you think of the massive biodiversity loss across the whole countryside. In my lifetime I have seen common and widespread birds of the countryside, disappear from most of the countryside, except for a few protected areas – Grey Partridge, Cuckoos, Skylarks, Lapwings, Yellow Hammers etc. When I was young these were very widespread birds I saw or heard in countryside everywhere.

    Likewise it follows that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves when a few tiny reserves in S.America, Africa etc are protected by the tourist dollar, when there is generally massive biodiversity loss from the overall area.

    Above all I ask people to always look at the big picture, and be aware of the huge pitfall of “justification”. In my eyes the worst 2 concepts in our culture are “justification” and “blame”. They take our eyes away from the big picture, and allow anything to be explained away. If one thing can be justified, then with clever, but specious and fallacious argument, anything can be justified. That is exactly why this rampant destruction of our biodiversity continues unchecked, and why we are facing dangerous climate change which is an existential threat to our civilization, with an economy primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

    1. “…a few tiny reserves in S. America and Africa etc. are protected by the tourist dollar…” Really? I suppose it depends what you mean by tiny. I’m a pragmatist – wildlife tourism works. It’s just one tool to help preserve the best of what we’ve got. The big picture is depressing but that’s no reason to rubbish nature reserves, and if we want to keep them, the world over, someone has to pay for them.

      1. Hi Bob
        Just to clarify what I said. I was not rubbishing nature reserves. I’m a very active volunteer on a national nature reserve, and have been very supportive of other nature reserves. Recently I was successful in coordinating an objection to a development which would have been very damaging to a nature reserve and site of special scientific interest SSSI.

        When I said tiny, I clearly defined what I meant – “small reserves relative to the wider areas they are present in”.

        I was trying to be realistic, not negative. I work on the principle that to solve a problem you have to understand it and most importantly to acknowledge it. I don’t deny that good work is done on reserves benefiting from tourism, and I thought that was tacit in what I said.

        However, I believe the danger, as with nature reserves generally is that they create the false impression that everything is thriving, when what you are looking at is a tiny remnant of what their used to be. In addition, there is a further danger when an area is only preserved because of tourism. That tourism might not always be there. A reserve that is only there as long as there is income from tourism is very vulnerable. Tourism can end or decline for many factors. That is why it’s conservation must happen because it is seen as necessary, not just because of financial income which might not always be there.

        In no way did I argue against ecotourism. It is all about putting it into perspective, and being realistic.

        1. Thanks SteB. That’s all good stuff. In my book, human population growth, land misuse and greed are all up there with climate change in driving the loss of global biodiversity – and they are all interlinked of course.

          Follow the money is always good advice. That’s why we have the evil biofuels directive, designed to make Europe’s farmers richer, why we are subsidising the felling of forests in North America to pellet whole trees for our power stations and why we had to fight the proposed destruction of Kenya’s coastal forest to make way for biofuel crops. All done or proposed in the name of being green and fighting climate change! Against that background, ecotourism seems great to me and I agree, it is all about putting it into perspective.

          I also agree that it’s dangerous to rely on ecotourism to protect reserves but it is one tool that does work when it works. And what else is there? People and governments often don’t do things because it’s “the right thing to do”. Money is so often the driver. Look at current forest destruction in Poland – if the EU is struggling to stop that, what hope for the wild places of Africa if they don’t produce an income?

  11. It’s true, of course, that conservation-minded folk, like those who follow Mark’s blog, make a miniscule contribution to overall greenhouse gas emissions. But if even conservation-minded folk can’t set a good example, what hope is there the rest of humanity will follow?
    Of course we need action by governments. But elected politicians plainly aren’t going to tackle things like driving and flying which most people currently regard as a basic human right. That needs a change in public attitudes.
    And yes, eco-tourism does help preserve nature and nature reserves. But the biggest current threat to world biodiversity is man-made climate change. The climate is getting more extreme and extreme weather events more frequent.
    So how many nature reserves will succumb to hotter summers, colder winters and more frequent and bigger tropical storms, temperate storms, droughts, forest fires, inundations, mega-floods etc.?
    Surely we can find ways to enjoy nature without destroying it?

  12. This is an excellent debate to start. I’ve travelled a lot with work (or did) and still do for wildlife. I worry about my carbon footprint but find the pull too great to deny myself.

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