Dark side of Travel and Tourism

I love to travel. I have from as far back as I can remember. One of my favorite poems as a child was, Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go… 

I was born on a Thursday. I had my mother read this poem over and over to me. Even then I loved our family trips. Each summer my mother insisted we travel, something uncommon for many farm families at that time. I remember being hungry for the sight of a body of water that you could not see across (and that was Lake Michigan, when I was 9) and a mountain, which was the Smokies, when I was 11 (and the sight frightened me. What if it fell?)

When I was 21, my mother gave me a porcelain figurine of Thursday’s child holding a back pack and a sign, “This child has far to go.” It was not long after this that I packed my car with every possession I owned and moved to California. I drove through the Rockies, the western most known place in my world and drove on through the high country of western Colorado, the salt flats of Utah, into the blue plains of Nevada. By the time I reached the red soils of the Sierra, and descended into the Valley and on to the coastal range of northern California, my soul had embraced the West and I knew I could never move back.

But I also continue to crave travel. It is as if, as rooted as my soul is in the soil of our ranch, it requires the larger perspective of where we are on the planet. I count visitations like beads on a rosary: the first time we flew over Spain and on into Rome, the first time we flew over the pole and saw the midnight sun illuminating snowy mountains of Greenland, the first time I saw the isle of Ireland from the air! I am continually feeling a place in comparison with that upon which I live.

And yet I have to question this passion of mine to experience the totality of our planet. What is the impact of travel on our climate? High altitude flying produces carbon emissions that are profoundly impacting our atmosphere and contributing big time to climate change. Train travel is much more planet friendly, producing about 1% of the carbon emissions of airline travel.

What is this compulsion to see the world? Again, I return to childhood: my mother’s family lived in the city. Her father was a successful commercial artist, and her family traveled whenever possible, traveling by train from central Illinois to the West Coast shortly after the First World War, driving to the top of Pike’s Peak when the road first made it accessible by Model T, and thoroughly exploring Appalachia with my then young mother. On the other hand, my father’s family farmed. His mother left the state of Illinois twice, once to visit her grandmother in Ohio when she was in her late teens, and once to Missouri when I was a young girl. Both times she became so homesick she never wanted to leave the state, and probably, our Macon County! again.

I have an image as a two or three year old child of standing between both my grandmothers and holding them by their skirts. Probably I was being doted upon! I remember saying, “Two Mee-maws!” It is a memory I carry to this day. I was a bridge between my mother and father, between the city and the country, between loving travel and loving homeland.

In Napa County, California, we are becoming as overrun by tourists whose primary draw is said to be the beauty of the Valley as we are by dependence on their dollars. Focus has become how to draw even more tourists, and to extract as much money from them as possible. In the next blogs I will focus on this phenomenon which is occurring worldwide: a transition into a tourist economy. It is a trend that undermines the integrity of community, making it difficult or impossible for the children of locals and service providers to afford to live in the community. As venture capitalists move in and wealthy families buy up attractive land for second homes, inflating property values, the social and ecological health of the community suffers. It becomes less about community and more about profit.

I am well aware of my contribution to this tourist economy in my travels, whether that be in Ireland or Spain, in San Francisco or even in my home of Napa County. But how do we work to support healthy economies and social structures in such places that others also want to experience? What is it we are really searching for as tourists? And how do we balance that with the health of the community and the land under our feet?