2013 was a big year for me personally. I got married, changed my country of residence, shipped 28 boxes of my belongings from L.A. to Zürich and quit Twitter. These are Adam H. Graham’s Personal Highlights of 2013 according to Facebook. Not bad for a computer, right? What the almighty Book didn’t seem to detect were the global issues, travel destinations and experiences that touched me deeply. Can metrics, SEO formulas, Likes, and RTs account for that? I’m no technophobe, but I don’t believe a server can interpret that sort of stuff. At least not yet.
I write about travel for a living. I prefer narrative travel stories, but a lot of travel writing is served up in list form, so, I often rank hotels and destinations in categories as cutting edge as Top Power Breakfast Spots and profound as Memorable Hotel Arrivals. These listicles are not winning any awards, but they are a decent way to get ideas across. So rather than try to crucify the format, I thought it was time to write my own more personalized and uncensored listicles. So I turned down the last four travel assignments I was offered so that I could make time to add these to my blog during the next few weeks. Think of them as my transparent annual Year End Report. They are tallied from my experiences in 2013. They are: My Favorite Destinations of 2013, Best Hotel Stays of 2013, Best Meals of 2013, Where to Go in 2014 and last but not least, Biggest Travel Disappointments of 2013. These lists are not necessarily newsy, objective, or balanced. They are not fit for an audience determined by an algorithm. These are my personal opinions and views. And since I’ve been travel writing for over ten years now, I hope you’ll find them relevant and helpful.
2013 has been a year of soul-searching for me and many other travel writers. Travel, it turns out, is not just some sort of innocuous, do-gooder niche industry that helps people find themselves spiritually, relax on a beach and become better soccer moms and bankers. We all know that the travel itself has a massive environmental cost. But all that soul-enriching, detoxing, and “reawakening” as a wildly popular recent NYT Modern Love called it, is a huge ecological incidental. Like all industries, the travel industry (and it is an industry—generating some $6.5 trillion a year according to 2013’s Best Selling Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker), has its fair share of politics, favors, back-scratching and dirty deeds. Becker asserts that tourism ranks among oil, energy, finance and agriculture industries in terms of corporate power and greed. The costs of travel are serious.
I’m reminded of a popular magazine tagline “Truth in travel,” which suggests a certain editorial and journalistic integrity, but also illustrates a need for overall travel regulation. Most travel insiders are dubious of this tagline’s claim, and might tell you that ‘truth in travel’ is all relative. The most jaded of them would add that the phrase is equivalent to “Truth in Oil,” or “Truth in Politics.” It’s almost an oxymoron. Regardless of its meaning, I think the phrase is aimed at the wrong people. The corporations within the industry need better regulation, not just the people who write about it (though I can think of a few travel writers/editors who need permanent “regulation”).
What’s fascinating and really noteworthy here is that travelers and readers of travel writing expect more “truth in travel” than they do of truth in other industries…banking and politics included! Why? Because travel promises an awakening and a spirituality that one can’t achieve by voting for a senator, depositing a check, or even doing downward dog at the neighborhood yoga studio. Travel is the ultimate nirvana. The antidote to the everyday. The alleged enemy of busy. Travel claims to be transformative and prophetic and nobody more than those of us on the industry’s inside shout it louder. Whether it’s a false prophet remains to be seen. Are the days of equating truth with travel over? Let’s hope not. But it’s time for hoteliers, restaurateurs, tourists, honeymooners, and writers and editors of travel magazines, guidebooks, blogs and newspapers to start being more truthful about travel, both with ourselves and with others. To be clear, I don’t mean who pays for what. I mean being accountable on an environmental level for what happens while “there.” Let’s face it. What happens in Vegas, does not stay in Vegas. It never did.
In another important book I read in 2013, How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee, I learned more about the specific metrics behind travel’s carbon footprint. Flying roundtrip from L.A. to Barcelona burns around 3.4 tons of CO2. Quadruple that if you fly business class. Berners-Lee suggests that the ideal carbon lifestyle uses 10 tons of CO2 per year, so three of these flights (in economy) are a whole year’s worth of 10-ton Carbon Living. For those who need a more tangible picture, 3.4 tons of CO2 is equivalent to 1 ton of fertilizer, or 340,000 plastic bags, or having one child. The news worsens. The burnt fuel to power airplanes is three times worse for the environment than the fuel used on the ground. So for frequent flyers like myself who pride themselves on not driving SUVs, this is not good. Flying is one of the worst things you can do ecologically. (This does not excuse SUV drivers!) In the book, Berners-Lee meticulously tallies the carbon footprint of everything from a tomato and a text message to a night in a hotel and Christmas excess, to the world’s data centers and a war. He also takes on some environmental arguments surrounding disposable diapers, bicycles, burgers, and synthetic fibers that make for interesting contrarian reading. More important, he shows us how to cut down. No brainers like simply turning off the lights remain one of the most impactful things you can do to significantly reduce. A 100-Watt bulb produces 1,100 pounds of CO2 per year. Leaving the lights on when you exit a room is “the cheapest way to trash the planet,” he says. Hotel rooms count! So do smart energy bulbs. Just don’t use something when you’re not there to really use it. Simple.
I try hard to keep a low carbon footprint. I don’t drive a car, I don’t have kids or pets, I recycle, reduce, reuse, compost, eschew waste, and live in Switzerland, one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. (In Zürich, bikes are the norm, the lake-water is drinkable, we have a new city-wide compost system, and our garbage costs are based on our personal output. Why isn’t the rest of the developed world doing this?) Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone, I’m a consumer and part of the problem. I consider myself an environmentalist, but in 2013 I traveled to and in 18 countries (including my home of Switzerland). I visited 76 destinations on 91 separate trips and accrued 96,117 air miles, which is just under 25 tons of CO2. That’s absolutely terrible! Is there another way to do this job or must I consider changing careers? I don’t know. It costs me $189.43 to offset it at www.carbonfund.org, but I hope there are soon more creative ways to offset. Throwing money at your lifestyle’s wasteful habits seems ultimately hollow. The ancient Greeks had a word for it: iatrogenic, which means sicknesses you get from visiting the doctor. I’m not an environmental scientist, but throwing money at any sort of fund when you continue to lead a wasteful life just seems to perpetuate the problems.
My 2014 resolution is to decrease my consumption and advocate for more positive environmental change, starting by taking my own industry to task and revealing some of the terrible “Green-Washing” going on among hotels. I’m calling out two individual luxury hotels I visited this year in my Biggest Travel Disappointments of 2013 post. It’s time for travelers and hospitality executives to stop letting Green-Washing run amuck. We don’t let big corporate petro and ag companies get away with destroying the planet, so why do hotels get off the hook? When we fly 10K miles to stay at them and crank up the A/C, leave the lights on, and waste food, we create a demand that adds to this cycle. Vacation shouldn’t be a time when you relax your green principles, it should be the time when you strengthen them. If you’ve flown somewhere for vacation, that’s reason enough to be extra vigilant. And if you appreciate the clean beaches, forests and parks of the world you’re flying to, perhaps you should do something substantial to help preserve it. Hanging your towel on the ‘Don’t Wash’ hook doesn’t count. Turning off the lights and a/c when you’re not in the room, or eating less meat and air-cargo food does! Thinking about how and where you go, and who you go with is even better. Do the kids and pets really need to join you at the new Aman Resort in Vietnam? No, they don’t. Nobody but you wants them there. Get a sitter!
I don’t foresee travel decreasing in the coming years, but I hope we can all make small changes and big improvements to the industry. One needn’t entirely quit eating meat, using a/c or traveling to far flung exotic luxury hotels. We just all need to start examining the ramifications more, and then probably cut down little to start. We’re allowed to still love traveling and I encourage everyone to ditch the iPhone and status updates for a week and get lost in the sensorial and magnificent planet we still physically live on! Though some friends and family say I’m a jaded traveler, I’ve loved doing just that in 2013 and in the process discovered some wonderful places that touched me deeply. Reawakened me even. And I hope those places will be around long after the Re-Tweets have silenced and the algorithms have conked out.
Thanks for reading,
PS: Stay tuned for my Travel Listicles….