Sunday, August 31, 2008

Save the Planet, Stay at Home

Foreign tourism was once viewed as a lifeline to the world's stagnant economic backwaters.

No longer.

Now, like everything else, travel and tourism are seen as a threat to the planet.

Elizabeth Becker in today's Washington Post declares the explosion in exotic foreign travel a "global menace" and "nothing short of a planet-threatening plague." She finds it a bummer, apparently, that her former "old haunt" in the Himalayas, where she once "climbed . . . steep, silent paths and watched langur monkeys swinging in the trees outside my window," has been discovered by outsiders. Today, her personal Shangri-La is "chock-a-block with tourist lodges, garbage and noise; the monkeys are fleeing."

So, it's okay for Becker to hang with the monkeys of Moussurie, but when the rest of us want to do it, it becomes a threat to the planet. Here's just a taste of Becker's insufferable eco-snobbery:

"The places we love are rapidly disappearing. Global tourism today is not only a major industry -- it's nothing short of a planet-threatening plague. It's polluting land and sea, destroying wildlife and natural habitat and depleting energy and natural resources. From Asia to Africa, look-alike resorts and spas are replacing and undermining local culture, and the international quest for vacation houses is forcing local residents out of their homes. It's giving rise to official corruption, wealth inequities and heedless competition. It's even contributing to human rights violations, especially through the scourge of sex tourism."

So, what's the answer? Government intervention, of course. Anything and everything else will be regulated in the name of reducing mankind's carbon footprint, and "saving the planet," why not travel and tourism? Here's more Becker, establishing the predicate for such action:

"The United States has taken a lead in attempts to eliminate sex tourism, but otherwise, it has stayed out of the tourism debate, mostly viewing tourism as a private matter. Now, however, says Isabel Hill, director of the Commerce Department's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, the questions raised by mass tourism have become too large to ignore. She hopes that the United States, like so many European countries, will "recognize our limitations and how we have to regulate our resources."

Still, there probably won't be a U.S. secretary for tourism and the environment anytime soon. But don't be surprised if the next international agreement on climate change mentions the role of tourism, or if some countries start regulating tourism along with the environment, because the two go hand-in-hand.

In fact, you'd better hope that they do -- if you ever again want to find that cool vacation spot where you can get away from it all."

It's not hard to imagine a Brave New World -- or is it Slave New World? -- in which travel is regulated like everything else; in which it is calculated and capped as part of your individual AACQ, or Annual Allotted Carbon Quota, with travel in excess of that quota having to be offset with the purchase of carbon credits, or offsets, from non-travelers. This mimics the cap-and-trade system some people want imposed on corporate America, only tailored to the individual.

Or perhaps a Climate Change Travel Tax (CCTT) could be levied, applied on a sliding scale tied to the Environmental and Cultural Vulnerability Index (ECVI) of the destination in question, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Where a traveler's environmental and cultural impacts are likely to be greatest, according to the ECVI, the CCTT will be highest. If they're traveling to Detroit or Cleveland of Trenton, on the other hand, the tax will be much lower -- and they might even get a tax credit.

We'll have a separate CCTT for business travelers, calculated according to the "greenness" and "sustainability" of their industries. Big Oil execs will, of course, pay through the nose, while traveling wind turbine salesmen will pay little or no CCTT (and might even get a subsidy, in accordance with current federal practice).

These methods of regulating travel favor the relatively wealthy, however, raising fundamental questions of travel equity and fairness, which perhaps argues for a National Travel Lottery (NTL) of some sort, in which permission to go abroad will be granted by chance.

Is my imagination running away with me? Perhaps. But I've learned that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility on the regulatory front. If it can be imagined, it can be imposed, once "saving the planet" becomes the rationale.

And that's a one-way ticket to tyranny, in my view.

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