Slow Tourism and the Surrender of Our Freedom to Travel

If you are a UK citizen, are you aware how Brexit will constrain your freedom to travel after January 1st? If, like me, you value that freedom, but haven’t paid much attention to all this, please read on.

Fifteen years ago, when I started looking more deeply into the threats we faced from climate change I decided to stop flying.  I flew once for work about eight years ago, but have not been outside Western Europe since 2005, and have often turned down requests to attend conferences elsewhere.  Since making that decision I have become more interested in ‘slow tourism’, how taking more time can enrich the travel experience.  You have to dispense with the idea of going somewhere for a holiday, and plan the travel as part of the holiday.  So if we are travelling in Europe by train, we will often spend time with a friend in Paris, or stop over somewhere like Munich or Geneva on the way to Italy. 

As the latest report from the Climate Change Committee makes clear, whatever happens at Heathrow, the age of ever-expanding air travel is over.  In the years to come, affluent people in hyper-mobile societies like Britain will have to re-learn how to live without frequent flying.  A couple of years ago I co-wrote an article with Paul Purnell, who did his Masters dissertation on people who have stopped or reduced their flying.  This identified many barriers such people currently face.  Some of those barriers relate to employment practices.  Frequent short holidays, combined with cheap (and subsidised) flying encourage a culture of ‘fast tourism’.  A more sustainable future would combine short breaks closer to home with longer breaks every few years.  If you have ever been able to do that, you will understand what I mean by enriching travel experience. 

Over the three summers of my PhD between 2006 and 2008 I was able to take three long breaks – the longest was three and a half months.  I cycled across seven countries, acquiring a wealth of material, which I have been using in lectures, writing and conference presentations ever since.  This travel was entirely informal; in government statistics I would have counted as a tourist.  Since then, like most employees, work pressures have constrained me to one summer holiday each year, with odd days taken at other times. 

Over recent years I have been nurturing a dream.  When I retire, which I plan to do before I get too old, I want to cycle across Europe.  I originally planned to stop in Germany to improve my German and then follow some of the Eurovelo routes, through Vienna and along the Adriatic Coast to Greece, to visit the home city of my friend Athena.  I would then meander my way back across Southern Italy, Sardinia and France with no itinerary and no timetable.  This dream has kept me going through the boring, claustrophobic days of the COVID lockdown.

After I turned 58 this year I started to plan for this trip.  At the back of my mind was one potential dream-wrecker, which I had mentally shelved until recently: Brexit.  Like many people I had hoped, and assumed, that one way or another uncontroversial things like tourist travel would remain unaffected.  Studying the detail has given me great shock. 

From January 1st 2021, British citizens will be constrained to a maximum of 90 days in the Schengen area, which covers 26 countries of continental Europe within any 180-day period.  If you sit down and work out the maths, you realise that short stays outside the Schengen area won’t really help you to get home in time.  You would need to spend a full 90 days outside the Schengen area to ‘reset the clock’.  At the moment, there are three non-Schengen countries on my route: Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, but Croatia may be joining Schengen fairly soon.

Most people I have talked to about this assume “there must be some way round it”.  The simple answer is: for most people, no there isn’t.  The UK government, who have shamefully ignored this problem throughout the Brexit negotiations, advise people to apply for individual country visas if they want to stay longer.  But those visas are only granted under specific circumstances, which do not include tourism; they are not designed for people travelling across multiple countries within the Schengen area.  This article explains the situation in more detail.  It contains some cautionary tales of what can happen to people who overstay their Schengen visas.

I might be relatively lucky.  I have family members in France, which is one criterion for a one-year French visa, allowing up to 90 days in the rest of the Schengen area.  That would require some changes to my plans.  I won’t be able to study in Germany but I might be able to ride to Greece and hurry back to France before the 90 days expire.  My dream of “no itinerary, no timetable” will remain just a dream.  And there is no guarantee that my visa application will be approved. 

European visitors will be allowed to stay in Britain for up to 180 days.  Some EU countries have said they would be receptive to a proposal for parity, so why has the British government not tried to negotiate equal treatment? The answer seems to be: because they see it as a low priority.   At the moment, the vast majority of trips by British citizens to the EU are short (the average duration is 10 days); longer-stays are less common.  This campaign for visa parity, which made some very good points to MPs, was run by second home owners, one of the affected groups, but not the most likely to attract public sympathy.

Why then, does any of this matter? Going back to where this post began, when we finally begin to tackle the threat of rising aviation emissions, we will need to rethink the role of tourism in the lives of ordinary people.  If the idea of occasional longer breaks seems like a luxury for the rich, think of religious pilgrimages in earlier centuries, and for many followers of different religions today.  It requires some saving, but doesn’t necessarily cost any more than what most of us do at the moment.

The vast majority of aviation emissions come from long-haul flights; they are the ones we urgently need to reduce.  These new rules will create a perverse incentive for British citizens to avoid Europe and fly further for longer-term travel.  That might affect only a small proportion of travellers at the moment, but it will create a serious barrier to more sustainable tourism in future.

During the Cold War the ease of travel enjoyed in the West was often contrasted with the constraints imposed by Communist authorities on their unfortunate citizens.  Our freedom of travel was held up as a measure of the wider freedom we enjoyed.  Today, it’s impossible to write about free movement without acknowledging the suffering of refugees trying to enter Europe.  Compared to their plight, our loss of freedom to travel may seem pretty trivial, but those people are victims of a system in which they have no say.  We elected the leaders who support that system with its free movement of capital but are happy to surrender our freedom to travel.

Steve Melia

Steve ‘s New Book, Roads, Runways and Resistance, from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion will be published in January 2021 by Pluto Press