Three reasons why European tourism should return by train

Three reasons why European tourism should return by train

Reason one, it’s what Europeans want. In late November, a EU-wide survey into what changes Europeans were willing to make to address the climate emergency found that: “65% of Europeans state they would support a ban on short flights to destinations that could be reached within 12 hours by train.”

That 12 hour window makes a lot of places reachable by rail. And all the more so, when you consider the second recent piece of news: the return of more night train services in the next few years. It was announced this week, that Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, OEBB (Austrian Federal Railways) and SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) have agreed to expand the network of international passenger night trains in Europe, with four new Nightjet routes agreed, which will connect a total of 13 cities. Two will launch in December 2021: Vienna–Munich–Paris and Zurich–Cologne–Amsterdam. In December 2023, Vienna/Berlin–Brussels/Barcelona will commence, and finally in December 2024, Zurich–Barcelona. How much further might people be willing to travel by rail if they were asleep for a large percentage of it, saving on hotel costs into the bargain?

The third piece of news concerns recently published research into the carbon intensity of tourism in Austria, which found that the industry represents about 4.6% of the country’s CO2 emissions… but only so long as you do not include the transport emissions caused by visitors on their international travel (primarily by plane) outside of Austria.

Once you take into account all these emissions too, the researchers estimate the percentage could be up to 22.6%. How are tourists who are willing to travel by train for 12hrs going to respond when research like this becomes more widely known?

Now it is one country, so maybe we can’t extrapolate too far. But it is also one landlocked European country at the centre of the best connected and most efficient international rail network in the world.

“While emission reduction measures in other areas like accommodation and gastronomy should not be disesteemed,” say the authors in their conclusion in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. “Tourism transport clearly is the single most important area for mitigating the impact of the Austrian tourism industry on climate change.”

Suppose Austria revolutionised its entire tourism industry overnight, and every hotel, attraction, ski lift and whatever else became zero carbon, along with every hire car and other means of transport used within the country, the paper says the tourism sector would still be responsible for around 18% of the country’s emissions.

If, on the other hand, the country cut the number of international arrivals in half, but did nothing else, it would overnight drop to 13.6%.

The authors of the study spell out five actions that the country should take (and I see no reason why these should apply to all destinations):

  • Enhance the attractiveness of public transport options for arriving at destinations.
  • Create conditions, which allow visitors to move around within tourism towns and regions without a personal vehicle.
  • Focus destination management strategies towards high value, rather than volume.
  • Direct tourism marketing towards domestic tourism and nearby markets and on enlarging length-of-stay of visitors.
  • Make travel by aircraft in its current form less attractive for tourists and support research on alternative drive technologies

Each of these has benefits not only for our efforts to address the climate emergency, but also for improving the quality of life for local people, and for improving the quality of the tourist experience. The message isn’t taking humourless holidays, or trying to sell privation and sacrifice when on vacation.

It’s about creating places to live (and visit) that are easy to get around on foot, by bicycle and public transport. Reducing overcrowding. And encouraging visitors to come who care so much about the place that they want to stay for longer, go beyond the icon sites and actually engage with the place at a more genuine level. It’s got next to nothing to do with reduced room cleans, paperless communication and expensive light bulbs.

If destinations start to shift their mid and long term focus to these sort of approaches (many of which look remarkably like the focus that COVID has forced upon them in the short term), how should accommodation providers and tour operators respond?

How, for example, would you change the way your hotel operated, if your priority was on attracting guests who lived nearby, who were likely to come by public transport, and who would want to stay for longer periods of time?

As we move towards 2021, and begin to imagine what comes next, isn’t it time we prepared for an increasingly inevitable future, rather than build backwards to a past that it is time we left behind?

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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