News - February 20, 2019

Edward Huijbens examines the climate impact of tourism

Albert Sikkema

Edward Huijbens, an Icelander with paternal roots in Amsterdam, is the new chair in Cultural Geography in Wageningen. He will do research on sustainable tourism. ‘Our competitive consumption has huge global consequences.’

©Albert Sikkema

Two weeks ago Edward Huijbens was still living in Akureyri, a remote city in the north of Iceland where he was born and raised. Huijbens studied geography in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik and did his Master’s and PhD at Durham University in England, but he speaks a little bit of Dutch. ‘My father comes from Amsterdam. He worked in the merchant navy, met my Icelandic mother in Norway and has been living in Iceland since 1972.’

Huijbens’s research theme in Akureyri was about tourism in the Anthropocene. ‘There is debate among natural scientists about the extent to which climate change caused by humans marks a new epoch in geology,’ says Huijbens, ‘but among social scientists it is clear that we are excessively transforming the climate and landscape on earth with huge visible ramifications.’ He closely experienced nature-based tourism development in Iceland. ‘There is a contradiction in people who fly to the Arctic to see melting ice caps and make other people aware about climate change, and at the same time add to climate change with their flight.’ On Iceland Huijbens studied how the island could combine its mushrooming tourism development with nature conservation and benefits for the local population.

Stay-at-home tourism
But a transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy is going on, and this transition will also affect tourism, says the new Professor in Cultural Geography. ‘We cannot fly on solar energy to Vietnam, so we need new concepts of tourism. For example, I would like to study the concept of ‘Stay-at-home tourism’, in which we visit cultural or natural highlights near our home town and learn to appreciate them. We have to ask ourselves: Why do we seek exotic places? To reward ourselves? We are living in a society of competitive consumption. We have to recognise it because this consumption has massive global consequences.’

Tourism is an important contributor to climate change, says Huijbens, but most people don’t take it seriously. ‘Holidays are time to relax. But at the same time we make sense about ourselves with tourism, holidays are part of our identity. Now 85 percent of the long-distance tourists come from Europe and North America, but the number of tourists from China and India are increasing fast. They all want to visit Amsterdam and Paris on their tour to Europe. The problems with tourism in Amsterdam will surely grow in the future.’

For that reason, one of Huijbens’s research items in Wageningen is on sustainable tourism in Amsterdam. ‘Our group is involved in the Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, in which we will study this issue. Asian tourists want to see the highlights of Europe, including Amsterdam, so this city will, for instance, have to solve the destructive consequences of Airbnb. If we solve this issue in Amsterdam, we will also have solved it in cities like Paris and Barcelona.’

Food tourism
Moreover, Huijbens wants to work on future tourism. ‘I expect that during the energy transition new ways of tourism will emerge. For instance, we will move to more sustainable, locally produced food, which could be an inspiration for food tourism. Looking at Wageningen, I see many academic tourists. And we have growing numbers of medical tourists, people that go abroad for a medical treatment. Tourism is all around, but the question is how can it be a force for good.’