The moral dilemma of air travel – the gendered experience of guilt and shame in female travellers (18.5.2022)

Author:  Emilia Karumaa, student in TourCIM master's program, University of Lapland.

In recent years, the global public and academic discussions alike on the concerns of climate crisis, global pandemic and human rights issues to name a few have saturated also the topic of leisurely travel and become symptomatic in controlling today’s tourism consumption. Whereas travelling used to be considered a somewhat guilt-free pastime, it would now seem that, at least for some consumers, the moral implications of travel and tourism have become more evident.

In my Master’s thesis, I study how guilt and shame shape the experience of travel consumption for female travellers in tourism settings. One of the major triggers of guilt and shame was the impact of tourism on the natural environment such as climate change. With the emergence of flight shame (flygskam in Swedish) in particular, it is not surprising that consumers are questioning their travel behaviour.

Despite the reprehensible reputation of air travel, according to the findings of my thesis, the option of air travel is still currently held in high regard. Although air travel has generally considered to be one of the most guilt and shame inducing components in travel, it has also been regarded to be easy, time-efficient, and the most convenient means of transport. The study respondents experienced guilt and shame because the “immorality” of air travel contradicted with the perceived ease of flying. In order to get rid of the feelings of guilt and shame and justify certain type of travel behaviour, different emotional resistance tactics were found to be used.  One example of this type of resistance tactic was the denial of perceived control – the consumers experienced that lack of time did not allow them to act as responsibly as they would have liked in the travel context. Another type of resistance tactic was the denial of responsibility that manifested, for example, through detachment from others (I do not behave like others), detachment from information (I was not able to obtain enough information to make an informed choice) and detachment from past action (I am not able to change the past).

The clearly gendered accounts of guilt and shame were not evident in the study data in the sense that it was impossible to, for example, determine whether the feelings of guilt and shame experienced by women were indications of more or less shame/guilt-proneness or fully indicative of solely female experience. A comparative set of data would be needed in order to demonstrate this. However, my interpretation is that there are elements in travel that are gendered and associated with guilt and shame. Examples of this were the experiences that make reference to the safety of a female traveller. These experiences are also tied closely to different and preferred means of travel. The respondents reflected whether it would be safe to travel solo by certain means of transport and to particular destinations, and whether they would meet judgement or harassment from others based on their solo status.

The findings provide compelling information especially for tourism organizations leading sustainable change. The aforementioned study illustrates that the experiences of shame and guilt are constructed in relation to the perceived lack of alternatives in travel that would be simultaneously both responsible and convenient enough. A relevant learning for tourism organizations is the idea of convenience without compromising on values. The findings indicate that travellers are still hesitant to fully sacrifice convenience for moral values. The gendered perspective also highlights the importance of the experience of safety during travels, especially when travelling solo. In order to further serve future consumers, these organizations need to engage in increased innovation in providing both comfort and action that aligns with the consumers’ personal values.