Long-haul breaks spell bad news for the climate

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After the Filofax, the mobile phone, the laptop, the iPod, the taste for sushi and the 4x4, here comes the latest must-have for Britain's affluent young professional class: the weekend far away.

A growing number of people who have money coming out of their ears but not the hours in the day to spend it - who are cash-rich but time-poor, as the jargon has it - are turning to a new form of relaxation, the long-haul short break.

Talk about the world shrinking. You might just have got your head around the idea of a weekend in New York. But how about a weekend in Dubai or a couple of days in Bangkok?

Plenty of trendy souls doing just that, according to lastminute.com, the internet gratifier of spur-of-the-moment travel impulses. People are happy to take short trips to places as far afield as Beijing and Hong Kong, the company says, with sales for long-haul short breaks 35 per cent up on the same time last year, and more than 90 per cent up on 2001.

New York is lastminute's number one destination for long-haul short breaks, with Dubai and Las Vegas coming in second and third. But the company's holiday and flight director, John Bevan, says the growth areas are eastern destinations such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Beijing.

"Hopping over the pond to the US for a few days or heading to Dubai is now seen as pretty mainstream in the UK," Mr Bevan said. "We are now seeing demand for more unusual destinations, with the likes of Hong Kong proving extremely popular."

Mr Bevan predicted Beijing will see a surge in popularity over the next year or so, in the approach to the 2008 Olympics.

"The likes of Hong Kong and Bangkok will come into their own too, as we think the demand is being led by people returning to discover the cities they've only ever bounced through on a connecting flight to Australia or other parts of Asia," he said.

From a travel point of view, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of lastminute's recent sales is the soaring attraction of Dubai, the Gulf emirate which is the fastest-growing city in the world. Dubai is an outlandish combination of hot climate and architectural excess, with dozens of mega-building projects ranging from an artificial archipelago and the world's tallest building to a shopping hyper-mall and an indoor ski resort - Walt Disney meets the sands of Arabia.

But from a green point of view, the story is quite different: the continuing breakneck growth of air travel. The normality of a quick break in a distant location indicates what a thorny political problem is being presented by the environmental consequences of air travel.

A government seeking to restrict flying's runaway growth may find itself popular with green activists, but not with the much bigger mass of voters. It will be a brave prime minister who signs off on any attempt to cut it back, through tax increases for example, with an election on the horizon.

Yet air travel's seemingly unstoppable growth is making a growing and disproportionate contribution to climate change. Exhaust emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) from jet exhausts are not only voluminous - they go straight into the stratosphere, so their effect on the climate is much quicker than emissions at ground level.

If you take that weekend in New York, you will be responsible for about 1.2 tons of emitted CO2, according to a web-based calculation service. Make it a break in Beijing and you will be responsible for emitting 1.8 tons. To offset either - to take up the CO2 you've been responsible for emitting - you will need to plant two trees.

That is, if you've got time in your hectic schedule, after you get back.

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