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24/04/10 Time for a sea change?
by Catherine Mack - Irish Times

ETHICAL TRAVELLER: Catherine Mack on responsible tourism

I WAS ONE of 10 foot passengers on Fastnet Line’s new Swansea to Cork ferry three weeks ago. And three of the other nine were my family. Then a volcano erupted – and, with it, tens of thousands of travel plans. On our return journey we were among 500 foot passengers, most in suits. The ferry staff were in shock.

As fellow passengers swapped get-me-home stories, many were astounded that we were travelling on the ferry by choice rather than circumstance. I am used to that reaction, as I reduced flying to a minimum a while back. But now everyone was getting a taster session, experiencing a little of what it is to be a green and slow traveller.

The men in suits marched up and down the corridors, as if it would help the ferry speed up. Go-with-the-flow types went on deck to gaze out at the coastline, played cards with their kids, relaxed with a pint or took out maps to see where the journey was taking them.

A Clonakilty man who had been meaning to try out the new ferry told me he probably would never have got around to it otherwise. He, like many I chatted with, loved his cabin, with its comfortable beds, crisp sheets, television and bathroom, and said he wished his kids had been there to share it with him. He was already contemplating holidays to Devon and Cornwall, unaware until now how accessible they are.

We have all heard stories of people embracing the “adventure” and coming together to help each other get home. The website I co-edit,, has had a tenfold increase in traffic this week, with people needing information on how to cross Europe by land. It has been a great opportunity for us to show people the alternatives to flying.

The only downside is that many are not experiencing the real thing, with ferries and trains having to cope with exceptional circumstances. When we arrived in Swansea, for example, the suits sulked about the lack of taxis, or about the fact that the port bus waited for other passengers before heading for the station. Faster, faster, faster, they still chanted.

The slower the better has always been my chant when travelling. But it will take more than a cloud of ash to start a real sea change. One woman, a self-described package person, booked trains and ferry back home from Marrakesh when her flight was cancelled, then chickened out at the last minute, as the idea of two and a half days’ travel was too terrifying. She gave her tickets to charity and waited for the next flight – in May.

Another person I know couldn’t get back to work in London a few days into the crisis, as she was “stuck” in Ireland. Yet every ferry line had room for her. Are we still in such denial that there is sea space, and not just polluted air space, between our islands?

Like most people, I have enjoyed the cleaner blue skies and slower pace, and been grateful I wasn’t dependent on a flight for an emergency. It has been fun sharing overland travel experiences via our website with people who hadn’t contemplated it before.

If there is to be one silver lining to this cloud in the long term, I hope the powers that be wake up to a much-needed, and long-demanded, improvement in the infrastructure around ferry ports and trains, such as regular buses to ports, bike spaces on trains, car hire at ferry ports, gangplanks for foot passengers and centralised transport information online.

And perhaps those people who always laugh when I suggest a tunnel between Ireland and Britain might start thinking about the possibilities. Or is that still blue-sky thinking?