You might immediately think of big cities in China, India, Pakistan, Africa, and the United States. You know what kind of air quality you’re getting into when you plan a trip to Beijing, Delhi, or Los Angeles. But what you may not know is just how pervasive air pollution really is. Even if you’re traveling to a seemingly remote vacation getaway, you may still not be able to escape the effects of poor quality.
Here are five of the world’s most famous vacation cities that also have some of the worst air quality on record.
Paris, France has a reputation that precedes it around the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the sumptuous cuisine of this vibrant European city draw over 30 million tourists every year.1 It even has Disneyland!
But you may not know that the air quality in Paris is among the worst in Europe. A 2016 study by the French health agency Sante Publique France found that nearly 48,000 people die in Paris every year from causes related to air pollution.2 How does such an iconic city fall prey to dangerous air pollution? There are a few reasons behind this.
First, Paris is an enormous business, financial, and professional center. Along with this concentration of power comes dense, daily commuter traffic. Thousands of cars emit exhaust into the city’s air each day – so much so that, when Paris implements its regular bans on cars driving through the city, the air becomes drastically cleaner.3,4 To this day, cars manufactured after 1997 aren’t allowed in the city, and more regulations are being passed to remove pollutant-emitting vehicles from Paris streets and protect the city from its once ubiquitous, choking smog – in fact, most cars are now required to bear a sticker displaying just how much pollution they emit.5,6
Next, many people still burn wood in their furnaces for heat during the winter. This creates a two-fold effect: burning wood emits dangerous ultrafine combustion particles into the atmosphere, and the cold winter weather traps pollutants in the lower atmosphere, creating a temperature inversion. Wood burning is also the target of many bans in Paris, most of which have been unsuccessful.7
So before you visit the city of lights and love, be wary of air pollution as you traverse Paris’ historic streets. Stay indoors during peak commuting hours and avoid indoor areas that burn wood for heat.
Yosemite National Park, California
Known for its idyllic wilderness and stunning, forested views, Yosemite, along with many other U.S. national parks, has perennial air quality issues.
Between its mountainous inland location and proximity to enormous wooded areas prone to wildfires, Yosemite often falls victim to vast plumes of wildfire smoke and other pollutants that get trapped in its numerous valleys and shroud its famous landmarks, such as the striking El Capitan peak and groves of giant sequoia trees, in a thick, dark haze.
And the annual summer wildfire season can cause Yosemite’s air quality to skyrocket to unimaginable levels. In 2018, as smoke traveled south through Yosemite from the Carr Fire in Northern California’s Shasta County, Air Quality Index (AQI) measurements in Yosemite were regularly recorded over 300, which are considered emergency-level conditions that threaten the health of residents and tourists alike. At one point, Yosemite’s air quality was reported by the AIRNow.gov site as the worst in the United States, with an AQI measurement of 386.8
That same year, Yosemite Valley and the surrounding areas were declared ‘indefinitely closed’ in late July as the local Ferguson Fire burned over 90,000 acres in the region and as the Carr Fire broke records as the largest fire in California history.9
Like many Californians do each year, you’ll need to prepare for the possibility that a fire can break out without warning when you’re planning a trip to Yosemite. Keep an eye out for long periods of hot, dry weather combined with high winds and a lack of rain in local weather reports.
Poland is a go-to destination for students of European history, architecture, and nature. Many Polish towns contain remnants of Europe’s colorful medieval past as well as reminders of the country’s more recent occupation by the Nazi-controlled German government during World War II.
Kraków, Poland’s former capital and one of its oldest cities, is often on the top of the list for travelers who want to take in Poland’s unique, well-preserved European charm, with over 15.8 million tourists coming through each year.10
But Kraków is also on another, much less desirable list – in 2017, it was included on a list of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities (along with 32 other Polish cities!), mainly due to its reliance on coal stoves for heating during cold weather. The changes in air quality during cold snaps are immediately recognizable, too: within hours, a perfectly clear day becomes a whitish haze of PM2.5 and ultrafine particles as cold smoke gathers in the atmosphere, trapped by inversions, and people don anti-pollution masks even just to walk down to the local market.11
And the pollution is often exacerbated by another nasty pollutant once the sun comes out: ground-level ozone, which forms when particle pollutants and gases react with heat from sunlight. In no time at all, the streets of Kraków are bathed in a thick pollution soup.
The people of Kraków have taken notice. Resident Anna Dworakowska gathered nearly 18,000 signatures on a petition to get the city government to pass legislation to ban not only home coal use but also commercial use in factories, who produce a majority of the coal emissions.12 Though poor air quality continues to affect Kraków, public awareness is inspiring enormous strides towards the mitigation elimination of pollution sources altogether.
Australia can seem like a paradise on earth: miles of sandy beaches, picturesque skylines along the coast, and no shortage of world-famous attractions, such as the Sydney Opera House. But when you land in this iconic Australian metropolis of over five million people, you may notice an unwanted visitor: dense, hazy smog. For years now, Sydney has been battling against two significant threats to its air quality.
The first is PM2.5 and ultrafine particulate matter produced not only by vehicles and factories within the city but also by controlled fires around the city intended to reduce the amount of dry brush that can fuel to wildfires during hot periods.13 Though these hazard reduction measures help keep wildfire threats to a minimum, the resulting smoke can make local air quality hazardous. During 2018, the AQI in Sydney reached as high as 476 in some northwest areas of the city.14 Just to put that in perspective, the AQI only needs to reach 300 to be considered an “emergency,” and rarely do even infamously polluted cities like Beijing reach AQI levels that high.
The next biggest air quality threat is ozone, generated by a combination of exhaust pollutants, soaring temperatures, and an absence of wind to disperse pollution.15 Sydney, like most of Australia, can get really hot, and ozone can develop quickly in such a huge city with millions of vehicles and industrial sites.
And the situation may not improve without some intervention: a 2018 study from the University of New South Wales in Sydney found that the city’s air quality is increasingly sending people to the hospital for respiratory conditions linked to PM2.5 and ozone. What’s more, Sydney’s air quality may worsen in tandem with man-made (anthropogenic) global climate change without further research and public policies developed around minimizing air pollution and protecting public health.16
Seoul, South Korea
Home to the 4th-largest metropolitan economy in the world (following Tokyo, New York City, and Los Angeles), Seoul is a dreamland of urban living and tourism. Over 10 million visitors flock to Seoul every year, seeking diverse, world-class attractions like the Dongdaemun shopping district, the gorgeous views of Namsan Park, and the more solemn Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
But as with any major city, Seoul has its share of perennial air quality issues.
In addition to PM2.5, ultrafine particles, and ozone generated by heavy commuter traffic and industrial activity (especially from coal plants), Seoul faces air quality challenges unique to much of Asia. One of these challenges is Asian dust, an amalgam of dust blown up from infertile, desertified land and industrial emissions that covers many parts of Asia, including Seoul, in a thick, dangerous haze that’s known to cause heart attacks and kidney disease.17,18
And ironically, this phenomenon is most disruptive during the summer, and few things can ruin a vacation through South Korea’s bustling capital than air that you can’t breathe safely.
But Seoul has taken notice and thus taken steps to combat this threat to its appeal as a world travel destination: when air quality becomes toxic, the city offers free public transit to public employees to encourage them to avoid taking pollution-emitting cars and trucks through the bustling urban region.19
And Seoul doesn’t plan to stop there: in a 2016 report, the South Korea Ministry of Environment pledged to address the causes of much of its national pollution sources by reducing emissions from older vehicles and coal plants, introduce new clean-energy fuels, and replace diesel-powered public transit with newer, clean natural gas (CNG) vehicles.20
So what can I do about it?
Air quality is a global issue. Air pollution in major cities can have systemic effects around the world – due to worldwide wind currents and increasing anthropogenic pollutant concentrations, few places are truly free from the consequences of air pollution. Doing your part to minimize your contribution to air pollution at home and abroad, such as by taking public transportation or using clean fuel to heat your home, can have a positive impact on global air quality the long run.
Nowadays, almost every major destination in the world has some kind of air quality issue, so you may not be able to escape pollution entirely.
But here are a few pro travel tips to make sure you have clean air wherever you go:
- Keep an eye on your air quality. Bring the AirVisual Pro air quality monitor with you everywhere to get live air quality readings of your ambient air as well as 72-hour air quality forecasts so you can plan your activities around your local air quality.
- Create a personal breathing zone. No clean air outside? No worries! The Atem® personal air purifier is designed to supply you with instant clean air free of 99% of pollutant particles down to 0.003 microns no matter the local air quality. Many major travel destinations are significantly affected by tiny particles from vehicles, factories, and smoke from coal and wood – the Atem filters out all of these pollutants and more.
- Choose clean travel options. Many major cities and attractions have world-class public transportation. Opt for the bus, subway, bicycles, or rideshare programs instead of renting a car, which can not only add to your expenses with gas and rental costs but also contribute to local air quality issues.
Poor air quality doesn’t have to stop you from having fun and discovering yourself during your travels. Recognizing where pollution comes from and how to keep it from harming your health allows you to take control of what’s entering your lungs so that you can focus on enjoying yourself.
 89 million tourists: Why France is still the most visited country on Earth. (2018).
 Impacts sanitaires de la pollution de l'air en France: nouvelles données et perspectives. (2016).
 Fuller G, et al. (2017). Paris tries something different in the fight against smog.
 Associated Press. (2017). Paris bans all cars from the whole city for a day.
 Khan S. (2016). Paris suffers ‘worst air pollution for at least a decade’.
 Breeden A. (2016). Paris imposes measures to fight pollution, with mixed results.
 Baer S. (2014). Feux de cheminée: l'interdiction est annulée à Paris.
 Bowden J. (2018). Yosemite National Park’s air quality worst in US due to fires: Report.
 Ramirez W. (2018). Yosemite Valley, Wawona closed ‘indefinitely’ as Ferguson Fire approaches 90,000 acres.
 Stokes J. (2015). Krakow’s air quality among the worst in the world.
 Michulec M, et al. (2017). Kraków’s smog trauma.
 Gardiner B. (2015). ‘The air is stinking, it’s dirty’: The fight against pollution in Kraków.
 Gray R. (2018). Sydney’s air quality worse than Beijing.
 Airth J. (2018). Smoke blankets Sydney with air quality at dangerous levels.
 Hunt E. (2017). Sydney air pollution alert issued as temperature heads to 38C.
 Dean A, et al. (2018). Climate change, air pollution and human health in Sydney, Australia: A review of the literature.
 Pan X, et al. (2017). Real-time observational evidence of changing Asian dust morphology with the mixing of heavy anthropogenic pollution.
 Kojima S, et al. (2017). Asian dust exposure triggers acute myocardial infarction.
 Poon L. (2018). Seoul’s answer to a pollution crisis: Free public transit.
 Air quality measures: South Korea. (2016).