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See it Before it Disappears: Reconciling and Regulating Disaster Tourism

221432764_2bbc7fd3c6.jpgIn 2007 The New York Times wrote a snarky piece on disaster tourism. “Vanishing” was the watchword that year as the media compiled must-see lists of disappearing landscapes and publishing companies raced to put out guidebooks on the same theme. Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen weighed in with the able Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them. (For a preview of the book see the writers’ blog, Endangered Places.) Frommer’s then seriously upped the ante by finding 500 places to profile, including not just natural resources but “cityscapes in peril, vanishing cultural kitsch, petroglyphs and more — 500 thoughtfully chosen treasures that will inspire and enlighten travelers of all ages.”

Inspire them to do what, exactly?

To finally believe in climate change, perhaps. The main rationale for visiting places in collapse is that it makes real the severity of the situation and hopefully creates advocates. Shannon Stowell, President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, spoke at the Vacation Matters Summit of how such an experience has the power to move even seasoned travelers.

We [the ATTA] went to Greenland two years ago and the most powerful pitch about the reality of global warming was [from] the two Greenlandic fisherman. They had no political statement to make. We were on their boat in this bay, and they looked around and said, ‘Wow, we have never seen this. We’ve been fishing for 40 years. The ice has gone so far in that we’ve never seen this place before. Isn’t this amazing?’

But now, thanks to the "see it before it disappears" crowd, there’s another reason to go to Greenland: some people may be depending on your dollars. In Ilulissat, tourism based on the spectacle of retreating glaciers is seen as a way to compensate for fishing income lost to warming seas. In Mexico, the rate of illegal logging dropped in Michoacán’s Monarch butterfly reserve because of President Felipe Calderón’s $4 million pledge to save the endangered biosphere. The plan was focused around improving tourist access, which would in turn pump money into the impoverished region and give villagers a new trade, removing the need to log to make money. Tying conservation to tourism, however, can be a precarious fix: one wonders, for example, what will happen to the town of Angangueo, where “small hotels cater to tourists anxious to see the winged insects, and guides eagerly offer their services,” if the U.S. State Department doesn’t rescind its travel alert about the state of Michoacán in time for the winter migration.

At this point, dwelling on the moral implications of "see it before it disappears" tourism will have to wait. Like it or not, destinations like Greenland and the Galapagos (in that case, actually all of Ecuador) are tethered to tourism. By the time the New York Times article appeared, it was too late to implement a “stop going” strategy. Decoupling some of these spots from tourism — perhaps with funding from responsible voluntourism ventures — is preferable but not feasible in the short term, and in the meantime, yanking the rug on eco-tourism could adversely affect endangered wildlife. Ben Block wrote about the role of primate-watching tourists in Rwanda’s economy, and Stowell stated that Uganda is in a similar predicament: if the tourists leave, gorilla poaching resumes. Said Stowell, “adventure tourism has created an economic rationale for government-sponsored wildlife conservation ever since modern protected areas were first established. This isn’t always done well or right, but it at least creates some sort of economic reason for governments to protect wildlife.”

So, that leaves us with one practical path: regulate the hell out of tourism to these destinations. Most of the "vanishing places" round-ups are maddeningly vague when it comes to instructions on how to visit responsibly, a shortcoming that I think is less about the list-makers' effort and more about the reality that it's the system itself, not each individual traveler's behavior, that's the source of the problem. Lisagor and Hansen, for example, do their best to explain why they recommend a certain tour operator, but case-by-case operator profiles aren’t enough to guide all of the decision-making that goes into some of these trips. So third-party certification, although never enough on its own, is a must in these destinations.

Ecuador’s Smart Voyager certification (PDF) for Galapagos tour boats is a great example of a voluntary certification program, one that according to adventure tour operator Troy Glennon has succeeded in creating a ripple effect wherein tour companies view certification as part of staying competitive. This has prompted one-upmanship of the best kind — seeing who can go the farthest beyond the baseline criteria.

However, the Galapagos Islands are also a prime example of how a tourist destination can’t rely completely on self-regulation by well-meaning operators. Last week the biggest news from the islands was the threat invasive mosquitoes pose to their fragile fauna — the mosquitoes hitched a ride on airplanes and tourist boats. Leeds University's Simon Goodman, one of the authors of the study, noted:

The Ecuadorian government recently introduced a requirement for all aircraft flying to Galapagos to have insecticide treatment, but the effectiveness hasn't yet been evaluated, and similar measures still need to be introduced for ships. With tourism growing so rapidly, the future of Galapagos hangs on the ability of the Ecuadorian government to maintain stringent biosecurity protection for the islands.

Some of the more promising initiatives have been intergovernmental in scale. More than 40 organizations collaborated last year to draft the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria; this year, the World Tourism Organization, which has its own Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, became a member of UN-Water, “in order to stress the relevance of water for the tourism sector and to contribute to the common efforts of the UN.”

Additionally, the Adventure Travel Trade Association is working on its own set of principles to help governments whose countries rank low on the Adventure Tourism Development Index grow tourism sustainably, instead of doing anything necessary to rapidly increase the volume of “heads and beds.”

With the level of catastrophe facing some of these vanishing places, establishing a few sets of rules may seem like fighting off a cloud of invasive mosquitoes with a spritz of citronella — in other words, not a worthy alternative to completely curtailing travel. But because people will continue to visit vanishing places no matter how many “don’t gos” are uttered and typed, and because some of these places now rely on tourism to survive, we have to forgo reconciliation to concentrate on regulation.

So how do travelers help mitigate the disaster-tourism disaster? While there are no silver bullets, a few principles can help you make more responsible decisions:

Do some soul searching. Ask yourself why you’re going. Many people visit vulnerable places out of sheer curiosity and wonder — for example, the Great Barrier Reef has been on must-see lists for decades. Its declining state has become a factor in its popularity, but it didn’t create the reef’s mystique.

However, the “see it before it disappears” compulsion is also a branch of solastalgia, the pervading sense of loss brought on by changes to our environment. And that’s the main problem with these trips: they may tack on the “so you can save them” clause, but they’re ultimately focused on loss and resignation, not renewal or celebration.

If you’re looking for cocktail conversation fodder or want to luxuriate in loss, there are plenty of places to visit that are just as romantic but not quite as fragile. If you think your motivations are positive, read on.

Do some research. Although a few guidelines apply across the board, tourism is different in every place, even within the same country. Expeditions to remote places take months or years to plan, so it stands to reason that you should spend more than a week planning your vacation. Understanding the specific environmental and economic challenges of your destination is the only way to make good decisions on the ground.

Have a real conversation with your tour operator. Ask where every dollar goes. Get a full itinerary that includes as many details as possible regarding transportation, meals and accommodations to fully assess the operator’s sustainability claims. Ask if the trip has an educational component, both to explain the regulations travelers must obey and to provide context on the destination. Considering how expensive most of these tours are, and how much pride green outfitters take in their practices, your questions should be welcomed, not rebuffed.

Honestly assess your skills and fitness level. Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, the more an operator or destination needs to cater to the tastes and (often low) fitness levels of its participants, the more infrastructure it must create to provide a “luxury” experience. Pick an adventure that suits you; don’t expect the adventure to suit your needs. This is somewhat complicated territory because making a destination very expensive is the best way to limit the number of visitors; however, permit systems can limit visitation without putting the onus on tour operators. And the demand for “creature comforts” like gourmet meals in the middle of the Arctic has caused otherwise responsible operators to seriously muddy their mission statements.

Leave no trace — except contrails. If you’re flying to your destination, you’re leaving an impact. Until major innovations in jet fuel or intercontinental zeppelin flights become options, the closest thing we have to a solution is actually just a form of apology: carbon offsets. Yes, any low-impact strategy you implement other than not flying will be a small step in comparison. But in fragile destinations, obsessing over proper trash disposal and water conservation is important. Similarly, a personal act like using biodegradable sunscreen, which may seem like green consumer misdirection, becomes a lot more noteworthy when you consider what chemical-laden sunscreens do to coral reefs.

Give back responsibly. As I noted in a previous post, the voluntourism industry has its own issues. However, voluntourism trips centered on wildlife viewing can be beneficial, as citizen science does have its place in monitoring threatened flora and fauna. Just make sure that the biggest contribution of your voluntourism trip is monetary — not only in support of wildlife conservation, but also in support of social programs that will help attendant communities become self-sustaining without tourism.

Create better top 10 lists. We’re living in a time of tremendous transition and uncertainty. Surely we can stand to refine our “must-sees”—we’ve already started with the staycation, which asks us to find the exotic in the next town over.

If we fixate on taking a last sorrowful look at the already doomed, we’re not looking at the places that may well end up on next year’s list, or at victories like UNESCO’s expansion of its biosphere reserve network, which supports comprehensive environmental stewardship programs. Where’s the “doing just fine” list? How about 50 places to see so they don’t disappear?

This article is part of a guest author series on sustainability issues in travel and tourism. Read more:
Vacation Matters: North American Summit Looks at Time Poverty and Vacation Law
Travel Matters: Paid Vacation Law & Sustainable Tourism
Vacation Matters: Resources for Further Reading
Worldchanging Essay: Creating Responsible Voluntourism

Carissa Bluestone is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. She helped create Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and continues to consult on Worldchanging’s book ventures. A former editor at Fodor’s Travel Publications, she has spent 10 years in the travel publishing world, editing and contributing to guidebooks and online publications.

Image flickr/mikelo, Creative Commons license.

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