Travelers with bucket lists tend to see the challenge as limited by their schedule, budget and life span. Increasingly, though, there’s a fourth dimension: how much longer a destination or experience, as advertised, will be around for a tourist to enjoy.
Many places are disappearing or transforming before our eyes: Pacific islands succumbing to sea-level rise; the Amazon rainforest withering because of unchecked development; the Gulf of California losing the vaquita porpoise to extinction by poaching.
To be fair, not all factors altering the travel landscape are bad. The modernity that nostalgic backpackers have decried in the Himalaya, for example, also brought first-world medical care to isolated communities. But right now the tourism world is facing a suite of mostly negative transformative influences. Here we highlight five — climate change, deforestation, erosion, wildlife poaching and gentrification — and offer examples of places and experiences that may soon go the way of the traveler’s check.
As a tourist, you can help by choosing hotels, tour operators and guides that work to solve some of these problems, not contribute to them, and by interacting with locals to appreciate the challenges they face. The last thing any of us wants is to check off a bucket-list destination only to realize that we’re part of the reason it’s disappearing.
Rising seas and melting glaciers have obvious implications for residents and travelers, but so do some events less often tied to climate change, including drought, mudslides, wildfires and shifts in species’ range that might, for example, bring mosquitoes — and the diseases they carry — to some regions for the first time in human history.
Due in large part to major coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, average hard coral cover is down in all three regions of the 133,000-square-mile Great Barrier Reef for the first time since the Australian Institute of Marine Science began long-term monitoring. As of mid-2018, coral cover in the north region was half of what it was in 2013. (Shutterstock)
The number of glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park declined from nearly 150 in 1910, when the park was established, to 26 in 2015, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. More glaciers are likely to disappear in the next few decades. This stunning park offers more than just ancient ice, but the loss has serious implications for the ecosystem and the species that depend on it. (Shutterstock)
While recent restoration efforts are helping reverse decades of poor water management decisions upstream, the Florida Everglades faces a multipronged threat of drought, excessive air temperatures and elevated salinity from sea-level rise, which not only kills the saw grass prairie but causes the underlying peat soil to collapse — foreshadowing a bleak future for the grasses, fish and other species in the Everglades. (iStock)
Poaching, which feeds a multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade, also affects non-target species, says William Laurance, a distinguished professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. The arrival of predatory humans in a formerly pristine area creates “landscapes of fear” among wildlife so that even species that aren’t directly targeted bolt at the slightest indication that people are nearby.
Although the mountain gorilla population in central Africa has risen from an estimated 230 in the 1980s to 1,000 today, the species remains critically endangered, says Craig Sholley, senior vice president at the African Wildlife Foundation. “The area has changed dramatically. You’re now visiting an island forest surrounded by a sea of people. I’m optimistic about the [gorilla’s] future, but 1,000 individuals is a small number, and climate change and disease could wipe them out.” (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
The number of Malayan tigers has dropped from an estimated 3,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 200 today, says Kae Kawanishi, head of conservation for the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers. Poachers use cable snares to target the critically endangered felines, which can reach 250 pounds. Globally, tigers have lost 93 percent of their habitat. (iStock)
The black rhino population has risen from a low of 2,300 in 1992 to about 5,500, but the status of the species remains precarious, says CeCe Sieffert, deputy director of the International Rhino Foundation. Travelers have a good chance of seeing wild black rhinos in the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, through the Malilangwe Trust in Zimbabwe or through Swaziland’s big game parks. (iStock)
An estimated 18 million acres of forest — an area the size of Panama — is felled to make room for development every year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. At that rate, the world’s rainforests could be wiped out in 100 years.
Across the Congo Basin in Africa, new roads are dicing up ecosystems and opening once-pristine woodlands to slash-and-burn farmers and poachers. “This is bad development,” says Laurance, in part because widespread corruption prevents any benefit from reaching the local people. The effects are most severe in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Congo Republic, eastern Congo. “A lot of sub-Saharan Africa is changing at an incredible pace. If you want to see natural Africa, you’d better go now.” (Amaury Hauchard/AFP/Getty Images)
In Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland at 70,000 square miles, the conversion of forest to soy fields and other farms, coupled with other activity, such as diverting rivers and streams that feed the vast river basin, threatens an area with biodiversity that rivals the Amazon. (Eraldo Peres/AP)
The forests of Borneo are being leveled for timber, palm oil, pulp, rubber and minerals, says the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Within Indonesia, the amount of land used for palm oil production grew from 1.5 million acres in 1985 to nearly 30 million acres today. (Shutterstock)
While change is the one real constant, humankind, in our eternal quest for near-term gratification, has managed to accelerate the process in some places.
Built in 1860, the mud and brick Telouet Kasbah housed one of Morocco’s richest men — Thami El Glaoui — who, despite predating the Clash, routinely rocked his Kasbah with wild parties. In part because he sided with the French in Morocco’s independence fight, the state has not invested in restoring his fortress and only one section, run by Glaoui’s descendants, remains accessible to tourists. Wind, rain and time have reduced the rest nearly to rubble. (Peter Engelke/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
The mother lode of silver inside the 15,800-foot Cerro Rico gave rise to the city of Potosi, Bolivia, which in the 1500s became the richest city in the world. But the crude tunnels dug to extract that wealth, apart from killing thousands of miners over the centuries, have left the mountain at risk of collapsing. A government stabilization project to save it might be too late. (Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images)
Erosion of the soft chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover, in England, has increased from about an inch per year to about 10 times that over the past 150 years, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. That’s enough to threaten some cliff-top paths and infrastructure, says Robert Anderson, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a study co-author. Further, he adds, “cliffs do not walk back . . . at a steady clip [and] may locally jump several meters at a time,” which could elevate the risk unpredictably. (iStock)
The effects of gentrification on travelers — my favorite dim sum cart is GONE! — pale in comparison to the challenge faced by residents pushed out by unaffordable rents or, in extreme cases, bulldozers. In an increasingly populous and hyper-informed world, fewer and fewer pockets of desirable land will escape the notice of developers.
In Kenya, Lamu earned renown as one of the most authentic Swahili settlements in East Africa. But because of its strategic location — near Ethiopia and South Sudan — Lamu is now the site of a huge port project that will bring “more ships, more roads, more pollution, and the idyllic paradise that is Lamu will disappear,” says Harriet Constable, a journalist and expert on the area. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
The one-square-mile neighborhood of Oakwood established its identity in the 1930s and ’40s as the only area of Venice, Calif., where African Americans were allowed to buy property. Oakwood’s community vibe began to dissolve around 2012 when developers and tech millionaires saw gold in the timeworn houses a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. A dwindling core of old-timers is fighting to salvage the neighborhood’s culture. (Megan Hullander)
For decades, the vendors of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta have plied produce and crafts from boats; floating markets became colorful, chaotic must-see stops for travelers. But government flood-control projects have altered the delta, hindering vendors’ ability to quickly move between farms and customers, and other urbanization — including gleaming supermarkets — have siphoned business from the rivers. Many floating markets are only half as big as in their heyday. (iStock)
About this story
Story by John Briley. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Design by Jose Soto.
Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Md. His website is johnbriley.com.