This year, as with all recent years, many people will travel to the farthest corners of the world to see a place or animal that may soon be lost due to climate change. Many such trips are billed as “Eco Tourism”, whereby the tour operators claim they will invest the money to protect the area or environments they are taking people to. The extent to which they reinvest varies, with there being a large divide between true ethical tourism organisations and those taking advantage of a bad situation by exploiting visitors in what can only be called fraud.
To put this in context, I recently went to the Antarctic as part of a scientific survey team. Antarctic tourism is mainly regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which is a voluntary group of tourism operators who work together to promote environmentally sound tourism and report any suspicious activities. This has resulted in a marked decrease in illegal fishing and a reduction in stress to the wildlife. It is probably true that tourism doesn’t directly affect the animals in this delicate ecosystem but that isn’t the only issue.
Getting there and back meant travelling 32,400 km leaving behind a huge carbon footprint. Even our university carbon offset program couldn’t cover this. There is slight silver lining in the sense that we were monitoring and surveying the environment and found some interesting results in an area that is critically understudied and not understood. However we can’t claim we didn’t put the area more at risk.
I’m not going to be hypocritical and tell you not to go. Antarctic tourism could be a good thing overall, if, and only if, people share what they learn and seek to make changes in their lives to keep the area pristine. For once, the governments of the world are in agreement on this and are being proactive in a bid to preserve the area. This is great in this area but unfortunately this is the exception and not the rule.
Many environments and species are going to be lost. Is taking people to see them a necessary, guilt inducing step in a bid to conserve other species? Will people be so moved by what they see that they will seek to conserve and protect the world? Or will they simply cover social media with pictures of an ego trip they went on just so they can say that they were one of the last to see this species or place? Is saying that you were one of the last people to see an animal and exploit its life for your pleasure really something to boast about anyway?
But on the flip side some people may be changed, they may connect to nature and some operators may invest the money wisely and help protect the area. Effective tourism relies on people realising they are participants, not spectators in the world and that they can help. Standing by and watching a species disappear doesn’t make you innocent in its loss.
As with all conservation there is no one answer. There are good and bad organisations and it is up to us to select wisely or risk making the situation worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking people to these areas but conservation relies entirely on educating the public about the underlying issues and convincing them to become involved in some capacity. If we don’t educate are we really helping or are we just exploiting nature one final time?