Kinder Ways to Visit the World’s Most Endangered Destinations
Across the globe, some of our most beautiful and culturally unique places are under threat due to climate change and other impacts of human behavior. Which is why it’s more important than ever to be a mindful traveler.
The world has become more accessible than ever. Countries that felt dis-
tant, such as Bhutan and Morocco, now top bucket lists, thanks to Instagram popularity and affordable direct flights. But a spike in travelers (the 1.3 billion international tourists in 2017 is predicted to surpass 1.8 billion by 2030), along with the effects of climate change, overdevelopment, and pollution, are harming our planet in ways we never imagined — and the
whitewashed reefs, receding glaciers, and plastic-littered beaches are proof.
While the future of the planet may feel bleak, the solutions lie in all of our hands. “One step we can take is to familiarize ourselves with what it means to travel sustainably,” says Kelley Louise, founder of the Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit travel advocacy group. Booking direct flights, going in the off-season, using mass transportation, and supporting local businesses can have positive effects on the people, environment, and economy of a destination, she explains: “By searching for ways to be more respectful of local communities, we’re also more likely to discover authentic experiences.”
Or as Airbnb Tourism Advisory Board member and former Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization Taleb Rifai says: “A responsible traveler is one who understands his or her accountability and who believes that travel can and will make this world a better place.”
Endangered Due to Overtourism: Venice, Italy
For 1,000 years, Venetian locals have bought their famously fresh seafood at the Rialto Fish Market. Today, the historic stalls are crowded with selfie-snapping tourists, and a lack of real customers could close the market. The earth’s population has tripled since the 1950s, and a bigger middle class (expected to hit 4.2 billion by 2022) means more travelers.
Iconic destinations such as Venice were among the first to face the effects of overtourism. The city’s population has shrunk as the number of tourists has steadily increased, especially day-trippers, who contribute little to the economy. Now the city has begun imposing fines for acts like sitting in certain areas. “Reducing visitors is vital because of environmental and social impacts,” says overtourism expert Hugues Seraphin of the University of Winchester. If you go, patronize shops and cafés, don’t loiter on bridges, and visit districts outside of Piazza San Marco, such as Dorsoduro and Castello.
Also at risk
• Fjords of Norway
• Machu Picchu, Peru
• Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
• Wadi Rum, Jordan
Endangered Due to Coral Bleaching: Belize Barrier Reef
Last year, Belize’s 200-mile reef was finally removed from UNESCO ’s endangered list after the government cut back on oil drilling and mangrove destruction. While that was certainly cause for celebration, the reef is still at risk. Climate change is the number one threat to coral reefs worldwide, because warming ocean waters force corals to expel the symbiotic algae and turn white, or “bleach,” according to nonprofit organization Coral Reef Alliance. At the current rate, 70 to 90 percent of reefs could die by 2040 globally. “Belize’s reefs are extraordinarily degraded,” says marine ecologist John Bruno of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There’s much less marine life than there was a few decades ago from overfishing. There is still much left to protect on Belize’s Barrier Reef, but time is running out.”
Also at risk
• Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
• The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
• Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii
• Komodo National Park, Indonesia
• Lord Howe Island, Australia
• New Caledonia Lagoon, French Oceania
Endangered Due to Overdevelopment: Salt Flats of Bolivia
When prehistoric lakes evaporated in Bolivia, they left behind the 4,000-square-mile Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, a site so surreal with its vast white canvas that it’s become a playground for Instagrammers. But after a gigantic lithium deposit was discovered beneath it — potentially 17 percent of the earth’s total supply of the metal used for cell phone and electric car batteries — government leaders opened a lithium production plant in 2013 as a solution to the country’s poverty (almost 40 percent of Bolivia’s population lives on less than $1.90 a day) and started striking deals with foreign companies.
Soon the pristine flats will be scarred with the wounds from mining — deep holes and evaporation pools. And it’s just getting started. “When mining gains momentum, locals fear it will cause repercussions on the landscape and on natural resources like water,” says Eric Fernando Macuapa of White and Green International Travel, which runs tours of the flats. “The mining industry is bad for indigenous people, as these are the people who will pay the long-term consequences.”
Also at risk
• Amazon, Brazil
• Bristol Bay, Alaska
• Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
• Grand Canyon, Arizona
• Stonehenge, England
• Vohibola Forest, Madagascar
Endangered Due to Rising Temperatures: Glacier National Park, Montana
The snow-peaked hiker’s paradise may have to change its name if climate change patterns persist. Since 1966, 149 glaciers and perennial snowfields (a glacier that doesn’t move) have disappeared from Glacier National Park. While rising temperatures are causing glaciers around the globe to recede, those in Montana are very susceptible due to lower elevation, warmer summer temperatures, and lesser amounts of precipitation, says Portland State University geology and geography professor Andrew Fountain, who worked on the park’s recession study. “If we roll back the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to more reasonable levels in the future, a few may hang on, and a few may grow back in a small state, but I think we’re in trouble,” he says.
Also at risk
• Hufi Glacier, Glarus Alps, Switzerland
• Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland
• Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, Tanzania
• Quelccaya Glacier, Peru
• Shiretoko, Japan
• Vatnajökull, Iceland
Endangered Due to Pollution: The Beaches of Bali
In 2012, pro surfer Kelly Slater tweeted: “If Bali doesn’t #DoSomething serious about this pollution it’ll be impossible to surf here in a few years.” That point may be near. Last year, a video of British diver Rich Horner swimming through hordes of trash, mostly plastic, went viral, shedding light on conditions below the sea’s surface. “Plastic pollution on Bali has soared in recent years,” says Rima Agustina of Trash Hero Indonesia, an organization whose goal is to reduce waste. “Sometimes we get ‘fresh’ trash; sometimes we get a shampoo bottle from the ’90s.” While the Indonesian government has vowed to cut down on marine plastic by 70 percent by 2025, ultimately, it’s up to individuals. “Start a zero-waste lifestyle,” Agustina suggests. “Use your own reusable bottles, bags, straws, and cutlery; buy plastic wrap–free products; and avoid any single-use plastic.”
Also at risk
• Florida Everglades
• Lake Titicaca, Peru-Bolivia border
• Mount Everest
• Prague, Czech Republic
• Taj Mahal, India
Endangered Due to Rising Seas: Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam
Rising ocean levels may soon wreak havoc on this wonderfully preserved port city — with 1,100 wood-framed buildings, 800 of which date to the 16th and 17th centuries — because most of the town sits less than seven feet above sea level. “Hoi An is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts like typhoons and storm surges, as well as coastal and riverbank erosion,” says Srinivasan Ancha, principal climate change specialist for the Asian Development Bank. “Those impacts are significant on housing, transportation, water supply, and sanitation — and tourism will be affected as infrastructure will be rendered dysfunctional.” One UN-Habitat study estimates that the area will start flooding annually next year.
Also at risk
- Cartagena, Colombia
• Charleston, South Carolina
• NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida
• New York City
• Tangier Island, Virginia
About the author: While chasing celebrities as an editor at Us Weekly, CosmoGIRL!, and J-14 magazines, Rachel Chang discovered a love of international travel. Having set foot on six continents and in 44 countries, the self-proclaimed overpacker is an advocate for solo travel and has written for Travel + Leisure, Mic’s Out of Office, Mental Floss, and Intrepid Travel.