A Glimpse Before It’s Gone
When you hear that some extraordinary place is undergoing big changes, it’s a natural impulse to want to get out and see it.
The glaciers are retreating in Glacier National Park? Time to finally take your kids to hike them — or for a swim through kaleidoscopic coral at the Great Barrier Reef, which is threatened by bleaching.
Our visits to endangered sites can feel a bit like paying respects — but are they any good for the sites themselves?
Leslie Josephs, a travel and transportation reporter for Quartz, calls the phenomenon “last chance” or “FOMO” — that’s “Fear of Missing Out” — tourism. She says that for endangered sites, an uptick in visitors can be both helpful and harmful.
“It’s a good thing that these places get visibility, that the threats to them — there’s more awareness of what is happening to them,” Josephs says. “That’s never a bad thing. But there is an environmental impact, and this goes for both natural sites and it goes for cultural sites. Any time you bring a mass of people into a small area, anyone who lives in New York City will tell you, can have some uncomfortable side effects.”
Bringing people to a site can involve planes, trains, automobiles — and even boats, for natural wonders like the Galapagos Islands or the Great Barrier Reef. Those fossil fuels have a cost, Josephs says. And environmental wear and tear doesn’t end with our arrival at an endangered site.
“There’s foot traffic, there’s general human waste, there’s introduced species,” Josephs says. “So it’s kind of endless, what the impacts can be. And it does depend site by site, but we have very, very heavy footprints, unfortunately, as humans.”
At Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, several of the best and worst outcomes of last-chance tourism have been thrown into relief.
“When Peru’s government emerged from a civil war in the 2000s, there was a boom in tourism,” says Josephs, a former news wire correspondent in Peru. “Everybody wanted to go, it was safer. Great — it’s an economic benefit, it creates jobs. That’s a wonderful thing for a country that had been struggling: create an entire tourism industry. And in fact, Machu Picchu is the number one tourist attraction of Peru.”
But Machu Picchu’s popularity is changing the experience for its throngs of visitors, and more worryingly, contributing to the degradation of the site itself.
“The bad thing is the site is very, very overrun,” Josephs says. “And what that means is that one, you can’t really enjoy it as much because you are backpack-to-backpack in certain sites where you were once able to roam around, and take a nap, I’ve heard, in some of these areas. But that does lead to degradation of the sites. There is vandalism that obviously the government of Peru wants to protect its sites from. And then there’s the issue of erosion from the bus traffic that comes in.”
At Machu Picchu and other endangered sites like the Galapagos Islands, the solution has been to limit access — regulating how many people can enter and where exactly they can go. But Josephs notes that can be hard to do when there are so many people who want to see the sites.
“You can’t blame them,” Josephs says.
Leslie Josephs is the travel and transportation reporter for Quartz. She’s based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play, good thing, bad thing.
Because every story has a flip side. When I hear a story about some, natural wonder that’s changing. My immediate thought is to go and see it before it’s gone. The melting glaciers in Glacier National Park. The Great Barrier Reef where the corals are threatened by bleaching. You want to go see it right? While it’s still there.
Well, it turns out that, of course, I’m not alone. And many people have that urge, which may not be such a good thing. Here to tell us about the good and the bad of endangered sites tourism is Leslie Josephs. She’s Travel and Transportation Reporter for Quartz. Welcome.
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: So, it is a natural urge, right? To want to go see these things before they’re gone?
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Yeah absolutely. It’s called last chance tourism, or FOMO tourism, the Fear Of Missing Out. This is going to the last time I’ll be able to see the Great Barrier Reef. the Galapagos Islands, or some glaciers, like you guys were talking about before.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so people exploring and seeing more of their world before it goes away. It’s a good thing is it not?
LESLIE JOSEPHS: It’s a good thing that these places get visibility, that the threats to them, there’s more awareness of what is happening to them. That’s never a bad thing. But there is an environmental impact. And this goes for both natural sites and it goes for cultural sites. Any time you bring a mass of people into a small area, anyone who lives in New York City will tell you, can have some uncomfortable side effects.
IRA FLATOW: So what kind of damage might they be doing when they go visit?
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Well anything from burning fuel on your plane or the boat or the bus or the train that’s taking you to the place. There’s foot traffic, there’s general human waste, there’s introduced species. So it’s endless of what the impacts can be. And it’s does depend site by site but we have very, very heavy footprints unfortunately, as humans
IRA FLATOW: We even bring our plants with us when we go and put out these alien species. You cite the Great Barrier Reef and Machu Pichu in your article, this isn’t just a problem with the natural side.
LESLIE JOSEPHS: No it’s not. And Machu Pichu is a protected site under UNESCO. It’s a World Heritage Site. It’s been so since the early ’80s, which is a good thing– ancient citadel six centuries old. And the good part of that is that when Peru’s government emerged from civil war in the 2000s, there a boom in tourism.
Everybody wanted to go. It was safer, great. It’s an economic benefit. It creates jobs. That’s a wonderful thing for a country that had been struggling. Created an entire tourism industry. And in fact, Machu Pichu is the number one tourist attraction of Peru.
The bad thing is, the site is very, very overrun. And what that means is you can’t really enjoy it as much. Because you are backpack to backpack in certain sites where you were once able to roam around and take a nap, I’ve heard, in some of these areas and enjoy it.
But that does lead to degradation of the sites. There is vandalism. Obviously, the government of Peru wants to protect its sites from anything like that. And then there’s the issue of erosion from the bus traffic that comes in. And UNESCO itself, which is there to draw attention to this site and other natural and cultural wonders, they say that these are problems. And they even admit themselves that this is a downside.
IRA FLATOW: So, some of these places are just limiting the number of people.
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Yeah and that’s a tough thing to do. And the Great Barrier Reef, which has obviously struggled a lot, and there’s just been ghastly damage because of the rising ocean temperatures, and coral bleaching that’s a result of that. You could limit the numbers. You could limit where people go. The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador’s government does a similar thing there so that it’s not overrun with tourists. But it’s a tough thing to control. There’s so much demand.
IRA FLATOW: Everybody wants to go see them before they’re gone. You can’t blame them.
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Yeah. It’s last chance tourism for a reason.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Leslie. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
LESLIE JOSEPHS: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Leslie Josephs. She’s Travel and Transportation Reporter for Quartz.