When you stand atop the Great Wall of China, you can see the continuation of walls and towers stretching all the way to the horizon. The stones feel solid under your feet—even after hundreds of years—and you think to yourself, “This is what eternity feels like.” You know that generations past have traversed these pathways, and generations yet to come will peer from the same lookouts. Or will they?
The wonders of the world that once seemed indestructible are in danger of disappearing. From the towering man-made structures of the Egyptian pyramids to the natural beauty of Alaska’s glaciers, our favorite places are fighting a losing battle. Climate change, urban development, and even tourism itself combine to weaken the foundations of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Your grandchildren or their grandchildren may never get to experience the places that have wowed travelers for centuries; if you don’t act fast, you won’t either.
What’s the matter?
Every major tourist attraction has its own devil. The problems facing a sinking Venice are not necessarily the same as those affecting weakened pyramids or a disappearing Great Barrier Reef. But the problems are real and potentially devastating.
For example, urban development is the main threat to the fragile ecosystem of Everglades National Park. “It’s the largest designated wilderness area that directly abuts a major metropolitan region,” says Stephen Morris, acting chief of the Office of International Affairs for the National Park Service. As early as the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers began diverting water from the Everglades for agricultural use. Increased fertilizer use also started to change the chemical makeup of the water and create problems. And as South Florida urban areas grow, so do the pressures on the park. Soon, the wildlife that visitors come to see may not be able to live in the Everglades. Other urban factors, like air pollution and vibrations from car traffic, are harming man-made sights, such as the Egyptian pyramids and Roman aqueducts.
Climate change presents a problem for natural wonders like the glaciers in Alaska or the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Higher average temperatures cause snow and ice to melt; the snow cap on Kilimanjaro isn’t expected to last past the year 2020. Not only will future travelers miss out on the splendor of glacial blue ice or the sight of a glacier calving, but the cold-weather animals they come north to see may be replaced by more common creatures from the south.
Tourism has played a huge role in destabilizing the Galapagos. Boats from the mainland carrying camera-toting travelers also bring in foreign species that can disturb the ecosystem. And as the economic opportunities in the islands flourish due to foreign visitors, more and more Ecuadorians take up residence in the Galapagos. A growing human presence puts additional pressures on the marine habitat, so the very creatures travelers come to see are struggling to survive.
Neglect and disrespect are the Great Wall of China’s biggest enemies. Many sections of the Wall are in disrepair, and locals often steal stones from its sides for their own construction needs. Graffiti covers the ancient parapets, and dust layers the floors. Plus, the tramping of thousands of tourists every day wears down the old stones.
But it’s the combination of multiple threats that really weaken and ultimately destroy both man-made and natural wonders. The Mesoamerican Coral Reef off the Caribbean coast of Mexico is a perfect example. Cancun and Playa del Carmen rapidly became major tourist destinations because of their beautiful beaches and extensive reef systems. “Cancun … has grown from a pristine area populated by 12 families and covered by forests, sandy beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs to a planned city with 600,000 residents, 3.4 million visitors per year, 143 hotels with 27,500 hotel rooms, and an international airport that is seeking to compete with Miami as a regional hub,” says Seleni Matus, advisor to the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative of Conservation International.
The rapid development for both tourism and residential purposes in this area over the last three decades has introduced environmental stresses the coral reefs had never before experienced. Forty percent of the area’s mangroves have been cut down for building purposes, destroying a natural buffer from hurricanes. Water pollution from hotels and growing communities is altering the makeup of the wetlands and reefs and is threatening marine species. And overuse of specific reef sites by area tourists and cruise passengers is directly damaging the coral. Add to all this a rising ocean temperature that is leading to more and more coral bleaching, and it’s no wonder that the live coral coverage of the Mesoamerican Reef is below the Caribbean average.
What can you do to help?
One traveler alone can’t protect these special places, but many travelers together can make an impact. If you want to protect your favorite vacation spots, you can choose to help on a personal or global scale.
On an individual level, you have full control over your own travel plans and behaviors. Educate yourself about places you visit and learn what is the appropriate behavior in any given destination. You can make a difference by not straying from marked paths, not removing stones from an ancient site, and not standing on fragile coral plants. Choose tour providers or hotels that employ sustainable tourism practices. You can read more about this subject in our recent story on [% 339200 | | sustainable tourism %].
Or, you can add your voice and your dollars to those of people around the world. A great way to help is by supporting organizations that are working to preserve our cultural and natural landmarks, such as Conservational International or the World Monuments Fund. If every traveler works to protect even one special area or raise awareness of global issues affecting many destinations, perhaps some of these amazing places can be saved.
Sadly, the only way to ensure that you see our world’s wonders is to go now before they’re gone. And if your favorite travel destination does in fact disappear, at least you’ll have the memories to share with future generations.
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