The world has never been more accessible to travelers in search of new, exciting and exotic locations. However, many cultural and natural treasures we have known about for a lifetime or are just learning about thanks to documentaries and enthusiastic recommendations from fellow travelers now have a ticking clock on their very existence. These are the disappearing destinations of our planet.
Some are iconic and we are well aware of the distress they are experiencing, whether impacted by climate change, human interference and neglect, or even by war, all of which can wreak devastation on environments, animal species and cultural treasures. Who has not heard of the plight of polar bears as rapid Arctic ice melt puts them increasingly distant from their marine mammal foods, or the decrease by more than half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, dying due to rising sea temperatures and acid pollution from farm chemical runoff ? Th e world’s second largest coral reef skirting the shores of Belize is similarly at risk, having lost 50% of its beautiful coral in just a few decades.
Th e ancient salt lake that borders Israel, Jordan and Palestine has shrunk in size by a third and sunk 80 feet, stranding seaside resorts nearly a mile from shore. Th e Dead Sea holds the distinction of being the earth’s lowest point on dry land, 1,312 ft/400m below sea level just to touch its surface. Scientists predict that increasing human use and misuse of the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s sole water source, will likely result in its disappearance within 50 years.
Perhaps surprising to travelers who believe they have plenty of time to visit India’s Taj Mahal, Egypt’s pyramids or the Great Wall of China, we are hearing dire warnings of human impact in the form of air pollution, sewage and farm chemicals causing erosion, while uncontrolled tourism threatens the structural integrity and exteriors of these treasures. We should be particularly grateful to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites committee that not only researches and selects for their list new natural, cultural and mixed use sites of “outstanding universal value,” but also publicizes critically endangered sites they are monitoring. These presently number 54 (whc.unesco.org/en/danger).
Even if there are holdouts disputing who or what is responsible for climate change, there is general agreement that the polar ice caps, both north and south, are melting at a rapid rate. For many travelers, discovering the Arctic or Antarctic regions and their extraordinary wildlife is a goal either by land or by sea.
Jason Hillier, VP Product Management and Expedition Leader for land-based tour operator, Arctic Kingdom (arctickingdom. com), is observing more and more clients seeking authentic Arctic experiences now because it won’t look the same in the nottoo- distant future. “At Arctic Kingdom,” he says, “we are constantly adapting our programs and sustainability mandates to support tourism in the North while also showcasing the Arctic’s beauty and providing bucket list experiences.
“Over the course of nearly 20 years of running expeditions in the Arctic, the biggest change has been the predictability of conditions at certain times of year. In the past, conditions were generally consistent, but now we are seeing more variability in weather and conditions. Th e eff ects on wildlife, icebergs, and sea ice thickness have a direct impact on our trips. For example, Arctic Kingdom is currently wrapping up trips in certain locations weeks earlier than just ten years ago. We still see consistent numbers of sightings of polar bears, narwhal and other species in the High Arctic but only time will tell,” he concludes, “how these animal populations will ultimately adapt to the changes in their habitat.”
Moving from the chill of the Canadian Arctic to India’s much hotter wild places, we find several iconic “big cats” under seemingly unstoppable pressures from poaching, deforestation and overgrazing as well as an irreversible tide of humanity. While somewhat returning from the brink of extinction, Asian lions, leopards and Bengal tigers are still hanging on by their formidable claws. No one should breathe easy!
“When big cats have to compete with the ultimate predator, man, the result is almost always disastrous for the cats,” observes Debbie Kindness, owner of Incredible Indian Tours (incredibleindiatours.com), that offers a Big Cats of India tour. She has over 20 years experience of crafting and leading small-group tours throughout the Subcontinent. “India had over 100,000 tigers a century ago but poaching and habitat loss reduced this population to about 1,500 ten years ago.” The good news is that the numbers of these magnificent animals are slowly increasing, hopefully in the nick of time, by the intervention of both government and the tourism industry.
“Creation of jobs by the tourism industry in destitute rural communities means that living tigers, lions and leopards have increased value to the locals in villages around the nature reserves. Various methods to halt big cat declines, including a system of rapid compensation to villagers for livestock losses due to predators moving outside the reserves, have worked well.”
Two categories of disappearing destinations are adding new candidates at an alarming rate … both attributable to climate change. One is low-island destinations, like the Maldives, the Seychelles, and many South Pacific island states whose precious real estate is flooding as ocean levels rise and increasingly destructive storms pound their shores. The other climate change casualties are numerous mountain glaciers that feed rivers and lakes or that just look spectacular. Alaska’s famous glaciers are receding dramatically, and Tanzania’s Mt Kilimanjaro has lost 85% of its snow cap in 100 years as active travelers of all ages continue to seek the challenge of its summit.
One of Europe’s most exquisite cultural destinations is virtually drowning ... both in fierce climate-related storm surges flooding winter streets and town squares and in the 30 million visitors annually flocking to Venice, Italy. The floating city of Venice (population 50,000) is vulnerable to more water erosion every year, while the increase of massive cruise ships entering and polluting the fragile lagoon and canals has created crisis conditions for the city. Following years of dire warnings of conservation risks, a government decision in November 2017 will divert these giants of the sea to a nearby industrial port from which they can bus cruise visitors into Venice.
European Waterways (EuropeanWaterways. com) has been operating in northern Italy since 2005, navigating the smaller, lesser known waterways around Venice on its Venice-to- Mantua itinerary. Managing Director of this hotel barging company, Derek Banks, has been a front row witness to the “cruising crisis” overwhelming one of the Mediterranean’s most unique cities.
“I do believe hotel barges are a superb low impact solution to preserving the best that historic cities like Venice have to offer,” he says. “Such small vessels are more in keeping with the aesthetic of the surrounding area, which is in desperate need of preservation. At 140 feet in length, La Bella Vita is the largest vessel in our European fleet, though it looks like a rowboat compared to the 1,000+ foot cruise liners so tall as to blot out an entire city skyline. Over the years we have fostered sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships with local businesses and contributed directly to the Venetian economy and in return our guests are rewarded with the immersive, authentic experiences that they adore.”
Disappearing is not a happy ending for some of the greatest natural and cultural treasures we associate with particular destinations, only a few of which have been highlighted here. However, it is preferable to “disappeared”. Modern explorers surely have a voice in delaying or changing at least some outcomes with a bit of creative dedication to the greatest challenge in travel history.