Global warming has led to a new travel boom as holidaymakers embrace what tour operators are calling doomsday tourism – the urge to see some of the world’s most endangered sites before they disappear for ever.
Newly awakened to the perils facing the planet, American tourists are leading the charge to the melting glaciers of Alaska, Patagonia, the Arctic and Antarctic, the sinking islands of the Pacific and the fading glories of the Great Barrier Reef – and their British counterparts are not far behind.
Ken Shapiro, the editor of TravelAge West, a magazine for travel agents, said the phenomenon was one of the most significant trends in travel this year. He said: “I called it the tourism of doom and I got a lot of responses from people in the travel industry. Many people are picking a holiday destination because it is threatened or endangered by environmental circumstances. We’re hearing it from tour operators and travel agents.”
So far even the more aggressive US travel industry has not marketed sights explicitly as “doomsday” must-sees. But Shapiro said it was different behind the scenes. “They may not put it in the brochure, but they say, ‘see it before it’s gone’ when talking to customers.”
Dennis and Stacie Woods, from Seattle, revealed last week they had been choosing holiday destinations based on the level of environmental threat they faced. They have climbed the 5,894 m Mt Kilimanjaro, where scientists say the peak snows could be gone within 15 years. Some 10,000 tourists now climb the Tanzanian mountain every year.
The Woods have also travelled to the Amazon and kayaked around the Galapagos Islands. “We wanted to see the islands this year,” said Woods, a lawyer, “because we figured they’re only going to get worse”.
The polar icecaps, which some scientists say are melting quickly, are also attracting a record number of visitors. According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, more than 37,000 tourists visited the continent last year – double the number five years ago. A third came from America, while the second largest contingent – one in seven visitors – travelled from Britain. “There definitely is a rush to see and explore the world before it changes,” said Matt Kareus, of Natural Habitat, which operates excursions to Antarctica.
Quark Expeditions, a company that runs Arctic and Antarctic tours, is planning to double its capacity and open up new routes, including one to the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen.
Prisca Campbell, Quark’s spokesman, said: “There is not enough capacity to satisfy demand. We always get the question about global warming. There are many people who are really concerned about the issue. Most of our American travellers look at the world and say, ‘What’s left?’”
The publicity garnered by former US vice-president Al Gore, who won both the Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, his 2006 film about global warming, has contributed to an interest in doomsday tourism in America.
“I have just been to the US tour operators’ annual conference in Cancun,” said Shapiro. “Last year, when there was talk about green tourism, people said it was a fad. This year every tour operator is doing it.”
Critics say the rush to “see it before it’s gone” is hastening damage to the environment, encouraging tourists to take flights and other means of travel that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. A spokesman for the Will Steger Foundation, a conservation group based in Minnesota, said: “It is hard to fault somebody who wants to see something before it disappears, but it is unfortunate that in their pursuit of doing that they contribute to the problem.”
But Quark, which takes 7,000 passengers a season to the Arctic and Antarctic, said a survey of its customers this year found that six out of 10 claimed their experiences had motivated them to help protect environmentally sensitive areas.
Campbell added: “Our philosophy is you must protect the environment but you must make sure that people get to see it, because if you don’t see it, you won’t value it. People who travel to these areas are keen to help fight global warming. They go home and tell their friends they’ve got to do something.” (The Daily Telegraph)