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Tourists are flocking to locations threatened by climate change. That only makes things worse.

“Last-chance tourism” is hastening the decline of destinations like the Florida Reef and the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands, which are vulnerable to rising sea temperatures and increasing land tourism.
Getty Images

Plopped in the Florida Reef is a 4,000-pound bronze Jesus named “Christ of the Abyss.” The statue is one of the most photographed sites in the Florida Keys, and at Lobster Trap Art you can buy his portrait printed on ceramic tiles for $24.

Like many of the products at this local photography shop, pictures of Christ of the Abyss look almost photoshopped — Jesus being circled by tropical fish, a sea turtle, and a shark.

But Lobster Trap Art owner Glenn Lahti says that when he moved to the Keys 27 years ago, the beauty was even more surreal: “The water was clearer, there were more fish and even more coral.”

Christ of the Abyss, in the Florida Keys.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Home to the only tropical coral reef in the continental United States, Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park, rakes in $2.7 billion a year in tourism, much of it from those coming to see its national treasure. However, the city’s tourism-dependent economy has put the region in jeopardy, as travelers may also be killing the area’s biggest asset; Lahti’s is one of many businesses in the Keys that simultaneously profit from and are threatened by travelers.

Today, the net effect of human traffic and its hand in climate change have done possibly irreparable damage to the landmark. When confronted with direct contact from humans or reef-damaging sunscreen chemicals, corals experience stress, leading to coral bleaching. And this isn’t the only issue; the carbon footprint involved in travel also has a deleterious effect on the reef.

The cloud of destruction that looms over the Keys hovers over many tourist destinations affected by climate change: the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos, Montana’s National Glacier Park. And in recent years, these sites’ anticipated disappearance has been a large part of their draw. Labeled “last-chance tourism,” this is the practice of visiting a location before it vanishes or is irreparably changed.

As climate change worsens, last-chance tourism grows

When Canadian researchers started exploring last-chance tourism almost a decade ago, they faced backlash from scientists who feared this term was too alarmist, according to E&E News, a news organization focused on energy and climate. But with 71 percent of the American population now agreeing that climate change is real, the term last-chance tourism is more statement than prediction.

Their 2010 study, done in Churchill, Manitoba, a city that offers dozens of tours of the dwindling polar bear population, found that the increasing vulnerability of polar bears motivated a majority of visitors to travel there. Sixty percent of visitors said they would still want to see polar bears even if they looked emaciated, and 71 percent said that if the polar bear population in Churchill were destroyed, they would simply go somewhere else to view them.

Since its introduction, the phenomenon has been identified at other destinations. In a 2016 study of the Great Barrier Reef, researchers found that almost 70 percent of visitors wanted to visit the reef “before it was gone.” For $1,500, tourists go gorilla trekking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, which houses 880 of the 100,000 to 200,000 gorillas left in the world. Lauren Alley, a representative from National Glacier Park, told E&E that many visitors tell her they want to see the glaciers before they melt away. In the mid-1800s, the park had 150 glaciers; only 26 are left.

Whether or not these destinations are being marketed specifically as last-chance destinations, their imminent disappearance is definitely part of their appeal. The irony is that by visiting these fragile ecosystems, travelers are actually accelerating their demise. And as cities try to deal with the damage tourism leaves behind, they must ask themselves: How does a region limit an industry that drives its economy?

Last-chance destinations are profiting from their own demise — but trying to guard against accelerating damage

According to the Rhodium Group, greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.4 percent since last year, and the largest contributor to this increase was the transportation sector, which includes air travel. Flying adds planet-warming gases into the air at a much higher rate than other modes of transportation, including driving. According to the New York Times, a round-trip flight between New York and California generates about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.

This increase in greenhouse gases results in rising sea temperatures, which has alarming consequences in the Keys and elsewhere.

Glacier National Park once contained 150 glaciers; now there are 26.
Getty Images

On the Galápagos Islands — where visitors can get an up-close look at tropical penguins, sea lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas — the consequences of rising sea temperatures are predictable, because it’s happened before. In 1982, warm El Niño waters prevented nutrients from rising to the ocean surface, and many animals starved to death. Seabirds stopped laying eggs, and 80 percent of the penguins died.

Today, overtourism threatens these same species — so much so that UNESCO listed tourism as one of the Galapagos’s biggest threats. The area experienced a 92 percent increase in visitors on land-based tours from 2007 to 2016 thanks to the rapid development of budget-friendly hotels. Additionally, cruises are being more tightly regulated than they were in years past — protecting the surrounding waters but driving visitors onto the land. Land tourism itself is damaging, as the influx of tourists and workers have spurred the development of wildlife-replacing infrastructure.

Executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel Martha Honey says tourism is a “double-edged sword,” but if city governments can regulate the infrastructures that support tourism, they can give visitors a valuable, sustainable experience. This is the exact tactic taken in the Galapagos. The Galapagos National Park Authority has “put in place rather strict limits on the number of boats [that can dock] on various islands. These kinds of things are the reason the Galapagos are still with us now.” The island has also limited the population; by law, property in the Galapagos can only be purchased by residents and their families.

Honey also says we can learn some lessons from Barcelona, which, in an effort to prevent pollution, is limiting the construction of hotels and cars can be in the city center.

In the Florida Keys, rising water temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between algae and coral. In a healthy system, algae provide coral with energy, and in return, coral provides algae with a safe home. But when water gets too warm, coral will get rid of the algae and turn white, giving off a bleaching effect. Without energy from algae, coral reef system growth can slow down or completely halt.

Some initiatives have already started to rejuvenate the reefs. For example, areas where no fishing is allowed, also known as no-take zones, were implemented in 1997. The nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation has been growing endangered staghorn coral in undersea nurseries and implanting them throughout the reef. And this year, the city outlawed sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals that contribute to coral bleaching. The legislation goes into effect in 2021.

Business owners in the Florida Keys understand the predicament of being tourism-dependent

Danielle Hill has owned Shell World since the 1980s, but the business has been around since 1972. Its first home was in a gas station. She says the conversation about what saving the reef will mean for tourism and, in turn, area businesses is one that locals have a lot, especially since visits have increased over the past decade. “When I first started in the ’80s we always had a very short window of ‘season,’ and that was around spring break,” she says. “In the summer there was basically no one here. But now, July is one of our biggest months.”

Along with the more constant stream of tourists, Hill says she and other locals have noticed more and more visitors taking advantage of the Key’s resources during special events, such as lobster mini season. This two-day event has regulations that limit the number of lobsters caught per day to six per person in Monroe County (where the Keys is located) and 12 in the rest of Florida. However, Hill says they often get reports of people traveling down before the season even starts and taking 250 lobsters.

“That’s the kind of thing where we’re already impacting it with our daily activities; then we have people who come down and don’t have any idea of the impact they are making on earth and our sea life,” she says. “We want to be successful, but we don’t want to be successful on the backs of our environment.”

Reef wildlife in the Florida is in danger due to tourism.
Getty Images/Image Source

Karen Haught, the sales and marketing director of Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, agrees that something has to be done, but she’s not sure it’s possible to limit tourism. “We couldn’t exist on local business alone,” she tells me.

Lahti of Lobster Trap Art says when the government first started implementing no-take zones and other sanctions, he didn’t like it. “I thought, ‘Well, here’s the government trying to screw us again,’” he says. “I used to fish a lot more and I thought, ‘Why can’t I fish where I want to fish? You know, I’m an American citizen, why are you telling me I can’t fish here?’” But upon seeing the results of the no-take zones — more fish and brighter coral — he concluded they were actually “a good thing.”

Why humans don’t think their own travel affects climate change

Although travelers might understand that a specific ecosystem is more endangered due to climate change, they still struggle to grasp the effect of their own choices.

In the aforementioned 2010 study in Churchill, 88 percent of tourists said human were contributing to climate change, but only 69 percent agreed that air travel plays a role in climate change.

Even Lahti, who cares deeply about preserving the reef in his hometown, admits he is doing a lot of “carbon footprinting” himself. He flies often and takes cruises through the Caribbean. When asked if he thinks his vacations affect the climate, he tells me that he believes cruises are actually environmentally conscious about their water consumption and their overboard discharge, though plenty of research says otherwise.

John Fraser, founder of the nonprofit New Knowledge, which studies what motivates people to get involved in climate change resilience, says tourists’ inability to reckon with their own contributions to climate change is partly due to confirmation bias — you believe you are a good person, so of course what you’re doing isn’t bad — and partly due to how we perceive activities that only take up a few days of our year. “People tend to discount things that are quick as not as important,” he says. “With travel, for example, someone will say, ‘Well, I only do that a few times a year and it’s not an everyday behavior.’ People think a one-time investment in a trip comes with an extra get-out-of-jail-free card because they believe they will do good in the end.”

Because travel is a treat, an indulgence detached from our everyday life, it’s easy to dismiss its impact and tell yourself, “This one trip isn’t really going to make a difference.” When your motivation for traveling is to appreciate nature, it’s all the more difficult and unpleasant to accept your role in destroying it.

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