Do you want to go skiing in the Alps, see the glaciers that gave Glacier National Park its name or scuba dive among the brilliantly colored corals of the Great Barrier Reef? If so, you'd better hurry -- thanks to the realities of global warming, these destinations and many others are in danger.
Awareness of these growing environmental threats has created a new trend in the travel industry, known variously as climate change travel, climate change sightseeing, global warming travel, even the tourism of doom. Spurred by the threat that global warming poses to many popular destinations, travelers are hurrying to see these places before they disappear. But in doing so, they may be contributing to the problem; carbon emissions from flights, rental cars and other tourist activities only help further climate change.
This conflict creates an ethical dilemma for travelers looking to see the world without harming it. Can the benefits of travel outweigh its environmental impact? What questions should you consider when deciding whether to visit an endangered destination? And if you do decide to travel, how can you minimize your environmental footprint? Read on.
Global warming has left few places untouched. Rising temperatures have harmed Vermont's maple syrup industry and shortened the ski season in the Rocky Mountains. The combination of melting glaciers and rising oceans threatens to flood low-lying lands such as Bangladesh, the Netherlands and the small Pacific island of Tuvalu. Global warming has even been blamed for the hurricanes that have devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in recent years, and for the increased frequency of El Nino events, which contribute to coral bleaching.
To learn which destinations are most affected by climate change, check out our slideshow of 9 Places to See Before They Disappear.
Should You Go?
Travelers feel an understandable urge to visit these destinations before they are irrevocably changed -- but are they contributing to the problem? Tourism currently is responsible for about 5 percent of the world's CO2 emissions, according to the World Tourism Organization, and the industry will only continue to grow. In the effort to preserve the earth's most beautiful places for years to come, responsible travelers must consider the impact of their trips -- and the first question to ask is: Should you go at all?
In making this decision, travelers must weigh a number of factors, starting with transportation to their destination. Planning to visit the Great Barrier Reef? A roundtrip flight to Sydney from LAX -- a 15,000-mile trip -- produces nearly two tons of CO2 per traveler, according to Carbon Footprint, a company that specializes in carbon offsets. If you're flying a long way for a relatively short period of time, you may wish to consider whether the trip is worth the hefty carbon output.
Also, keep in mind that many destinations are threatened as much by overcrowding as by climate change. Spain's overdeveloped Costa del Sol, Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex and the fragile Galapagos Islands are just a few examples of places where tourism's footprint could cost lasting damage.
However, tourism has just as much potential for good as it does for harm. In many parts of the world, the tourist industry is the lifeblood of the local economy, providing financial incentives for communities to preserve the beauty of their natural environment and cultural heritage. Some travelers also contribute more than just tourist dollars, participating in conservation projects that have a direct effect on the places they visit.
Finally, many travelers return home from trips to endangered places with a greater awareness of environmental issues and a desire to take action against climate change -- which may more than cancel out that ton of CO2 in the long run.
Only you can make the final decision about whether or not to visit an endangered place -- but if you do decide to go, it's more important than ever to minimize your environmental footprint. Below are our top tips for eco-friendly travel.
Tips for Traveling Responsibly
Consider participating in a conservation project or adding an educational component to your trip to help you learn more about the place you're visiting.
Fly directly to your destination if you can, and offset the carbon emissions from your flights.
Choose your tour operator or cruise line very carefully. Ask how large the groups are, what the company does to make sure its tours are sustainable, what precautions will be taken against harming local ecosystems, and how the company contributes to the local economy.
Similarly, if you're booking your own travel, weigh your hotel and transportation options with the environment in mind. Can you walk or bike instead of drive? If you need a car, rent the most fuel-efficient one that meets your needs. Look for hotels with composting and recycling programs, or that use alternative energy sources. Seek hotels that are locally owned so that you're contributing directly to the community's economy.
Respect the local environment by staying on marked paths when hiking and disposing of your trash responsibly. Wherever you are, tread lightly; many ecosystems are so fragile that walking across the greenery or touching the coral can cause lasting damage.
Instead of taking many short getaways, minimize your transportation emissions (particularly flights) by taking fewer trips and traveling for longer each time.
Finally, remember that what you do at home has as much impact as what you do when you travel. Try to take your green way of life home with you when your trip is over.
For more ideas, see our Green Travel Tips.
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--written by Sarah Schlichter