Here's a discouraging metric: Google the phrase "endangered places" and you'll get more than 30,000 results. The Natural Resources Defense Council wants to preserve the white water of Patagonia's Futaleufu River; the World Wildlife Fund urges saving the Bering Sea; Concierge.com (the digital imprint of Condé Nast Traveler) encourages adventurers to see the Swiss glaciers before they succumb to global climate change.
The clock is ticking on the fabled snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and for the same reason. "Ironically," says Concierge.com, "the very fact that its snowfield[s] are endangered means people are rushing to climb Kilimanjaro now, before the glaciers melt entirely--meaning even more pressure on the fragile mountain and the nearby Serengeti Plain."
However, to suggest irony is to imply not knowing, as if travelers didn't realize they were complicit in the hastening destruction of the mountain. This is obviously not the case. The truth is, growing numbers of travelers venturing to remote and fragile places--Palawan in the Philippines, the Silver Bank in the Caribbean, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos--go with the certain knowledge that their presence makes matters worse. And they go anyway.
By now, everyone gets this, right? You cannot expect to tromp into the Virunga highlands to view gorillas as if you were an incorporeal spirit. You can't have fascinating encounters with large marine animals--humpback whales in the Pacific, pink dolphins in the Amazon--without a large ship to take you there. Adventure tourism happens at the whip end of expense, pollution and environmental disruption.
On a fundamental level, ecotourism is a contradiction in terms, regardless of what Abercrombie & Kent tells you. It's not enough to say that ecotourism supports local economies in ways that limit more destructive industries such as logging, hunting and factory fishing. If the object is to preserve wild places for future generations, finessing the rate of their exploitation is not the solution.
For me, travel is becoming an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I've been on six continents and in 40-odd countries, and lately, every time I pack my bags, I stuff a few kilos of liberal guilt in there along with my camera and antibiotics. A couple of days ago, I was invited to Mongolia, where I'd love to go and where, it must be said, there isn't exactly a delicate ecosystem hanging in the balance. Still, I'm hesitating. Truly one of the last isolated places, Mongolia doesn't need me to come over the hill in my high-tech trekking gear.
As a diver, I have longed to go to the Galapagos, but I know that the dive boats--albeit strictly regulated by the Ecuadorean government--are wrecking the place. Bhutan, arguably the most exotic destination on this planet, is someplace I've always wanted to see, but I rather doubt that my arrival will appreciably add to the country's famous Gross National Happiness.
I belong to the luckiest generation, which has had easy access to the world's unspoiled places in the brief flicker of time before they were spoiled. And now we seem to be in a race--against global warming, against ourselves--to collect as many places as we can. Patricia Schultz's book "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" might as well be titled, "1,000 Places to See Before They Die."
Just how many tourists can troop up the steps of Lhasa before the Tibetan holy city comes tumbling down? How many Land Rover caravans can rumble across Kenya before the lions decide to take a powder? These must-see lists reduce the world to "destinations," boxes to be ticked in a global game of get-it-while-you-can. They turn places and nature into a commodity, inasmuch as all commodities are finite and exhaustible.
It's a peculiar function of our egocentrism to think that a place doesn't truly exist until it has been ratified by our presence. You know, I've been to the calving ice cliffs in the Arctic and, while the view was tremendous, I was slightly miserable to see the thin dusting of diesel soot embedded in the ice, the remnant of a thousand tour boats that take people to the foot of the glaciers. Actually, the view was better on IMAX.
And that brings me to my radical solution. Don't go. Travel conscientiously wherever--Paris, Bangkok, Banff--but when it comes to the most delicate and imperiled places, resist the urge to see them before they, or you, are gone. The fact is, most places in the world cannot withstand retail tourism. So just don't. Instead, I propose a new age of armchair traveling that relies on a highly vetted priesthood of professionals--writers and naturalists and documentarians--to bring back the sights and sounds of these places with as much verisimilitude as technology can muster. Naturally, I nominate me.
Times staff writer Dan Neil can be reached at email@example.com.