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What is last chance tourism?
Blog...What is last chance tourism?

What is last chance tourism?

Ecology News
person scuba diving with turtle
This article explores the complex implications of last chance tourism, examining its impact on both the environment and the local economies dependent on tourist income.
Ecology News
person scuba diving with turtle

Last chance tourism, whereby travelers visit destinations that are under threat from environmental degradation and climate change, is a growing trend. This form of travel is driven by the desire to experience these places before they potentially change or disappear altogether. As awareness of climate change increases, so does the interest in these vulnerable locations, leading to an increase in tourism that paradoxically often results in increased degradation of the very destinations it aims to appreciate. 

👉 This article explores the complex implications of last chance tourism, examining its impact on both the environment and the local economies dependent on tourist income.

What is last chance tourism?

Last chance tourism refers to the phenomenon where travelers purposefully choose to visit destinations that are under threat from environmental changes - most notably the effects of climate change. This trend has gained momentum in recent years as destinations, renowned for their cultural or natural significance, are increasingly highlighted as vulnerable due to global warming and environmental decline. 

The allure of these destinations is often heightened by media coverage, environmental reports, and a growing public awareness of the effects of climate change. This has led to an increase in tourism driven by a mixture of curiosity, urgency, and the desire to witness these places before they change or disappear forever. The paradoxical result is a spike in traffic to areas least able to cope with environmental pressures.

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Climate change and vulnerable destinations

Climate change is significantly changing some of the world's most iconic and cherished landscapes and ecosystems. These transformations are not just ecological but also visual, making them poignant symbols of the broader environmental shifts occurring globally. As glaciers retreat, sea levels rise, and weather patterns change unpredictably, the very characteristics that make certain destinations appealing are in flux or fading.

Examples of climate-impacted areas

  • The Arctic and Antarctic - The polar regions are among the most dramatically impacted areas. The ice caps are melting at alarming rates, reducing habitats for native wildlife like polar bears and penguins and decreasing the icy landscape that attracts tourists.
  • The Great Barrier Reef, Australia - Coral reefs are experiencing severe bleaching due to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification. The Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral since 1995, diminishing its biodiversity and its draw for divers and marine enthusiasts.
  • Venice, Italy - Known for its historic canals and architecture, Venice faces existential threats from rising sea levels and sinking foundations. Frequent flooding puts its architectural integrity at risk and challenges its capacity to manage tourist flows during high water events.
  • The Maldives - This island nation, famed for its picturesque atolls and vibrant marine life, is facing an existential threat from rising sea levels. With an average elevation of just 1 meter above sea level, the entire country risks being submerged, making it one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change.
  • Glaciers worldwide - From the iconic glaciers in the Swiss Alps to the sprawling ice fields of Patagonia, glaciers are retreating at unprecedented rates. This not only affects the landscapes themselves but also impacts freshwater supplies and seasonal water flows crucial to both ecosystems and human populations downstream.
tropical island

Environmental impacts of last chance tourism

Paradoxically last chance tourism often leads to significant ecological footprints in areas that are the least equipped to handle increased human activity. This can result in a number of harmful impacts including habitat disruption, pollution from transport, and waste generated by tourists, not to mention the physical damage caused by the sheer volume of visitors walking on delicate land. Foot traffic in vulnerable areas can lead to soil erosion, disturb wildlife habitats, and introduce invasive species that compete with native flora and fauna.

Indirect effects of climate change on tourism

Beyond immediate environmental damage, last chance tourism also contributes to broader ecological issues, particularly through carbon emissions associated with travel. Air travel, which is one of the most common forms of transport for reaching last chance destinations (which are often remote), is one of the most carbon-intensive activities. The irony is striking - the desire to visit these exceptional locales, which are under threat due to climate change and environmental degradation, actually exacerbates the problem, making their demise all the more likely.

The global ecological footprint of tourism is significant, around 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are linked to the tourism sector. And it's not just the travel to and from these destinations that impacts the environment, it’s also the infrastructure developed to support tourists, including hotels, restaurants, and other services, that leads to increased consumption of resources, energy use, and waste. 

Ironically, the visibility of these changes seems to be driving an increase in visitor numbers, as people rush to see these places before they are altered further or disappear. This last chance tourism can put additional pressure on already vulnerable ecosystems and infrastructures, exacerbating the impacts of climate change through increased pollution, greater energy consumption, and more waste production.

The paradox of conservation and tourism

Tourism might result in some negative environmental impacts, but it’s certainly not all bad. There are a lot of benefits that come with travel too. For a start, tourism revenue is important for many vulnerable sites, as it often funds conservation projects that may not otherwise receive adequate financial support. These revenues can help maintain national parks, support research initiatives, and fund local conservation efforts that aim to mitigate environmental degradation. For example, entrance fees and guided tour costs can directly contribute to the maintenance and environmental management of these sites.

However, while tourism can provide essential funding for conservation, the effectiveness of these efforts varies. There are significant challenges in ensuring that these efforts are sufficient to offset the environmental impact caused by tourists. For example, while revenue from tourism in the Galapagos Islands supports strict environmental controls and scientific research, the islands continue to face challenges from over-tourism that threaten their delicate ecosystems. Similarly, in the Arctic, funds generated from tourism help with polar research and wildlife conservation efforts, but they cannot reverse the effects of global warming that are melting the ice caps.

The paradox

This leads to a fundamental paradox where tourism - while supporting conservation financially - might speed up the very destruction it seeks to prevent. Tourist activities, even when managed responsibly, inherently exert pressure on natural environments. When the influx of visitors is not carefully controlled or when environmental policies are not robust enough, the conservation funding gained from tourism becomes negligible. 

What’s more is that the dependency on tourism revenue can make local economies vulnerable to fluctuations in visitor numbers, which are influenced by global economic conditions, changing travel trends, and the very environmental degradation that these visits cause. This dependency poses a risk to long-term sustainability and makes it challenging to develop alternative economic strategies that are not reliant on continuous visitor growth.

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Economic dependency vs long-term sustainability

Many regions known for their natural beauty or unique cultural heritage rely on tourism for economic survival. Places like the Maldives, dependent on their picturesque islands and marine life, draw substantial revenue from tourists, which supports local employment and services. Similarly, communities near rapidly melting glaciers depend on tourists visiting these sites for hiking, climbing, and sightseeing, providing crucial income streams.

However, this economic dependency on tourism presents a significant sustainability issue. As environments continue to degrade - whether due to climate change, over-tourism, or both - the very resources that attract visitors will diminish, upending local economies. For example, as coral reefs around the world bleach and die off, the decrease in marine biodiversity can lead to a drop in scuba diving tourism, a critical income source for many tropical island communities.

The challenge lies in balancing economic benefits with environmental costs. Increased tourism, while providing economic benefits, often leads to ecological degradation. This can be seen in places like Venice, where the large number of tourists places strain on the city’s infrastructure, contributing to pollution and physical wear on its historic sites. Similarly, in the Arctic regions, the presence of tourists can disturb the very wildlife they come to observe, potentially altering migration patterns and breeding behaviors.

The focus on maximizing short-term gains from tourism often overshadows the long-term environmental costs. This exacerbates the degradation of natural sites, making them less attractive to future tourists and depleting the natural resources local communities rely on for survival. This cycle can be difficult to break, especially when immediate economic survival relies on continual tourist income. 

Strategies for sustainable tourism

Adopting sustainable tourism strategies is crucial for protecting vulnerable tourist locations and creating a balance between visitors and the survival of the site. This means developing tourism practices that ensure economic benefits while minimizing environmental impacts. Strategies could include:

  • Limiting visitor numbers to reduce wear and tear on the environment
  • Implementing more strict environmental protection laws for tourists and tourism businesses 
  • Encouraging the development of eco-tourism and community-based tourism that directly benefits local populations while promoting conservation
  • Diversifying the local economy beyond tourism to reduce vulnerability to tourism fluctuations and environmental changes
  • Investing in sustainable infrastructure (such as renewable energy, waste recycling systems, and eco-friendly transportation options) can also help destinations manage the impacts of tourism more effectively. 
woman on a boat

Ethical considerations of last chance tourism

The debate around the ethical implications of last chance tourism is complex. On one hand, it raises awareness about the impacts of climate change and the urgent need for conservation. Tourists who witness the degradation of glaciers or coral reefs firsthand may become more motivated to engage in environmental advocacy or adopt more sustainable lifestyles. However, the ethics of encouraging travel to vulnerable sites for profit, especially when such travel contributes to the damage, is contentious.

As awareness of climate change grows, the travel industry and tourists are being forced to reconsider the sustainability of their choices. Last chance tourism needs to support conservation efforts and respect local communities, ensuring that tourism revenue contributes positively without accelerating ecological damage. This shift requires collaboration among governments, businesses, communities, and tourists to develop and enforce policies that prioritize long-term environmental health over short-term gains.

The importance of responsible travel

The problematic aspects of last chance tourism call for a shift towards more sustainable travel practices that prioritise environmental preservation and community welfare. This involves rethinking traditional tourism models to include sustainability as a core component. 

Eco-tourism and conservation efforts

Eco-tourism represents a more sustainable way of traveling, focusing on conservation and the minimization of tourism's negative impacts. It often involves local communities in tourism development and emphasizes the education of tourists regarding local ecosystems and conservation efforts. For example, eco-tourism projects in the Amazon Rainforest engage indigenous guides who share their knowledge about the forest, not only enriching the visitor experience but also ensuring that tourism benefits the local population and doesn’t harm the environment.

Regenerative travel

Beyond sustainability, regenerative travel aims to leave destinations better than the state in which they were found. This form of tourism often involves projects that help restore environments, improve the well-being of local people, and build resilience against climate change. Examples include reforestation projects linked to lodge stays in Africa or programs that combine coral reef restoration with scuba diving trips.

Voluntourism and community-based tourism

Voluntourism - where travelers take part in voluntary work - can be also beneficial if well-managed and aligned with the community’s needs. Projects range from wildlife conservation efforts to teaching English or helping to build sustainable infrastructure. Community-based tourism, where local residents invite tourists to visit their communities with the aim of sharing their way of life, ensures that the benefits of tourism flow directly to the community, promoting genuine cultural exchange and mutual respect.

Policy and regulation

Governments play an important role when it comes to making the tourism industry more sustainable. This includes enforcing environmental standards for tourism operators, establishing caps on visitor numbers to sensitive areas, and mandating environmental impact assessments for new tourism developments. Additionally, policies that encourage tourism operators to local resources and staff can help ensure that tourism revenues benefit the local economy directly.

Education and awareness campaigns

Increasing the environmental awareness of tourists is crucial. Campaigns that educate travelers about the impacts of their actions and how they can make positive choices can help individuals to make more sustainable travel choices. Travelers who understand the challenges faced by last chance tourism destinations are more likely to respect guidelines and make decisions that contribute to conservation.

The transition to responsible tourism is not solely the responsibility of travelers or the industry. It involves a collective effort from governments, businesses, communities, and tourists themselves. By adopting more sustainable practices, supporting local economies, and respecting the natural environments and cultures of host communities, tourism can be a powerful force for good in the world.

How to travel sustainably

  • Minimise your travel carbon footprint - Choose travel options that reduce carbon emissions. This includes traveling by more environmentally friendly methods (train over plane), selecting direct flights, using public transportation, or even exploring local or regional destinations.
  • Support local economies - Engage with and support local businesses that practice sustainable operations. This includes staying at eco-friendly accommodations, dining at local restaurants that source food sustainably, and buying local products that don't exploit natural resources.
  • Educate yourself and others - Before traveling, educate yourself about the destination's cultural and environmental issues. While visiting, take the opportunity to learn from local guides and share this knowledge with fellow travelers and communities back home.
  • Follow guidelines and regulations - Respect local guidelines designed to protect the environment and wildlife. This includes sticking to marked trails, not touching or feeding wildlife, and adhering to specific visitor guidelines that reduce human impact.
  • Leave no trace - Practice Leave No Trace principles by disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, and minimize campfire impacts.
  • Participate in conservation efforts - Where possible, participate in or donate to conservation programs that work towards preserving the environment and wildlife of your travel destination.
While last chance tourism raises significant ethical and environmental challenges, by adopting responsible tourism practices and considering alternatives, individuals can contribute positively to the conservation of vulnerable sites. It's not just about seeing the world, it's about ensuring that the world's beauty and diversity endure for future generations.

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