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Melting polar ice has created a tourism craze among the rich.
Credit: Charly W. Karl
Accents
Tourism at the End of the World
By Stephen Leahy*

So-called “climate tourism” is a mix of legitimate interest in protecting nature, the desire to see rare wildlife on the verge of extinction, and, of course, the search for profit.

TORONTO, Jan 14 (Tierramérica).- - Hurry! Hurry! See the polar bears, penguins, Arctic glaciers, small pacific islands before they disappear forever due to global warming.

Tourism companies are now using climate change as a marketing tool: Visit the pacific island paradise of Tuvalu before rising sea levels swallow it in the next 30 to 50 years. See the Arctic while there is still ice and polar bears.

"Some companies are using climate change as a marketing pitch, a 'see it now before it's gone' kind of thing," says Ayako Ezaki, communications director for the International Ecotourism Society, based in Washington DC.

But "ecotourism companies are wary of using that, because we want our customers to see it and then act to protect it so it won't disappear,” Ezaki told Tierramérica.

Climate change is reshaping the planet. Some islands will vanish and others will be uncovered as glaciers and ice sheets melt. Animals and plants are going extinct at a rate that will accelerate as the planet continues to heat up.

“Climate changes are impacting on all aspects of human and natural systems, including both cultural and natural World Heritage properties," the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reported in 2006.

Hundreds of natural and historic sites around the world are at risk, such as the potential loss of ancient ruins in Thailand, coral reefs in Belize, 13th century mosques in the Sahara, and the Cape Floral Kingdom in South Africa, according to the UNESCO study.

And there is a strong, perhaps perverse, desire in many people to go and see rare things: the last few tigers or lady's slipper orchids or a rapidly retreating glacier.

Scientists have become very reluctant to reveal any information about rare species for this reason, and even to keep collectors from scooping them up and selling them on the Internet, said Franck Courchamp, a biologist at University of Paris-South in Orsay, France in an interview.

Meanwhile, more people are traveling and they are going to more far-flung destinations than ever before.

"Tourism has been growing 4.3 percent per year for the last 10 years," says Louise Oram, of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), a business association of the top 100 largest tourism companies.

"And that growth will continue into the near future," Oram told Tierramérica from her office London.

The industry generated $ 7 trillion, yes trillion, dollars of economic activity in 2007 -- 10.7 per cent of global GDP. It is also directly or indirectly responsible for 231 million jobs around the world she said.

Travel and tourism is the world's largest generator of wealth and jobs according to the WTTC. It is also an industry that has an enormous impact on the environment. That is something the industry is starting to come to grips with, acknowledges Oram.

Ecotourism and nature tourism -- which would include “climate tourism” -- is growing perhaps three times faster than the industry in general, estimates Ezaki, of the International Ecotourism Society.

Ecotourism operators are out front on this issue and try to minimize their impacts where ever possible, she says. "When tourism is not sustainable it hurts the environment and we're trying to change that.”

While Society members in nearly 100 countries promise to follow a green code of conduct, there is no inspection and no one has ever been kicked out for violations, she says.

Mass tourism, like the typical tropical beach holiday that forms the bulk of the industry, is not sustainable and will continue to be the major problem into the future. National governments will have to step in and make every aspect of mass tourism as green as possible, according to Ezaki.

"The industry needs to show that green or ecotourism is something exciting and different and not just for backpackers or rich environmentalists."

Tourists can reduce their personal impact on the environment by taking direct flights, traveling for longer periods of time rather than taking several short trips of a few days. They should choose rail or bus for transport when possible and look at walking or biking tours, which offer an exciting way to experience a country, she says.

"The key to our staying in business is to keep the environment pristine," says Prisca Campbell, of Quark Expeditions, a U.S.-based nature tour operator that specializes in trips to the Arctic and Antarctic.

In the Antarctic, tour operators agreed many years ago on very stringent guidelines to reduce impacts on the delicate region, Campbell told Tierramérica.

"Customers tell us they travel to see penguins, icebergs and glaciers, and to learn about the first explorers."

Although the tourists might not mention climate change specifically, tour guides do tell them about the impacts at both poles. Six in 10 customers say they want to take action to make a difference on global warming, said Campbell.

"They're not climate tourists, but some will become climate activists."

*

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