Trying to preserve the world’s most delicate sites often leads to more tourists who come and destroy them

Say cheese!
Say cheese!
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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Efforts to preserve the world’s natural and cultural treasures are facing a major obstacle: FOMO.

Travelers’ fears of missing out (i.e. FOMO) on the chance to come face-to-face with a blue-footed booby in the Galapagos Islands or to fight off the pigeons in Venice’s Piazza San Marco are encouraging more of them to visit those very hard-to-preserve places. Called “last chance tourism” the phenomenon leads travelers to flock to a delicate sites, threatening them even further.

A survey published last month (pdf) found a major reason for tourists visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was to see it before it completely disappeared. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and has suffered from widespread coral bleaching, the result of too-warm water and other environmental stresses. The research report entitled, “Last Chance Tourism and the Great Barrier Reef,” published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, also found that almost half of the 235 respondents said they were very concerned about the impact of tourism on the reef.

Tourism, of course, is easier to control than other threats to natural and cultural sites, such was war, illegal mining, fishing, hunting and climate change. But FOMO puts governments trying to raise revenue from tourism in a difficult position, forcing them to balance economic needs with conservation.

Precious sites can be protected by including them on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is a welcome seal of prestige that also provides funding to help preserve the site. The designation also brings visibility to a country’s architectural and natural gems, helping to draw more tourists.

Visitors to Peru’s top tourism destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site Machu Picchu nearly doubled from 2005 to 1.28 million last year, according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism.  UNESCO recently said tourism is one of the factors affecting preservation of the Inca citadel, adding it to a laundry list of previous concerns such the impact of bus traffic on landslides and delays in planning for the main entry-point to the site.

The Peruvian government in 2011, said it would cap the entrants at 2,500 a day, but daily visitors on average exceed that number by more than 1,000, a sign of how difficult attendance caps are to enforce.

While tourism brings unquestionable economic benefits, it comes with environmental strains, from lodging and transportation infrastructure, and the impact left by an influx of human residents and visitors.

If coupled with proper planning, tourism doesn’t have to be the end of some of these sites, but travelers should carefully consider whether they really are leaving only footprints. Otherwise, these places will be gone before they know it.