Recycle plastic bottles, turn off the lights, carpool to work, eat organic, compost, shop local, and plant a tree. Environmentalists preach these practices as ways to save our planet. But what exactly we are fighting to save? How about Glacier National Park, the Rio Grande, the Great Barrier Reef, Timbuktu, and Venice? Toxic pollution, global warming, unchecked real estate development, and tourist overload have brought these places to a frightening future. Either sustainable practices will be adopted or we’ll visit these places only as a way of hurriedly glimpsing them before they are gone.
In Disappearing Destinations, journalists Heather Hansen and Kimberly Lisagor visit such tourist hot spots with the hope of educating travelers about the beauty of these unique places and the threats they face. At each location, Hansen and Lisagor detail the degradation caused by people across the globe. The authors quote the usual suspects — scientists, park rangers, and scholars. But then the authors add to the mix anecdotes from travel guides, business owners, and inhabitants of the region.
I expected this book to overwhelm me with scientific facts and calls to action to save these places in peril. These elements are included in the book, but the authors kept me hooked describing the majestic landscapes and endless adventure possibilities. Not only did I learn about the vanishing beaches on the Canary Islands due to land erosion, I also discovered which islands to visit for local crafts and where trails connect remote villages seen by few outsiders.
The book offers standard travel guide information, complemented with information about how to visit without causing additional harm. If, for example, I journey to the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru, I now know to leave my walking stick behind so as to not chip away at the “intricate carved staircases.” And if reef exploration is what I fancy, then Karl Stanley and his yellow submarine can take me to depths below 2,000 feet on the southern edge of the Mesoamerican Reef as he monitors the shrinking coral and the marine life disappearing due to global warming and illegal fishing.
This kind of “eco-tourism” is one way that individuals can ensure that their travel is not harmful. The burgeoning adventure travel sector stresses the importance of educating their participants to act as stewards of the places they visit. Kurt Kutay, owner of Seattle-based Wildland Adventures, designs his company’s trips “to create those opportunities as much as possible.” According to Kutay, 95 percent of Wildland travelers donate money to conservation and community development where they visit. One group of Americans he led through Kenya donated $6,000 to restore a collapsed well, freeing the local women from a 12.5-mile walk through the desert for water.
If that kind of travel continues to grow, many of the destinations described in Disappearing Destinations could have a chance to recover and be restored to their original glory. It is no longer enough to just recycle your water bottles and turn off your hotel lights before leaving on an adventure. We need to be informed and mindful while visiting the many wonders of our Earth. In the authors’ words: “See it now. The world isn’t waiting.”
— Lilias Pettit-Scott
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