As Travelers, are We Obligated to Protect the Places We Love?
Congratulations! You’ve just won a trip to the world’s greatest travel destination. The catch (because there’s always a catch)? You leave now annnd…you’re parachuting in. That’s right, in a parachute. Sign these 12 release forms at the bottom – no need to read them, time is short – ok, you are ready!
The gear is packed, you’re strapped in, and as you nervously peek out of the corner of your left eye, the plane and you have, not so mutually, just decided to part ways. Below, an endless expanse. But, where are you headed? Is it the incomprehensible pyramids of Egypt? The fiesta of colors that is the Great Barrier Reef? Maybe the breath-stealing mountains of Machu Picchu? No. No, this journey is to an old haunt of Charles Darwin’s — the iconic Galápagos Islands.
What’s so special about this group of islands that straddle the equator more than 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador? Mr. Darwin’s work certainly comes to mind, as does a plethora of species found only here, on this tiny cluster of islands, alone in the Pacific.
Upon landing, your every step on the rugged terrain feels precious. The island exudes a sacredness, as if its creatures have existed since the beginning. You see a Blue-footed booby, and immediately question everything you know about birds, then stare in fascination for 20 minutes as a go-cart sized Galápagos giant tortoise slowly gnaws her grassy lunch. You are simultaneously shocked and thrilled. Inside your soul whispers: this place is special.
Heartbreakingly, this oasis of flora and fauna is under increasing duress, as are the other locales listed above. A combination of overtourism, environmental changes, and other human-induced causes are threatening many, if not all, of the places we cherish. Ironically, this is too perfectly exemplified as you stand in awe of the islet Bartolome. The allure of this stunning Galápagos setting has generated its upsurge in popularity, but sadly may also lead to its demise – as subtly evidenced by the tourist-friendly steps carved into the side of its now extinct volcano. Is anywhere safe from humankind?
This reality invokes a deeply personal, yet unavoidably public question:
As travelers, are we obligated to protect the places we love?
Of course, this only leads to more questions: Should we be compelled to act? Can our enjoyment of these almost otherworldly places simply be transactional?
“Paradise X provided one week of family fun, so in turn, we agree to donate one month’s salary to safeguard it.”
Our moral obligation can be debated until the islands of the Maldives are no longer habitable, but in actuality, the answer comes down to a simple yes or no.
The response should be yes. An emphatic YES!
As such, the work will start immediately and we should operate under two assumptions: First, the time to act is now. Second, we don’t yet know all of the solutions. This lack of knowing all the details, however, should not preclude action. Fortunately, this dire call has been met worldwide with bold determination:
- The Blue World Institute is leading the charge for the conservation of dolphins and various other marine species in the Adriatic Sea.
- The governments of Thailand, Italy, Peru, South Korea, and Korea, are individually implementing measures to protect against the overtourism of their popular destinations.
- The Ocean Clean Up organization has developed technology to remove much of the ocean’s plastic waste, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is an island of plastic twice the size of Texas.
- Chile recently added an astonishing 10 million acres of parkland to its protected national park system.
- Starting this year a project known as Loop will team with major brands such as Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble, and Nestle to significantly reduce or eliminate consumer waste worldwide.
But what are we to do as individuals? Opportunities do exist and can be uncovered (or created!) through thoughtful research and seeking out like-minded individuals who believe that travel can make the world a better place.
On a consumer level, an impactful action is supporting sustainable tourism. This means traveling with companies like San Diego-based Discover Corps, which has been recognized by the State of California for providing a social good through their Vacations with Purpose, designed for families and friends looking to do more with their vacation. In doing so, your spending will benefit our treasured destinations – the people and wildlife, the heritage and of course, the places themselves.
Make no mistake, travel is a centuries-old human behavior and on its surface carries no ill intent. But, the way we travel must change. This multi-billion dollar industry has the ability to uplift, enhance and foster positive change globally as opposed to its current model of consumption, exploitation, and decay.
Back on the island, your last few minutes before returning to the mainland are introspective: The places you love are magnificent. They are inspiring. But they are also fragile. And they are…our responsibility. We are all stewards.
As you take one final glance back to those magical islands, you realize: lasting preservation of the places we hold dear will resemble a trek in the Galápagos – with several questions, slight angst, and many unknowns – but yet, it is undoubtedly a worthwhile undertaking.