The last few years have been eye-opening for many travelers, as we’ve seen some of our favorite destinations struggle with the impact of climate change. Rising seas threaten some of our most precious places, from island beaches to low-lying destinations from Florida to Venice. Global warming is melting glaciers and parching deserts from the U.S. to the Galapagos, and fires are raging through old-growth forests and European vacation towns.
Although we’ve been talking about doomsday travel or last chance tourism for years, it was always seen as a niche part of the industry. Now it has growing relevance and urgency. It’s hard not to want to see the world before it burns.
For more than half a century, Churchill, Manitoba, has provided travelers the rare opportunity to see polar bears in their natural environment. Such tourism has become an essential component of the local economy.
Churchill lies in the Canadian Arctic, a sparsely populated region that is bearing an oversized impact of global climate change. Tourism undeniably contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that have raised temperatures and accelerated arctic melt. One aspect of tourism the United Nations monitors is airplane travel. In 2018, it found that domestic and international flights contributed about 2.4 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions.
A couple stands on an iceberg in Iqaluit, Canada
A growing number of those traveling to Churchill are coming because of the existential threat of the climate crisis, particularly the threatened extinction of polar bears. People are traveling to see the enormous (but often adorable) carnivores before they are gone.
Since 2008, queer researcher Jackie Dawson and her colleagues have been studying this phenomenon in relation to Churchill’s polar bear tourism. In a follow-up published last year, the researchers found that a decade later some things have changed in Churchill and some have not.
In positive news, although the carbon footprint of the bear watching industry has grown, the per person impact has been reduced, due primarily to the increased fuel efficiency of airplanes. The researchers also found that most tour operators now share educational information about the impact of climate change in their presentations.
Yet, even in 2018, while most tourists to Churchill acknowledged that climate change is negatively impacting the region, they expressed far less awareness that tourism (and particularly their own air travel) contributes to the threats faced by polar bears.
That is the paradox of last chance tourism. Travelers are aware of the threat that climate change poses to threatened places and are drawn to those destinations to see them before they are gone, but our very travel to those locations can cause further damage.
Yet, Dawson tells us, “It is not the small number of vessels visiting the Arctic that are causing climate change. The release of greenhouse gases is global and predominantly occurring in locations that are less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”
Interior of historic building during flooding at St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy
We can take two things from this. First and foremost, if we truly care about these places — not just to scratch off some bucket list — we need to address the larger sources of greenhouse gases. Now. We need to do everything we can at home to reduce our own carbon footprints and those of our neighborhoods, cities, states, and nations.
Secondly, there is a caveat in Dawson’s statement, and it hinges on a single word: “small.” Polar bear tours do not draw huge crowds, in part because of how remote the locations currently remain. Still, the number of visitors is increasing. And other threatened destinations are much easier to reach and more sensitive to the pressure of over-tourism.
Consider, for example, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which reportedly draws 2 million visitors a year. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism found that last chance tourists to the region were predominantly “older, more environmentally conscious females visiting the region for the first time.” Although these women were worried about coral bleaching from global climate change, they did not associate the fact that they had traveled great distances with threats to the reef itself. “That tourists do not associate their own travel to the reef with damage is part of the paradox of LCT,” the researchers wrote.
Those visiting the Great Barrier Reef in Australia can also wreak havoc on the reef by standing on or knocking into the coral, using unsafe sunscreen, and simply exposing the region to millions of human bodies and all the toxic chemicals we carry along with us (in our clothes, our gear, our waste).
In best-case scenarios, there are or will be laws, taxes, and best practices that reduce the impact of tourism on local environments, zero out an experience’s net carbon impact, limit the number of visitors, and make sure local communities see the economic benefits.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always happening, especially in some of the most vulnerable places, which may also feel the need to maximize tourism. Some destinations are making similar calculations that travelers are.
If a destination is going to be underwater in 25 years and tourists will no longer be drawn to a once-beautiful island beach or sinking city, then some may think it’s best to pack in as many visitors as possible now.
This leaves much of the burden to do right on the shoulders of travelers. It is ourresponsibility to do carbon offsets. It is our responsibility to choose tours that reduce their impact on the environments we visit. It is our responsibility to stay at eco-conscious hotels, to spend our travel funds in ways that benefit local (especially Indigenous, BIPOC, and/or queer) communities. If you don’t feel up for doing this research and calculation yourself, you may want to turn to a travel adviser for help.
Polar bears behind ice, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Since the most effective way to reduce the CO2 emissions of your travel is to reduce your fossil fuel consumption, one way to do that is to embrace slow travel, for example, by opting for a multiday train ride to Churchill, Manitoba, instead of flying into the area.
As gay-owned travel site The Points Guy notes, “If you do travel, you can reduce your footprint by taking vacations closer to home, flying nonstop when possible, taking a bus, train, or fuel-efficient vehicle instead of a short-haul flight, booking a flight on a more fuel-efficient aircraft, flying economy class instead of business class, or flying business class instead of a private jet.”
We can also demand that the travel industry do more to reduce its own environmental impacts. Many airlines are already taking their own steps to reduce the industry’s impacts through participation in the U.N.’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. According to blueskymodel.org, airplanes on average produce just over 53 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile. Offsetting allows you to provide funds to an organization that will counter-balance that carbon footprint by removing an equivalent amount of carbon from the system by planting trees.
Some airlines (including Delta, Alaska, Jet Blue, and United) already allow passengers to offset carbon from their flights for an additional cost. Critics of carbon offsetting argue the system allows polluters to feel better about emissions without trying to reduce them. And simply planting trees can fail to do what it promises, if, for example, they all die.
Despite these concerns, Dawson argues, “The net positives through tourism are far greater than the negatives.”
Out Traveler believes that as well. In this special section, we share more of Dawson’s thoughts on the ethics of travel, examine what it’s like to have once-in-a-lifetime encounters, reveal which threatened destinations we’re most eager to travel to, and offer ideas for how tourists can be part of the solution in protecting or restoring endangered habitats.
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.