An article I read last week in the New Scientist rekindled concerns I’ve had about the effects we as tourists have on the world around us. The piece highlighted the Altamira cave paintings in Spain and the fact that reopening them to tourism could in fact destroy the Ice Age artwork. The most famous prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux suffered a similar fate after years of mismanagement led to large scale damage of these remnants from the past. This made me wonder, what exactly is our impact as we travel?
This hasn’t been the first time I’ve had these thoughts. Wherever I travel it seems that endemic and iconic wildlife are always endangered and that tourists are trampling over sites considered sacred to others. I have a real concern that the rush to capitalize on the financial benefits of tourism may actually destroy the sites everyone wants to see.
Of course this isn’t a new issue, it’s been going on forever. What is new though is our ability to travel to remote and exotic destinations easily and quickly. This means that more of us can witness for ourselves these new found wonders and, in some cases, contribute to their speedy destruction. No, we aren’t the European tourists of the 19th century taking bits of marble from the Parthenon, but the hotels we stay in and the sites we tour suffer just the same.
I am not a hippie, eco-friendly or otherwise engaged in anti-industrialization movements. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the world around me and have a heartfelt desire to see it preserved. Last year, I touched on this subject as it relates specifically to the Galapagos. My trip there was life changing, it rekindled my love of conservation and preservation, particularly as I travel. I think it’s important for people to travel there not only to witness firsthand the wonders of the archipelago, but to aid in its preservation. That’s the double-edged sword when it comes to responsible travel. In many cases it is tourist dollars that go back to aid in the management and preservation of these places, but it is also our very presence that contributes to their desecration.
In 2005, Peru realized the problem of over-tourism at Machu Picchu and instituted a 2,500 person per day load limit. It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure it’s enough to protect it indefinitely. At the heart of this debate, it is our very presence that is the real problem. The best way to preserve sites around the world is to never, ever visit them. But these sites are also integral parts of our collective history and discovering them is in part what makes travel so great.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems the responsibility is twofold. It partly rests in the hands of the destinations and how they proactively manage the resource, but it is also incumbent on us as tourists to do our research and not contribute to the wholesale destruction of important sites. Just because sites like Altamira may be open to visitors doesn’t mean we should rush to visit them. As with all things, our patronage, or lack thereof, will dictate how others act.
What do you think? Is there a methodology tourists can employ to help in the conservation of these important sites?