The ethical debate of whether tourism helps or hinders a community/country is one with no winner. Globalization has made it so easy for people to hop on a plane/train/ship and visit the other side of the world, and our digital age has made even more people want to do just that. I think it’s a great thing, overall. The more people travel, the more we will have a shared consciousness of understanding, and a greater appreciation for other.
But there are many downsides to all that traffic, including loss of culture, loss of language and, the primary focus of this post, the damage to sacred sites.
In 1972, the United Nations started UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to preserve historical lands and landmarks around the world. There are currently 1,052 properties on the list. Of those, 55 disappearing tourist sites are considered in danger.
But there are even more popular places at risk of being ruined due to too much foot traffic, too little regulation, trash left behind, or parts removed for “souvenirs” that haven’t yet been categorized as “danger” sites.
So the question remains…go now — before they’re shut down — or don’t go at all?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
While not officially on the “danger” list, Cuba has undergone a lot of changes recently, as you’re probably aware. With the lifted embargo in 2016 and lighter travel restrictions from the U.S., along with new flights being added from major U.S. airports, more and more Americans will soon be vacationing on the island. And since the most popular stop is hands down the capital city of Havana, it’s Old Town, referred to as Old Havana by UNESCO, is beginning to crumble. Quite literally.
Machu Picchu, Peru
In 2012 UNESCO told Peruvian authorities they would need to take “rigorous emergency measures to counter the growing disorganization” and build a barrier around the “Lost City,” which sits high in the clouds of the Peruvian Andes. With it’s growing popularity (it’s easily one of the most popular sites in the world) and the subsequent income, Peru has made it easier to get to Machu Picchu with a train for travelers and alternative routes, but since its first warning, UNESCO helped create rules to keep all tourists on one of three approved hiking routes, and only to allow 2,500 visitors to the ruins each day. These regulations are hard to maintain, however, when a site is one of the country’s largest sources of revenue.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The swampy lands of Everglades National Park has been on the list since 2010 and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere fast. Humankind is the culprit for a variety of reasons: building so close to the borders of the park; sugar cane factories siphoning its water; people introducing nonnative species to an ecosystem that is “the largest designated subtropical wilderness reserve on the North American continent” and is home to “over 20 rare, endangered, and threatened species,” including the Florida panther, alligator and manatee, according to UNESCO. The federal government has budgeted for restoration efforts in the park, but according to the L.A. times, “improvement has been glacial.”
Added to the list in 2014, the city of Potosi acts as something of a live-action museum for the silver mining industry. Sitting high on the Cerro de Potosi mountain this “Imperial City” was the world’s largest industrial complex in the 16th century. Complete with 22 artificial lakes used to create hydraulic power to activate the 140 mills to grind silver ore, an intact Spanish zone separated from the native zone by a river, and architecture of the era, UNESCO deemed Potosi a city worth preserving. Despite being on the “danger” list, authorities are actually calling for more cultural tourism to help grow the declining economy.
Old City of Jerusalem
A holy city where Judaism, Christianity and Islam coexist and thrive — sadly not a sight we see just anywhere — Jerusalem has drawn record numbers of tourists, and it appears to be ever increasing. In 2010 alone, Jerusalem attracted 3.5 million visitors. It’s been on the danger list since 1982, just a year after it was deemed a world heritage site. It’s Old City is home to 220 historic monuments, including most of the top sites that tourists want to see, and the task of conserving the area is a challenging one.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Still one of the most beautiful and memorable places I’ve visited, Angkor, Cambodia is an ancient city that was forgotten for centuries before an explorer stumbled upon the many temple ruins deep in the jungle outside of Siem Reap. They’ve since been preserved and though the Forgotten City was on the UNESCO danger list prior to 2004, it was removed after all the nearby landmines from the Khmer Rouge genocide were eliminated from the area. However, the many temples in the city, built with elephants and human labor, with intricate carvings and elaborate designs, risk dilapidation due to all the foot traffic and touchy fingers.
The Great Wall, China
Is the Great Wall vanishing? This is a question asked by many researchers. UNESCO hasn’t categorized it on the danger list, but The Great Wall of China – which was built to protect an empire – now needs protection itself. It’s been estimated that 30% of the wall has disappeared due to neglect, erosion and tourists taking home bricks for souvenirs. A wall that took 2,000 years to build and has lasted just as long is now at risk due to human…stupidity.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
A long-time draw for tourists to Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is known as one of the best diving spots in the world since it’s the home of one of the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystems. Though not officially on the list, UNESCO has warned that the reef is at risk due to climate change causing the ocean temperatures to increase and become more acidic. This could mean the reef will be “subjected to increasingly frequent bleaching events, cases in which corals turn white and may die,” according to a UNESCO report. If the coral dies, so does the ecosystem it supports.
Side note: If diving, your sunscreen can also kill the reefs, as will touching them with your flippers or by other means. Think before you dive!
Petra made the UNESCO list mostly due to its unique arhictecture – a city half built and half carved into the red sandstone hills between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Tourism has been consistently on the rise, and that means the city is at risk of slowly wearing away due to human and animal traffic. According to ArabianBusiness.com, Emad Hijazeen, the Petra Archaeological Park (PAP) commissioner, said “the site could be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger if certain criteria set out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were not carried out.”
If local contractors aren’t careful, we may not be able to tell people to go to Timbuktu anymore. Originally chosen by UNESCO for the architecture and historical importance of the three ancient mosques, Timbuktu is now on the danger list due to the city’s extensive urbanization. Modern structures have been constructed so closely that they threaten the integrity of the mosques. UNESCO has created safeguarding, sanitary and conservation plans to prevent the places of worship from “losing their capacity to dominate their environment and to stand as witnesses to the once prestigious past of Timbuktu.”
So the question remains, to go now or not at all? I’ll be the last to judge you either way. Hearing things like this makes me want to board a plane tomorrow and see what’s left of the wonders of our world, if only to imprint them to memory and take personal photographs to share with future generations.
If I do go to any of the ones I have not yet been (all except for Angkor and Havana), I’ll remember the slogan our American National Parks use – one which we should all remember all over the world: “Leave only footprints, and take only photographs.”
Have you been to any of these sites? Are you going soon? Leave me a comment below!