JThe Greek historian Herodotus is said to have compiled one of the first lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. These were man-made structures, including the still mysterious feat of ancient horticulture known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More recent times have seen natural alternatives to these marvels of classical architecture proposed: waterfalls, mountains, canyons, reefs. Spectacular landscapes, features and wildlife, and the fun and excitement they provide to visitors, are staples of tourism.
As environmental awareness has grown in the west, attitudes towards such tours have changed. Yes, it is exciting to visit remote forests or spot rare species. But traveling to distant destinations is carbon-intensive when flights or long road journeys are involved, and conservation can be made more difficult and aided by tourists. There is a balance to be struck, and governments and ethical businesses around the world are trying to maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms. Colombia, for example, recently introduced laws to promote sustainable tourism.
Most of us in wealthy countries where people take the most vacations understand better than ever that there are costs as well as benefits associated with exploration. One of six commitments offered by an environmental campaign launched last month, The Jump, is to “vacate local”, taking short-haul flights once every three years and long-haul flights very rarely. Luckily, the UK’s 15 National Parks, 86 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (known in Scotland as National Scenic Areas) and countless other landscapes without official status, but nonetheless valued, mean that there is no no shortage of special places for domestic nature. tourists to visit – while a host of European beauty spots are accessible by train.
A recent survey found that Windsor Great Park and Kew have become Britain’s most popular attractions, while Covid has created challenges for indoor spaces that don’t apply to outdoor spaces. Visitor numbers at wildlife trusts are high, with waiting lists for beaver spotting. Some companies that previously organized overseas trips have adapted to the pandemic by instead taking people to watch dolphins and other sea animals off the British coast.
This is not to minimize the destruction of nature that is also taking place. Wastewater outflows are out of control due to failed water industry regulations. The owners of a popular revived estate in West Sussex – Knepp – have warned that plans to build 3,500 homes next to their land will be catastrophic for the species living there. But as we face an increasingly dangerous environmental emergency, cultivating an appreciation for the nature around us is essential. In a way, vacation outings to see dragonflies, kingfishers or seals, or being surrounded by trees that are beginning to leaf, could help us focus on what matters.