Anyone who has ever been locked in the sunny prison of a Caribbean cruise ship or beachside all-inclusive resort knows the depths of tedium and horror inherent in certain forms of tourism-being held captive thousands of miles from home with the very worst of your neighbors demanding a sanitized, waste-happy, imperialist travel environment void of any culture or color unless it wears a smile, carries an umbrella drink and exclaims emphatically “thank you mitah, sir.” Reports about the massive environmental damage and devastating social impact of these insipid vacations rarely surprises a soul anymore. However, many remain unaware of about the environmental, political and social damages caused by more sober, less blatantly officious forms of travel. Here is a list of exotic travel destinations that should be avoided unless very careful planning is undertaken to reduce social and environmental impact.
It is hard to think of a more enticing destination than Burma, the relatively untouched pristine beauty of Southeast Asian culture and scenery. Festooned with more than 4,000 sacred stupas dotting the Bagan plain, some of the world’s most breathtaking temples, a host of grand British mansions and colonial nostalgia, isolated and virtually unvisited traditional villages, unspoiled and empty beaches, and majestic mountain treks and river trips in a land where all that glitters is actually gold; and populated by a gentle, warm and humorous people. Few locations on earth are known to be as intoxicating and magical as Burma. At the end of the colonial era Burma was the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia. Today it is the poorest. Despite winning 82% of the popular vote and 87% of the parliamentary seats in 1988, the NLD party (National League for Democracy) led by Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from taking office and many of its leaders have languished in prison ever since. Burma is nearly devoid of ATMs, internet, computers, and cell phones. Tourists are forced to interact with the repressive military regime in order to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Slavery, child labor, forced relocations, heroin, teen prostitution, and human trafficking funded and built most of the tourist infrastructure that now generates nearly $100 million a year for the corrupt generals in power. As surreal as the beauty of the landscape and people is the horror of its politics.
As the War in Afghanistan nears puberty, few are likely to contemplate travel there. Forty-two nations still have troops in the country fighting for complex political and philosophical ideals against an uneducated and desolate group of traditional farmers and herders who have seldom, if ever, caught a glimpse of the outside world. Victory is sure to come before the beginning of the 22nd century. Before this war, Afghanistan struggled through nearly a decade of civil war, and before that a decade of war with the Soviet Union. However, the dense history, isolated mountain treks, and the complicated collection of cultures and peoples, still attracts adrenaline junkies and explorers eager to catch a glimpse of this graveyard of empires before the nation possibly falls ruin to another anti-western regime. Millions have already been raised to promote eco-tourism in the war torn nation, and tourism continues to rise. Unfortunately, the ‘democratic’ regime now in power is widely recognized as one of the most corrupt on earth. The United Nations ranks it as the second most corrupt government on earth-more corrupt even than Burma, but less corrupt than the lawless warlord run Somalia. The largest contributor to the nation’s GDP is government bribes. The second largest contributor to the economy is opium.
Nestled in the heights of the Himalayas, the mountainous nation of Nepal offers some of the best eco-tourism, splendid vistas, and spectacular treks imaginable. Buoyed by an increase in Chinese tourists, more than a half million visitors make Nepal their vacation destination every year with an average stay lasting ten days. Tourism helps create jobs and industry in a country with 45% unemployment. However it also brings with it waste and energy demands well beyond the infrastructure of the technologically backward nation. Travelers should be careful to tread as lightly as possible. In addition to the environmental impact, some engaged in the tourism industry are less than stellar individuals. Sherpas who fall ill or are injured on mountain treks are often left behind, while tourists are rescued by helicopter.
The ends of the earth have never been more accessible. In the last decade, the number of travelers venturing to the icy landscape free of a permanent population has ballooned from several thousand to nearly 50,000 each year. Travelers need food, supplies, accommodation, energy, and all the trappings of human life. In a sense, tourism is quickly colonizing the continent that until recently has been void of human habitation. Pollution and environmental degradation are of great concern to many scientists and governments around the world. Talks to restrict the number of visitors have begun, but so far nothing has been implemented. The lure of a one of kind adventure will no doubt continue to entice more and more visitors every year.
The earth no longer has a monopoly on vacation destinations. The latest adventure in eco-tourism is literally out of this world. Virgin Galactic has already sold more than $60 million in advanced tickets for their first flights into space scheduled for early 2011. In his 2011 budget, President Obama sets aside $6 billion to fund the privatization of low atmosphere space travel. The industry has quickly exploded and advanced tickets have dropped precipitously to less than half the original price among Virgin’s many competitors. Within five years space travel could cease to be a luxury of the extremely rich. However, surrounding the excitement of space travel are several ethical issues. The fossil fuels burned and the CO2 emissions generated by the superfluous joyrides into orbit are astronomical. However, new hydrogen based fuels that could render space tourism carbon neutral are already in the works.
CIA World Factbook
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The Space Review
United Nations Environment Programme
Friends of the Earth
Government of Nepal
The White House, Office of Management and Budget
Cool Antarctica, Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment – Tourism
Iris Knoop, Is it ethical to travel to Burma?, Responsible Travel.com
Alex Newman, Toursim in Afghanistan?, New American
Heidi Vogt, Looking for Vacation? Try Afghanistan, Associated Press
Leo Hickman, It’s not rocket science: leaving the planet costs the Earth, The Guardian
Dave Demerjian, Virgin Galactic’s Green Cred Up For Debate, Wired