The Ongoing Debate of “Last Chance Tourism”

Desire to see endangered destinations and species is making an impression

The Great Barrier "Heart Reef" in Australia
Mint Images / Getty Images

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In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism revealed that the decline in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef's health had been motivating more and more travelers to visit. Concerns that coral bleaching and ocean warming would limit future chances to experience the reef motivated tourists to travel there before it was too late. The research found that just under 70 percent of tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef were most motivated by their desire to “see the reef before it’s gone.”

According to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, marine tourism at the reef supports 64,000 full-time jobs and contributes over $6.4 billion each year to the local economy. Still, the ecosystem is experiencing widespread coral bleaching and continues to be threatened by coastal development.

By 2018, Forbes had named “last chance tourism” as one of the year’s top travel trends, citing an increase in traveler desire to experience unique, vulnerable destinations and greater accessibility to travel by a growing middle class.

The Tourism Paradox

Most travelers have a bucket list—a wanderlust-fueled wish list of all the destinations and attractions they want to see within their lifetimes. If you suddenly learned that the window for visiting your dream destination was closing and in danger of decline (or even destruction), would you feel a sense of urgency to get there before it's too late?

Travel and exploration foster priceless personal growth and human connection comparable to little else. When we travel, we can step out of our usual comfort zones, develop invaluable cultural understanding, and really just puts life into perspective. As one of the world’s leading industries, tourism also accounts for sustainable long-term economic opportunities to local communities and can even provide important social or conservational value to destinations.

However, the balance between tourism and the environment can be tricky. In some cases, especially in sites where natural fragility is characterized by pollution, increased tourism can pressure the places already in danger. As the destination or species becomes endangered, demand to see it increases and attracts more visitors. If tourism isn’t managed sustainably or travelers don’t act responsibly, this increase can cause further damage (making it even more endangered and attracting more tourists). In a destination reliant on the pull of seeing it before it's become a shadow of its former self, the question arises: Is this type of tourism is actually helping or hurting in the long run?

The psychological rationale behind this sort of tourism paradox, which is sometimes referred to as “doom tourism,” is not lost to economic theorists and experts. It all comes down to the “scarcity principle,” an area of social psychology where humans place a higher value on objects as they become rarer and a lower value on those in higher abundance or vitality. Simultaneously, the perceived contribution of a given individual lessens as more people visit a high-risk destination; tourists ask themselves if their presence really makes a difference if so many others are already coming anyway.

A group of polar bears in Churchill, Canada
Marco Pozzi Photographer / Getty Images

Downsides of the Trend

Canada's Churchill, Manitoba, is one of the last tourist-friendly places to see wild polar bears in their natural habitats. For a period of about six weeks during the fall months, polar bears are found along the shores of Hudson Bay near the town; the animals congregate in significant numbers as they wait for temperatures to drop low enough for sea ice to form. This abundance of polar bears has made Churchill famous, with several companies offering adventure excursions to see the elusive bears as well as bear-focused accommodations and luxury day tours. In fact, a 2010 study conducted there provided one of the earliest and most widely-used definitions of last chance tourism: “A travel trend whereby tourists increasingly seek to experience the world’s most endangered sites before they vanish or are irrevocably transformed."

In Churchill's case, climate change is the biggest driving motivator for tourists who want to witness the vanishing polar landscapes and disappearing species before they’re gone. Somewhat ironically, tourists almost always need to travel long distances to view polar bears, which increases the carbon emissions believed to contribute to climate change and the disappearance of the animals they’ve come to see. While last chance nature-based tourism accounts for massive seasonal contributions to the local economy in the short term, researchers fear that long-term economic promise simply isn’t sustainable. The study revealed certain destinations would be forced to minimize visitor numbers or introduce visitor capping and raise entry costs to safeguard their natural assets.

Glacial landscapes are among some of the most common destinations affected by last chance tourism. Certain icy attractions are at risk of declining in tourist value as they become less attractive due to rapid glacial retreat. This can be detrimental to the natural environment and reflect a loss in local communities' important tourism revenues.

The famed Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand represents one of the main tourist attractions for the country's South Island. Like many glaciers, especially the most accessible ones, climate change is the greatest challenge for Franz Josef's tourism. The glacier itself retreated more than 1.5 miles between 1946 and 2008, shrinking an average of 127 feet each year. By the year 2100, scientists predict that Franz Josef Glacier's ice will reduce by 62 percent. The mass of stones and sediment naturally carried down and deposited by the glacier has increased, upping the risk of ice collapse and falling rocks in tourist areas. The glacier is melting so quickly that helicopters are the only way for tourists to access the bulk of glacial ice. In contrast, guides could previously lead tourists onto the glacier by foot.

Across the world, on the ancient volcanic Mount Kilimanjaro, known for being the highest mountain in Africa, disappearing snow has given rise to more visitors. However, the industry is under threat as tourists will likely stop coming once the snow and forest cover are completely lost. In the tropical Galapagos Islands off of Ecuador, about 170,000 tourists visit each year to see the array of species (some endangered) found nowhere else on earth. The UNESCO World Heritage Center has listed increased tourism as one of the main threats to the islands, despite the government’s strict controls of planned tourist activities and visitor limitations.

Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli
Byrdyak / Getty Images

Are There Any Benefits to “Doom Travel?”

While economic value remains the most substantial benefit to tourism, last chance tourism presents a few specific factors to its own defense. One argument is that last chance tourism provides an educational element that other trends do not; by allowing the public to view the effects of climate change and pollution first hand and in person, they may be more likely to change their environmental perspective. Increased interest in visiting “doomed” destinations may also increase ecotourism, and sustainable travel since those who value ecologically vulnerable destinations are more likely to want to protect them.

The same 2016 study of the Great Barrier Reef found that tourists who identified as “seeking a last chance experience” were also more environmentally conscious with a higher level of concern about the reef's overall health. They reported the most concern about coral bleaching and climate change in regards to reef health, but only a moderate to low concern about tourism effects.

Last chance tourism often contributes both money and publicity to unique conservation efforts. The over two million annual visitors who participate in nature-based tourism at the Great Barrier Reef also support funds to monitor, manage, and improve the reef's resilience. Full-time field officers conduct surveys of reef health and impact and its vulnerable species like turtles and coastal birds; the information helps the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the local Parks and Wildlife Service to target conservation efforts or implement effective management strategies to protect vulnerable areas. The program also supports cultural and Indigenous heritage plans to protect or restore significant sites around the reef.

As travel becomes more accessible, tourism is bound to increase. In 2019, there were 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals recorded, a four percent increase from the previous year. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism is still expected to have grown in 2020, representing the tenth consecutive year of growth in a row.

The projected trend calls even louder for the responsible management of our most vulnerable tourist destinations. Plenty of tourism authorities have last chance tourism on their radars, but it is equally important for individual travelers to implement sustainable practices into their travels. Before even booking a trip to a last chance tourism destination, it is helpful to research ways to have less impact on the environment there.

Zurab Pololikashvili, the UNWTO secretary-general, believes that the tourism sector remains reliable even in the face of economic or environmental hardships. “Our sector keeps outpacing the world economy and calling upon us to not only grow but to grow better,” he said while presenting the 2019 international tourism growth results. “The number of destinations earning $1 billion or more from international tourism has almost doubled since 1998,” he went on. “The challenge we face is to make sure the benefits are shared as widely as possible and that nobody is left behind.”

Article Sources
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  1. Journal of Sustainable Tourism. "Last chance tourism and the Great Barrier Reef." August 9, 2016

  2. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. "Reef Facts." Retrieved March 17, 2021

  3. Lemelin, Raynald & Dawson, Jackie & Stewart, Emma & Maher, Patrick & Lück, Michael. "Last-Chance Tourism: The Dark Side of Arctic Travel." June 2010

  4. Advances in Climate Change Research. "Integrated impacts of climate change on glacier tourism." June 2019

  5. Halima Kilungu, Rik Leemans, Pantaleo K.T. Munishi, Sarah Nicholls & Bas Amelung. "Forty Years of Climate and Land-Cover Change and its Effects on Tourism Resources in Kilimanjaro National Park, Tourism Planning & Development." January 22, 2019

  6. United Nations World Tourism Organization. "International Tourism Growth Continues to Outpace the Global Economy." January 20, 2020.