Last-chance tourism creates paradox for environmental tourists

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Many travelers have recently added another site to visit to their bucket list: Australia’s renowned Great Barrier Reef. Their motivation behind wanting to see this landmark stems from the wish to “see it before it is gone,” a notion now recognized as “last-chance tourism.”

Last-chance tourism is a phenomenon that has risen in recent years and is a thriving industry. Anna Piggot-McKellar and Karen McNamara from The University of Queensland define last-chance tourism as a “niche tourism market focused on witnessing and experiencing a place before it disappears.”

In simpler terms, it describes people who hope to see a location that is facing extinction or is near death before it dematerializes completely. This description is applicable to the Arctic, the Galapagos Islands, the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland and Glacier Bay in North America. For many, however, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is at the top of the list.

The Great Barrier Reef is home to an ecological community of 400 species of hard coral, 150 species of soft coral, 1,625 species of fish and 30 species of whales and dolphins. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

The Great Barrier Reef is the biggest living coral reef environment on Earth, spanning an extensive 2,300 kilometers from north of Bundaberg to above Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in 1975 and is overseen by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The Great Barrier Reef is a rare ecological community that is home to over 400 species of hard coral, 150 species of soft coral, 1,625 species of fish and 30 species of whales and dolphins. The area also encompasses mangroves, seagrass meadows and over 1,000 islands. However, the reef faces numerous perils, with the challenges consisting of coastal expansion, agricultural draining, tourism and global climate change. Coral cover has diminished in the past 40 years. The increase in sea levels and lower water conditions have harmed the Great Barrier Reef, leading to concerns about its destruction.

Tourism on the Great Barrier Reef is vital to Australia’s economy, contributing to 1.9 million collective visitors days in 2013 and 65,000 careers. Some industry observers fear that while the reef’s decay would be responsible for bringing in more visitors over a short duration of time, it could bring ill effects in the long term. With this information in mind, Piggot-McKellar and McNamara conducted a study that was split into several parts.

Polling 235 tourists at the Great Barrier Reef, the scientists first asked questions about the tourists’ age, gender, employment, education, excursions on the reef and the duration of their vacations. Tourists then answered questions to measure their degree of worry over the disintegration of the Great Barrier Reef. The analysis revealed that most travelers were female and hailed from Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. Many were couples, but others were exploring with friends. Of the respondents, around 68 percent said that their viewpoint on the Great Barrier Reef was influenced by the internet. Many had received a diploma or a bachelor’s degree and their main purpose for traveling was to discover new places.

The two scientists concluded that last-chance tourists were primarily older women who were well informed about the environment. On a scale of one to four, the tourists’ unease about the future of the Great Barrier Reef was a 2.82, which is compatible to just beneath very concerned. Just under 70 percent of tourists expressed a strong motivation to see the reef “before it’s gone.” Participants showed concerned about the deterioration of the reef, coral bleaching, coral viruses and global warming, while expressing only little to average concern toward tourism on the Great Barrier Reef.

Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

The paradox behind last-chance tourism is that carbon emissions and population force associated with traveling will further damage the already-crumbling site. A traveler’s journey releases emissions that provoke changing temperatures. Piggot-McKellar’s and McNamara’s examination demonstrated that voyagers do not associate their travel to the Great Barrier Reef with its destruction.

The Australian investigation stated that vacationers display a lack of awareness regarding their effect on the area they are visiting. The researchers proposed that travelers have an inadequate grasp of the consequences they have on the area they are visiting. The Journal of Sustainable Tourism suggests that by visiting a last-chance destination, tourists could be harming it more.