Tons of trampling tourists

Jean-Michel Cousteau

October 22, 1990|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

PERHAPS it is human nature that compels us to press our footprints into a bank of freshly fallen snow. Perhaps it is our instinct to want to savor something entirely new and leave a marker behind. Perhaps, as we leave our footprints throughout the world, we satisfy an inner urge to declare our presence where few have ventured before.

But untouched places are increasingly difficult to find. Exploration has evolved into tourism, and tourism into crowds. Many tourists today complain that the paradise they sought was "spoiled" by too many people, too many cars, too much of what they had hoped to leave behind.

Tourism works in an inescapable cycle. Guidebooks and travel brochures trumpet the latest so-called "undiscovered" places which, like so many places before them, in their turn become "discovered" and mundane.

Today, in a world woven together by jumbo jets and high-rise hotels, millions of us are on the move, seeking something new, yet often demanding all the comforts and permissible behavior of home, exhausting the very qualities we seek.

Tourism has become one of the world's largest industries, employing 56 million people and accounting for 25 percent of all zTC international trade in services. Tourism receipts internationally are expected to reach $3 trillion by 1996, according to a study by Business Quarterly.

With such vast income at stake, no nation can be expected to forgo the tourism option. But the boom-bust effect can be very dangerous in the long term, particularly in fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and islands. Some places we can actually love to death.

Recently in the Pacific, during a dive off a sheltered coast which, by virtue of being protected, attracted thousands of visitors a year, I saw 4-foot-long fish gorging on food tossed from barges by enthusiastic tourists. The fish soon became sick. They rammed their heads against the reef, then vomited the contents of their overstuffed stomachs.

It was a very sad example of good intentions gone totally wrong. I know that not one of these visitors, had they witnessed what I saw underwater, would continue to toss cheese puffs to eager, open-mouthed fish.

Tourism has forced some nations to adopt a strange system for valuing the natural world. In Kenya, a 1987 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggested that, because of tourist revenues earned from wildlife-loving visitors, the value of a lion could be calculated at $27,000 a year; an elephant herd at $610,000.

Even the most mighty of creatures, the whales, have had tourist price-tags placed on their heads. In the warm waters off Maui, where humpbacks breed, they surface to an audience of whale watchers sometimes reverently observing at a distance from quiet boats, but also sometimes hovering as near as possible on roaring hydrofoils or jet skis.

Cultures, too, are vulnerable to the pressure of tourism. At a banquet in Fiji just last month, where tourists mingled with local people, I watched very well-intentioned visitors horrify Fijians by walking across rattan mats that had been carefully laid out on the floor. Since we would eat from these mats, in keeping with local custom, walking on them was tantamount to walking on the top of a table. The hosts were too polite to comment, the guests too ignorant to apologize.

Steps can be taken to protect wildlife and cultures from excessive tourism, and also enhance the travel experience for those who venture to faraway places. Local tourist bureaus should adopt a "code of ethics for the visitor" so that tourists can be forewarned of offending or destructive behavior and advised on how to best preserve natural attractions.

We all need to become "ecotourists," leaving a place as pristine as it was when we encountered it. When on the move, as at home, we need to avoid waste of water, electricity and gasoline.

As ecotourists, we can also begin to demand respect for ecological and cultural integrity from airlines, cruise lines, hotel chains and tour operators. We can ask the hard questions when we book trips, such as, "What does your company do to support the local environment that you promote?" or, "Are you using environmentally safe products and methods?"

All of us deserve and need vacations, travel, a break from routine. And tourism is a great educator, a powerful tool for intercultural understanding. But regardless of how many miles we cover, we cannot escape the pressures created by increasing numbers of travelers taxing increasingly fragile resources.

If we stamp haphazardly through the world of new experience, soon all we will encounter will be the marring tracks of the uncaring who came before us.

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