Last-Chance Tourism Spurs Eco-Consciousness and Climate Change

The last-chance tourism market is booming. As many of the world’s natural wonders deteriorate and vanish, glaciers and coral reefs especially, people are urged to see them before it’s too late. Social media and tourism markets are massively influential in spurring wanderlust and driving our desire for travel.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a once vibrant coral reef busy with thousands of fish species, is suffering severe coral bleaching and loss of fish habitat. (Source: Jorge Lascar/Flickr)

Last-chance tourism is paradoxical. Tourists often visit remote destinations to take in the beauty and experience a place that may not be the same in the future. But in doing so, they are contributing to climate change, negatively impacting these destinations through carbon-intensive travel.

A recent study published in Annals of Tourism Research discusses the ethical challenges of last-chance tourism. Lead author Mark Groulx and colleagues examined tourists’ willingness to offset the environmental footprint of their travel by participating in carbon offset programs. The study is significant in understanding the role of place identity and attachment in this sector of tourism and the complexities around stewardship.  

Schemes are often presented as a voluntary fee. They allow travelers to invest in carbon reduction projects that balance out the carbon footprint of their travel. These projects could include carbon capture technologies or forest conservation efforts, as well as prevention of new emissions through investing in building wind farms and other green technologies. However, many tourists do not engage in offsetting schemes with rates of engagement below 10 percent for most popular tourist destinations.

The team compared two locations in Canada vulnerable to climate change: polar bear tourism in Churchill, Manitoba and glacier tourism in Jasper National Park. Polar bear populations are well known to be threatened by climate change. The call to save these beloved animals is a key selling point by activists in combating climate change. Warming directly impacts glaciers, and many of the world’s most important glaciers may disappear within the century.

Churchill is famous for its polar bear viewing, which has grown significantly since the 1980s. Birding, beluga whale watching, aurora borealis viewing, and dog sledding are also popular activities. Polar bear populations are in decline as seasonal sea ice diminishes especially during summer. According to a previous study, the Churchill polar bear population could become extinct in as little as 30 years.

Three polar bears enjoying some sun in Churchill. (Source: Trevor Bauer/Flickr)

Jasper National Park is one of the most heavily visited parks in Canada with a total of 2.33 million visitors in 2016. According to the authors, the Athabasca Glacier is a considerable tourism draw at the park. It hosts a number of visitor infrastructures such as the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center. The glacier, however, continues to retreat from climate change. Historical photography referenced in the new study reveals that the Athabasca Glacier receded approximately a kilometer between 1917 and 2006.

The survey conducted at the two sites was designed to measure visitors’ willingness to participate in carbon offsetting. Visitors were asked if they were willing to participate in carbon offset schemes, and if so, how much they were willing to spend. They were also asked how concerned they were about climate change: extremely concerned, concerned, or not concerned. Since the researchers knew that many visitors were unfamiliar with carbon offsets, they provided a simple explanation in the survey. Data was collected from visitors who engaged in glacier or polar bear viewing activities. They amassed a total of 267 surveys for Churchill and 396 for Jasper National Park.

Researchers found that visitors at Churchill were significantly more concerned about climate change than visitors in Jasper National Park. A greater percentage of people were willing to buy carbon offsets. Churchill visitors were also willing to pay far more for carbon offsets than JNP visitors, with a mean of $166.03 (Canadian) compared to $54.99 from JNP tourists. Those from both sites who were willing to purchase offsets also had a much greater sense of nature relatedness, place identity, and place attachment than those not willing.

Snow crawlers transport tourist up and across the glacier before returning to the lodge at Jasper National Park. (Source: diffuse/Flickr)

A review of 66 studies suggests that a stronger sense of place attachment and identity may foster climate change concern, which might influence travelers to engage more in carbon offsetting schemes. One explanation for the difference between Churchill and Jasper National Park tourists is the attraction of polar bears. Polar bears are considered to be a “highly-charismatic mega fauna” and are seen as the international mascot for climate change. People are able to connect more easily to the plight of these cute and endangered animals, and they are much better at capturing public attention and promoting emotional involvement relative to physical landscapes.

Although travelers produce a substantial carbon footprint through last-chance tourism, it may help bolster the sense of place attachment and identity that encourages tourists to engage in carbon offsetting. People sometimes build personal connections to places they visit, and this value they put on locations may lead them to take meaningful action to preserve them. Tourism is one of the most effective methods to getting people to engage in offsetting schemes. Once we develop an attachment, we are more likely to take on a responsibility to caring for the destination and contributing to environmental wellbeing.

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