How are sustainable tourism and a long-ago trip to Greece related? It probably seems like a stretch. Forty years ago there was no such thing as sustainable tourism because there weren’t enough tourists to cause concern about their impact on historical artifacts or vulnerable ecosystems. In fact, I don’t think the word “ecosystem” was in our vocabulary back then. But, as I’ve been recalling some of our trips of the more distant past, it’s occurred on me that several places we visited then are no longer quite as open to tourists. There are just too many visitors to allow them all to touch or step on treasures that can’t be replaced. And here’s the reason why:
Look at how many of us are travelling now! And as great a story as this is – and it is wonderful that so many people are getting to see the world and meet people from elsewhere, there are consequences. One of those consequences is the unavoidable deterioration of precious historical and natural monuments when so many people want to experience these wonders.
Our first introduction to Greece was illustrative of the difference between then (1969) and now. Our Greek trip hit many of the same highlights we’d seek out today, but our budget-friendly transportation and accommodation options did add a heightened sense of adventure. Fortunately, we were young. We boarded a charter flight from Stansted Airport north of London late at night and flew on Bulgaria Airlines to Varna, Bulgaria. Let’s just say that this plane exemplified the word “utilitarian”. At some point in the middle of the night we landed and were met by our fearless (and very attractive) leader/driver, Vic, and our wheels for the next two weeks: a van that could hold our tour group of 12, Vic, the occasional attractive young woman Vic encountered, plus our kit, sleeping bags, and trusty air mattresses. He explained that we didn’t need to put up tents – the dew wasn’t falling – so we unrolled our sleeping bags on the spot of ground he took us to, crawled in, and fell asleep. When we awoke a few hours later to a bright sun, we looked out and saw that we were on a beach, with the Black Sea lapping at the shoreline about 15 feet from our sleeping bags.
As the map above shows, we took the “leisurely” route to Athens and the Peloponnesos, providing us with the bonus of seeing something of Bulgaria and the northern tip of Turkey before even entering Greece. Our trip was a terrific combination of seeing a great variety of landscapes, a range of fishing communities and inland villages, world-renowned antiquities at Athens, Epidaurus, Corinth, and Mycenae, 3 days of water-skiing at our campsite in Nafplion, and a few days on a fishing boat with a fisherman and his family, visiting the islands of Hydra and Spetses. Camping without having to put up tents and eating all our meals in tavernas wasn’t hard to take.
What’s different about the trips we took in our youth and ones we’ve taken in later years? For one thing, in our youth we were far more accepting of spartan accommodation. This was a good thing, since it made it cheap enough for us to travel. But another difference results from the reality that the world keeps changing; what you experience at one time can be dramatically different than decades later, just as it can in our own “backyard”. Looking at our old pictures from Greece (which seem like yesterday), I am reminded of another big difference. Sure, more than 40 years have passed and everything is far more modernized. Sure, the standard of living of most people is higher. Political tensions have changed: Bulgaria is a member of the European Union instead of being within the sphere of the Soviet Union; Greece is also a member of the EU, and has new political issues. But, as well, as the graph above vividly shows, there are far more tourists. And to ensure that the archeological sites we were able to enjoy with abandon way back then remain in good shape for succeeding generations, access has had to be reconsidered. The same situation exists for other fragile sites, natural sites as well as archeological. For example:
Parthenon, Athens. When we visited in 1969, we could walk all over it. This changed in the 1970s when a reconstruction plan was started. This project is still ongoing.
Stonehenge, England. When we first visited Stonehenge in 1968, there was no fence around the site at all. As a matter of fact, a farmer was milking one of his cows in the field immediately adjacent to the site. There were no special signs leading to the site; when my mother visited with us she was convinced that we must be heading in the wrong direction because the lack of road signs. It wasn’t like it was a new tourist attraction; it was an ancient site that had always been there. Needless to say, that low-key, easy access has changed. The stones have been roped off since 1977, druid festivals have been controlled, and new visitor centres and car parks are in place.
Chichen Itza, Mexico. We were fortunate enough to visit the amazing ruins at Chichen Itza during March Break in 2006, just a few weeks before the main temple, the Temple of Kukulkan, was closed to climbing and to visiting its chambers. To be honest, climbing the stairs was challenging and coming down was actually scary, so I think closing it was a good idea purely from a safety point of view. However, the bigger issue was that, as with so many antiquities around the world, an ever-increasing number of footsteps were wearing down a magnificent monument that has been there for many centuries.
Machu Picchu is vulnerable, the tigers in India are vulnerable, and close access to the animals in the Galapagos is under scrutiny. There is a long list worldwide and it is bound to get longer.
These are just some examples of decisions that need to be made to ensure that travellers can continue to enjoy these marvels without putting them at risk. The goal of sustainable tourism is to find win-win solutions, with people enjoying the world’s natural and historical treasures, the local regions benefiting from a healthy tourism economy, and the world’s environment and treasures remaining preserved and respected. Tourism can only thrive in a world that keeps its eye on sustainability.
Map credit: parikiaki.com