‘Last-chance’ tourists flock to sites before they vanish

By Maxine Joselow | 10/24/2018 07:30 AM EDT

“Last-chance tourism,” or tourism in places that are vanishing or being irrevocably changed, was first coined by Canadian researchers about a decade ago. Since then, it’s gained increasing attention as the world sees more visible impacts of climate change.

"Last-chance" tourists are visiting places like Glacier National Park before they're dramatically changed or destroyed by climate change.

"Last-chance" tourists are visiting places like Glacier National Park before they're dramatically changed or destroyed by climate change. mzagerp/Flickr

Shane Dallas has gotten up close and personal with a mountain gorilla.

The Australian photographer was bushwhacking through thickets of bamboo in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park when — all of a sudden — one of the rare creatures brushed against his leg.

"It appeared from the undergrowth, and I was on such a narrow path that I couldn’t move to the side," Dallas recalled. "I just stood there, and the gorilla literally just brushed my leg. It was an incredible experience. It’s one of my top travel experiences ever."


That was in 2008. Today, the gorillas’ population continues to dwindle.

As climate change leads to higher temperatures and more frequent droughts in Africa, humans are moving into the gorillas’ habitat. There are now just 880 left in the wild, and they remain threatened by habitat loss, poaching and disease.

Looking back, Dallas realizes that he was part of an emerging trend called "last-chance tourism." It’s defined as tourism in places that are vanishing or being irrevocably changed.

The term was first coined by Canadian researchers about a decade ago. Since then, it’s gained increasing attention as the world sees more visible impacts of climate change.

Many last-chance tourism destinations are in the Arctic or other far-flung locales. But they’re also closer to home.

Within the United States, Florida’s coral reef ecosystems offer a prime example.

The Florida Reef Tract is the third-largest barrier reef in the world. In recent years, warmer ocean temperatures have led to extensive coral bleaching, leaving the reef a white skeleton of its former self. Climate change has also contributed to more intense storms, including last year’s Hurricane Irma, which caused severe structural damage to the reef.

Kell Levendorf, an instructor at Rainbow Reef Dive Center in Key Largo, Fla., said he hadn’t heard of the term "last-chance tourism" before speaking with E&E News. But he wonders whether it explains a recent increase in visitors.

"We have definitely seen an uptick in the business," Levendorf said. "We’re more full than we have ever been. So is it a direct result of last-chance tourism? I don’t know. And I would hate to even use that in one of our marketing meetings. But it’s entirely possible that that’s the underlying, unspoken reason for that."

He added, "It’s a double-edged sword. It’s very bittersweet. It’s an increase in tourism, but not for the reasons we want."

Across the country, warmer temperatures have caused extensive melting in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Of the 150 glaciers that once existed in the park, only 26 remain today. It’s part of the larger expected disappearance of all glaciers in the Lower 48 states by midcentury.

"Anecdotally, our visitors tell us that they come to the park for a lot of things," said Lauren Alley, a spokeswoman for Glacier National Park. "Some people certainly say, ‘I want to come to the park to see the glaciers. I hear that they’re melting.’"

‘This idea can be alarming’

When Canadian researchers first began studying last-chance tourism around a decade ago, they faced backlash within the academic community, said Jackie Dawson, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

"It was a good decade ago that we were starting to think about this," Dawson said. "We were still having some debate about climate change. And we got a lot of backlash from people. Certain colleagues were quite critical of the idea and said we didn’t really have proof of it.

"This idea can be alarming," she added. "And in the science community, you don’t want to be too alarmist. It’s all about evidence."

Evidence arrived in 2011, when Dawson and her team published their first paper on the trend in the Journal of Ecotourism. The study explored the motivations of visitors to Churchill, a small town in Manitoba, Canada, best known for the polar bears that inhabit the area.

"Global environmental change is altering natural and built systems in many regions of the world, and such changes play a significant role in an emerging travel trend that has been labelled ‘last chance tourism,’" the paper said.

"In last chance tourism, tourism demand is based on the desire to see these vulnerable places and features before they disappear or are essentially and irrevocably changed."

Climate change is already altering some of the world’s most important historical sites. A paper published last week in the journal Nature Communications found that more than 90 percent of World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean are now at risk from sea-level rise and coastal erosion, from the iconic Venice canals to the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre (Climatewire, Oct. 17).

Other studies have explored a dark irony of last-chance tourism: It may actually be contributing to climate change by encouraging lengthy air travel.

Aviation is among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The industry is expected to produce 43 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide through 2050, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (Climatewire, Sept. 12).

"It’s just so ironic and so paradoxical that people traveling to these remote and vulnerable places are actually in many ways contributing to their demise," Dawson said.

"You could argue it’s a minimal contribution compared to big industry," she added. "If you’re comparing one person’s air travel to the oil and gas industry, it’s nothing. But there is a human factor, where we’re not always aware of our own footprints and our own contributions."

Since the publication of the initial 2011 paper, last-chance tourism has become more academically accepted, Dawson said.

"Some people use different terms, like ‘doom tourism,’" she said. "But I would say when it comes to climate change, ‘last-chance tourism’ is the agreed-upon term. I now have graduate students that contact me because they want to do their entire Ph.D. thesis on this topic. It’s now more known and widespread."

The climate report

A recent U.N. report has sparked renewed discussion of the trend. The report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030, or the world will see catastrophic consequences, including the total loss of Arctic sea ice and coral reefs (Climatewire, Oct. 9).

The report’s third chapter examined how warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would affect tourism and other businesses.

"Global warming has affected tourism and increased risks are projected for specific geographic regions and the seasonality of sun, beach, and snow sports," reads a summary statement for the third chapter. "Risks for coastal tourism, particularly in sub-tropical and tropical regions, will increase with temperature-related degradation (e.g. heat extremes, storms) or loss of beach and coral reef assets."

Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada who worked on the third chapter, said he was glad that language made the cut.

"With all the IPCC stuff, you’re so limited to your word count," said Scott, who has written several papers on last-chance tourism. "So you do have to pull out lots of things. But we were still allowed to keep a summary statement to draw attention to this."

But due to pressure from governments or business interests, official reports haven’t always included language about how climate change affects tourism, Scott said.

In 2016, the Australian government censored information about climate-related damage to the Great Barrier Reef from a UNESCO report, The Guardian reported. The government is now concerned that the Great Barrier Reef may be added to UNESCO’s "List of World Heritage Sites in Danger."

"The government of Australia does not like that sort of negative press related to tourism," Scott said. "The tourism sector as a whole is very image-sensitive. So they don’t want that type of material out there, even if it may actually lead to more tourism in the near term."

Dallas, the travel photographer who saw mountain gorillas in Rwanda, said he’s now been to more than 100 countries. He said he’s grateful to have seen places like the Great Barrier Reef, which may not look the same to future generations.

"It’s a pity there is a term called ‘last-chance tourism,’" he said, pausing to reflect. "It’s an acknowledgment that we need to manage these places better."