Last-chance tourism: The boom, doom, and gloom of visiting vanishing destinations

post by : Noël Barnabé

Lemelin, H., Dawson, J., Stewart, E. J., Maher, P., & Lueck, M. (2010). Last-chance tourism: The boom, doom, and gloom of visiting vanishing destinations.Current Issues in Tourism13(5), 477-493.

The Great Barrier Reef, the Everglades of Florida, the ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro or the Maldives are all vanishing destinations. Some travel agencies and tour operators decided to use the vulnerability of these destinations to attract more consumers who want to see these places one last time before they disappear. This concept is called “last-chance tourism”; it is a niche tourism market where tourists explicitly seek vanishing landscapes or seascapes, and/or disappearing natural and/or social heritage. Promoting last-chance tourism can be a double edged sword. Indeed, tour operators will benefit economically from last-chance tourism in the short to medium term but the irony lies in the fact that long-haul air travel is often necessary to reach these remote locations and this means that tourists are accelerating negative impacts through the release of Greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, its success will eventually cause the destruction of the attraction. In 2009, a study examined empirically last-chance tourism in the Arctic in 2007 and found evidence that the majority of individuals travelling to Churchill, Canada for the purpose of viewing polar bears were strongly motivated by the stated vulnerability of the species and indicated that they wanted to see the bears before they disappear forever. In this context, the warming of the Arctic has provided operators with an opportunity to market their products as last-chance tourism and has contributed to a boom in tourism as travelers rush to see regions before polar ecosystems are irrevocably transformed. Natures doom is tourism’s boom. The polar bear industry evolved from a few vehicles and operators in the 1970s to the current infrastructure, which includes two main operators managing 18 vehicles and two tundra lodges, along with two helicopters companies. This is a strong market and the demand is not likely to decline in the short term. However, the long-term sustainability of this industry is precarious at best. The short boom from the doom tourism will, according to most long-term climate change predictions, end up in gloom. Among the polar bear viewing tourists there is a general understanding that humans play a role in influencing a changing climate and that polar bears will feel the impact of change. Even though, only a few people interviewed expressed their concerns regarding the polar bears. The majority would be motivated to visit the Arctic region and would also be willing to pay more in the future even if they would be able to view only a quarter of the number of bears they actually saw on a 2007 visit. If they were not guaranteed to see any bears of if the polar bear populations were to appear unhealthy, they would still visit the Churchill region. They would only stop if there were no bears anymore. Critics of last-chance tourism point out that while most of these trips are marketed as environmentally aware and eco-sensitive, they have little to do with sustainable tourism and relate more with “ego-tourism” and hyper-consumption. There is an absence of any discussion relating to sustainability, carbon footprint or socio-ecological justice in last-chance tourism. However, the emergence of this type of travel may bring opportunities such as the promotion of responsible tourism and numerous ethical questions that require immediate consideration. One of the most immediate one is the appropriateness of profiting in the short term from disappearing, dying, vanishing or irreversibly changed landscapes and species. Some destinations may opt to minimize visitor numbers by continually raising entry costs or by charging additional taxes. Additionally, the social contributions that travelers put back into the communities they visit may be considered before being granted visitation rights to a particular destination. The greatest contribution of last-chance tourism may be the creation of climate change ambassadors. Last-chance tourism, from this perspective, provides a unique opportunity to nurture environmental awareness for visitors to realise that they are the potential saviours of nature, not inevitably its enemy.