The Rush to See It Before It's Gone

When Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a holiday was the last thing he had in mind. Who could have known that this classic tale about a failed writer dying of gangrene in the shadow of Africa's tallest mountain would spark a stampede? Every year, some 10,000 vacationers huff their way to the 19,340-foot peak that untold tour operators have flogged with Hemingway's words: "Wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." Now, thanks to global warming and deforestation, the snowcap is receding and could vanish within 15 years, scientists say. Soon travel agents may be spinning a new pitch: "Last chance to see the snows of Kilimanjaro." The vanishing snows are emblematic of a worrying new era, when no destination is timeless. Thanks to rising incomes and falling airfares, the number of tourists hit a world record of 806 million last year. Those hordes--combined with forces ranging from climate change to civil war, industrial toxins to runaway development--are laying siege to some of the world's most treasured sites. From the millennial gates of Machu Picchu to the moonlit waterways of Venice, we are in danger of losing places we thought were eternal. Visitors ride go-carts along the Great Wall of China and steal artifacts from the crumbling temples of Luxor. Stonehenge has been cordoned off. And many tourists are now booking to see sites while they still can. "There definitely is a rush to see and explore the world before it changes," says Matt Kareus of Natural Habitat, which operates excursions to Antarctica, where fast-shrinking glaciers threaten the photogenic whales and penguins.

Of course any rush to visit will only compound the problem. The world's most esteemed monuments are in danger of being loved to death, says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF). "Without proper management we can easily get out of control." Conservation International reckons that "unsustainable tourism" poses the main threat to half the cultural heritage sites in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to one in five sites in Asia and the Pacific. Cambodia's once remote Angkor temples now receive a million visitors a year; the Taj Mahal gets 7 million. China reported a staggering 1.1 billion visits by its citizens to domestic tourist sites in 2004.

Popular tourist destinations have also been hit in recent years by global warming, an epic tidal wave, tropical storms and war. The spate of disasters has alarmed the travel industry, the world's largest earner of foreign exchange. For the first time, the World Trade and Tourism Council (WTTC) will dedicate an entire session of its annual summit, to be held in Washington this month, to health and natural disasters. "Whether it's natural or man-made catastrophes, this is the reality," says WTTC chairman Vince Wolfington. "And more and more we're going to have to deal with it."

The alarm has been amplified by a growing flood of warnings about climate change. A United Nations study recently found that the number of annual catastrophes provoked by "extreme weather" and water-related emergencies has tripled since the 1970s, while economic damage has increased sixfold. By now everyone knows that Venice is drowning, but even such apparently untouchable monuments as the Tower of London and the adobe mosques of Timbuktu are said to be vulnerable, thanks to the flash floods and rising water tables caused by global climate change. Granted, these are worst-case scenarios: the WMF list of the 100 most endangered World Heritage sites includes the entire country of Iraq (due to war), New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina) and Mexico City (which is sinking into the earth due to the depletion of underground reservoirs).

The man-made threats, particularly from economic development, are more immediate. The tower at the Helsinki-Malmi Airport is a gem of 1930s modernist architecture, but if city developers have their way, it will be razed to make way for a 10,000-unit suburban housing complex. And Vesuvius may be the least of the worries facing Naples, a city of 1 million nestled in the volcano's shadow. Chaotic traffic has pumped so much pollution into the air that the façades of medieval buildings are disintegrating. Urban hucksters hurl up four clandestine buildings for every legal one, turning this U.N. World Heritage site into a boneyard of scaffolding. "See Naples and die," the Bourbons boasted during Naples's golden age. Skeptics have a new saying: "See Naples before it dies."

The good--and bad--news is that tourists come from hardy stock.

Just a year after the Asian tsunami swallowed hundreds of miles of South Asian beachfront, vacationers came streaming back. Archeologists and green groups blame the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric dam for destroying centuries-old cultural splendors, but Chinese sightseers line up to snap pictures from the concrete ramparts. Even the empty space where the World Trade Center towers once stood has become a tourist attraction. "We are all aware the world is more unpredictable," says Julio Aramberri, professor of tourism at Philadelphia's Drexel University. "But tourism is much more resilient than you'd think."

Managing the onslaught is now a subject of fierce debate. "Sometimes it takes coming to the brink of loss to make people recognize what they value," says Burnham. Listing endangered sites helps raise their visibility, but it can also backfire by attracting more tourists for a final glimpse. Steeper admission prices help, but favor the rich. Some experts are turning to crowd engineering, such as timed tickets, a technique that many museums and Disney theme parks mastered years ago.

UNESCO's World Heritage Centre channels money to safeguard sites, while the WMF works with local governments, civic groups and the private sector to restore imperiled monuments. By now it's apparent that travelers may be spooked, delayed or detoured, but not deterred. A world awash in tourists can be a curse for its endangered treasures or a source of funds to save them. Getting the balance right could be the difference between future generations' beholding the living wonders of the world or merely reading about them in a storybook.

The Rush to See It Before It's Gone | News