For the experienced traveler, the idea of finding a largely unexplored place that still retains its authenticity is a goal that often goes unachieved. Though there are many places in the world that remain largely untrammeled, it is often due to their inaccessibility and undesirability, and not the hidden secret of being the most ideal, and unexplored, of destinations.
With so much of the world’s surface already discovered, and many locales becoming a mecca for tourists with their extensive history and modern appeal, it’s no wonder that many popular travel destinations have been stripped away over time, dissolving into more of a historic monument for consumption than a dynamic, ever-evolving destination. While the culture of certain places has been slowly eroded by tourism, other places are experiencing severe environmental threats and being physically eroded by the legions of travelers that visit each year.
The city of Venice, replete with its network of canals and the gondolas to traverse them, has become more of a stomping ground for tourists than a functioning locale, while the historic site of Machu Picchu, located high in the Andes of Peru, is showing the ravages of age from many years of visitors. Though more sustainable tourism and the protection of many sites has led to hope for the future, some of the following prominent destinations are in danger of losing what has made them such a magnificent draw to visitors, and an irreplaceable treasure for the world to behold.
As one of the most popular destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling in Mexico, the island of Cozumel sits just off of the Mayan Riviera and close to the vacation centers of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. While the area is pleasing enough with its white sand beaches and turquoise waters, the main draw for visitors to Cozumel is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that sits just off of the island’s coast, offering tourists a chance to explore one of the most remarkable reefs in the world. Stretching more than 1000 kilometers past the coastal areas of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, the reef is home to a staggering variety of coral, sponge formations and unique species of sea life like nurse sharks and stingrays. While tourism booms because of the popularity of the reef, Cozumel has suffered due to its status as the second most popular destination in the world for cruise ship vacations which has led to warming water and more powerful hurricanes that wreak havoc on the reef’s vulnerable ecosystem. Though initiatives have been launched to control the impact of mass tourism on the reef, it is still seeing the effects of a changing sea climate.
Built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, Angkor Wat stretches for more than 400 kilometers in Siem Reap, Cambodia as the largest religious monument anywhere in the world. With a name that translates to “temple city”, this important archaeological site is said to represent Mount Meru in Hindu mythology and features more than 40 monuments to Cambodia’s rich past including the Phnom Bakheng temple, one of the site’s most vulnerable structures. While Angkor Wat has experienced damage in the past at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, the onslaught of tourists the site has seen in recent years has led to the breakdown of the stone staircases and the slow erosion of sandstone carvings, both of which are largely unprotected. Though there are companies that offer eco-tourism of Angkor Wat and utilize more sustainable travel methodologies, the blight of commercialism is rapidly overwhelming the area from the shopping malls to the golf courses that sit right beyond its borders, not only dwarfing the authenticity of the monument but also bringing in ever-larger numbers of visitors.
With a name developed from the Quechua dialect that reads as Machu Pikchu, with machu meaning old person and pikchu meaning peak, Machu Picchu refers to a mountaintop site located in Peru’s Urubamba province. Unknown and undiscovered until the American explorer Hiram Bingham visited it with the Quechuas in 1911, the site, located approximately 2430 meters above sea level, is among the most well-known landmarks in South America and is visited by scores of tourists each year. Believed to have been built around 1450 for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti, Machu Picchu was built in the classic tradition of the Incas, only to fall out of favour after the Spanish Conquest when Lima became defined as Peru’s capital. Though many of the original structures have been restored and reconstructed to give visitors a sense of the site’s past, it has been negatively impacted by severe weather patterns, tourism and the process of aging. Machu Picchu has likely received more visitors since being included as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, but its current vulnerability has also forced UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to contemplate putting in on their World Heritage Sites in Danger list.
The Great Barrier Reef
Often accessed from the city of Cairns in Australia’s Queensland province, the Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the country down-under’s greatest attractions but the largest reef system in the world. Made up of more than 2900 separate reefs and stretching for a distance of 2300 miles in the Coral Sea, the presence of the Great Barrier Reef and its wide assortment of sea life are so prolific that its vast stretch can be seen from outer space. While the reef is a significant tourist attraction for scuba divers and snorkelers who want to spot the uncommon (and often endangered) sea creatures that live within its ecosystem, it is being negatively impacted by both tourism and the effects of climate change. Though the reef is protected by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and considered a World Heritage Site, there are significant fears that the species and ecosystem that gives the reef its uniqueness could disappear with the way pollution, natural disasters and rising water temperatures have led to coral bleaching.
From the gondola-traversed canals to the glory of St. Mark’s Square, Venice has an attraction that far surpasses its small-scale size and is among Italy’s most charming tourist destinations. As the capital of the country’s Veneto region, the Italian city is made up of 118 islands that are linked through a network of bridges and canals, which sit atop the Venetian lagoon, though much more precariously these days. With more than 60,000 visitors to the city each day, cruise ships that have made Venice their top destination pose one of the most significant dangers to the city, leading to tides that are further eroding the foundation of the Venetian structures and standing quite noticeably against the quaint charm of the city. As well, with approximately 60,000 inhabitants in the city’s historic centre, the mass tourism has caused many locals to flee the city entirely, taking with them much of the authenticity that remained a part of the local culture. While Venice’s economy is highly dependent on tourism for its survival, the quantity of it is making the city a tourist’s town and leading to the further decline, and perhaps dissolution, of the true Venice.
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