By Jim Sano, VP Travel, Tourism and Conservation, WWF-US
This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of WWF’s Global Arctic Program quarterly newsletter.
I’m often asked by WWF colleagues whether we should encourage travel to some of the world’s most iconic but very often fragile places such as the Arctic.
It’s an important question to debate among ourselves and with the world. Travel leaves footprints, not the least of which are the greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. The idea that wild places like the Arctic would be better off if we discouraged people from visiting them must be taken seriously.
But there is conservation value in allowing tourist access to Arctic wilderness and wildlife. In fact, it is imperative to a successful conservation strategy, as witnessed by protected gems such as Greenland’s Illulisat Icefjord, added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004. This protected status has spurred Greenland to institute new rules and legislation to educate tourists, better manage the site and protect traditional use of the area. UNESCO communications officer Ivalu Guldager says there is a need to balance tourism with preservation, protection and respect for local communities.
But who defines reasonable access? When does it become exploitative or damaging? Ilja Leo Lang, founder of iConsult, provides practical and operational services in Greenland and the Arctic and speaks for the expedition cruise industry in arguing for collaboration between indigenous populations, industry, government, conservationists and visitors.
Researchers and scientists underscore that stricter environmental regulations are needed because of the huge gaps in ecological protection. But eco-tour leader David Reid says it’s difficult to deliver a consistent product when each polar country has different rules, regulations, permits and laws. “As an industry we have to be aware that what we touch, we change,” he writes.
When I ask colleagues what sparked their interest in conservation, invariably their response – and mine, too – is inspirational travel: the time our family piled into the station wagon to see national parks; hiking with my uncle to fly-fish at his favorite trout stream; field trips to collect plant specimens; post-college shoestring travels abroad.
Memories like these were the common, formative experiences I recently shared with fellow travelers as we watched polar bears pacing the snow, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they could venture out on the ice and catch their first meal since spring. Looking into the eyes of one of these magnificent, threatened animals was thrilling in the moment, but it was also energizing as we returned home to continue our work helping to conserve the world’s wildlife and its nurturing environment.
The crucial balance between tourism, resource protection in the Arctic and other sensitive environments depends largely on recognizing conservation as inextricably linked to education and sustainable economic benefits for local communities. Intelligent, sensitively conducted tourism to and around protected areas is a powerful, long-term alternative to short-term destructive and exploitative forms of development. Tourism is one of the tools in WWF’s Global Arctic Program conservation toolbox. We brought together communities, tour operators, outfitters, tourism associations, governments, scientists and local conservation groups to create and advance the first Arctic-specific tourism principles and codes of conduct.
One of the wisest observations about travel comes from the great writer Jan Morris. “If you love some place hotly enough, consciously, with care,” she wrote, “it becomes yours by symbiosis, irrevocably.” There’s a lot packed into that statement. Responsibility, stewardship, and care arise from resonating with a place, its environment, and its people. There is a need to combine passion for a place with consciousness of its reality and needs. But in the end, we know it’s hard to keep that passion from a distance. We have to go meet the beloved place.