What do the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, rising water levels in the Maldives, and the impending extinction of the polar bear all have in common? Last chance tourism. Tourists are flocking to witness the destruction of an ecosystem or the extinction of a species – welcome to last chance tourism.
Last chance tourism, or doom tourism, is a niche tourist market where tourists seek out vanishing areas or species. This market may raise some short-term opportunities for providers but could have some long-term risks and ethical challenges that also need to be considered.
Many travellers would jump at the opportunity to see something before it disappears and this may be a valuable marketing tool for operators in these areas. It is a unique selling point that will only become more unique over time as the area or animal becomes increasingly rare or threatened. In addition to bringing in important tourist dollars into the community, last chance tourism could also be an opportunity to raise awareness of conservation challenges and promote responsible tourism activities.
By seeing a polar bear first hand, a visitor may be more likely to establish a bond with the animal than they would do at a zoo and this in turn may encourage them to help with conservation efforts and reduce their impact on the environment. Seeing the impact of climate change first hand, may help tourists to understand that they are active participants in the world, not just spectators along for the ride.
This form of tourism definitely has its success stories. In New Zealand, for example, tourism led to increased awareness of the plight of the kakapo bird and subsequent funding for conservation efforts. Earlier this year, New Zealand announced the most successful breeding season since conservation efforts began almost 20 years ago.
There are, however, risks from last chance tourism. An influx of tourists to an already threatened area may accelerate damage, exploiting these species and ecosystems for short-term gains. This is compounded by the fact that many last chance tourism hot spots are in remote locations requiring air travel. A study by Lemlin, Dawson et al (2010) found that most of the tourists visiting Churchill, Canada to see the polar bears were travelling there by plane. Subsequent CO2 emissions were seen as contributing to climate change and accelerating the extinction of the same animal the tourists were trying to see.
Tourism operators may choose to consider the long-term implications of last chance tourism, reinvesting some of their profits into conservation efforts. Last chance tourism may be an opportunity for both tourists and providers to learn and possibly reverse the changes before it is too late.