Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: fragile treasures – should I stay or should I go?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay asks whether travellers should avoid the world's most vulnerable environments altogether © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Seen from above, the Great Barrier Reef is abstract art on a planetary scale: bars of sand, swirls of water and ledges of exposed reef combine to form a pattern as intricate as a henna tattoo. Beneath the water, it's yet more beautiful: a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours beyond imagining, if it didn't already exist. Little wonder, then, that Lonely Planet ranks it as the greatest natural wonder on earth (second overall on our list of the world's must-see sights, behind only the temples of Angkor).

But this is a fragile treasure – the coral that forms the 3000km-long reef has been deteriorating for decades. Every five years the Australian government agency set up to protect the marine park around the reef publishes a report on its health. Last year's edition – and its precursors – identified climate change as one of the greatest long-term threats; specifically, more frequent severe weather events, ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures and rising sea levels.

Vast yet vulnerable

It's hard to wrap your head around the thought that something so vast could be so vulnerable. And the environmental degradation here is arguably less obvious but more insidious than, say, the impact of visitors on Machu Picchu, the third must-see sight on Lonely Planet's list. In that case, the ever-increasing footfall is literally wearing the stone away before your eyes; alongside other less tangible pressures, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of visitors and preservation.

The Peruvian government has created a master plan to protect Machu Picchu, as has the Australian government for the Great Barrier Reef. But if you're a traveller deeply committed to shrinking your impact on the environment, the endangered status of such sensitive attractions might prompt a fundamental question: knowing what I know, should I go at all?

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef © JC Photo / Shutterstock Is it ethical to visit the Great Barrier Reef? © JC Photo / Shutterstock

Australia is a geographically isolated country – a flight from its nearest neighbour (Papua New Guinea) to Queensland (the location of the reef) takes about an hour and a half. But barely a trickle of international visitors arrive this way; the vast majority come from far further afield, sometimes a hemisphere away, releasing tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere en route.

If, for example, I were travelling from the UK, online calculators put the carbon footprint for a return flight to Cairns, the gateway city, at anywhere between six and eight metric tonnes. The ocean absorbs about a quarter of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the more it absorbs, the warmer it becomes; the warmer it becomes, the less it absorbs; that unabsorbed carbon heats the atmosphere instead, melting ice caps, raising sea levels, disrupting weather patterns. And so the great wheel turns and turns, more ominous with every revolution. So is the ethical choice simply to stay at home?

The double-edge sword

Reducing your air miles – your use of fossil fuel-powered transport of any sort, for that matter – is one way to shrink a carbon footprint. But what would a boycott achieve? The planes will fly with or without you. And while a sudden and substantial drop in the number of long-haul visitors to the Great Barrier Reef would cut carbon emissions, would its future really be safer without the multi-billion-dollar contribution of the two million-plus people who visited last year?

Tourism has always been, and will remain, a double-edged sword: yes, it can cause huge harm to the environment, but when practised responsibly it can also deliver the economic benefits that underpin sophisticated conservation and sustainable development. A responsible traveller doesn’t just stop going somewhere (although there is sometimes a case for limiting how many times you go). Rather, they make careful decisions before, during and indeed after a trip, choosing hotels and tours operators whose policies truly safeguard the environment; preferring locally owned businesses to multinationals; reducing the amount of waste they create; using public transport whenever possible... all of which and more aims to reduce their impact.

Perhaps the most ethical course of action then is not to forsake the world’s most fragile treasures altogether, but to ensure the money ends up in the hands of those genuinely committed to their long-term future.