Monday, January 4, 2010

Smart Travel and National Geographic

Why is it so difficult to love the National Geographic Society? Most people would say that it is impossible NOT to love this global institution of journalism, nature, history and photography. They've been around a lot longer than me and certainly have done more for the world at large than I could ever accomplish. For me, though, the difficulty began with a growing sense that nearly every feature article in its flagship magazine comes with warnings about not going.

Uh..not going? How can a magazine noted for some of the most exquisite photography in the world warn travelers about the dangers of visiting a particular destination? What is the purpose of a magazine that routinely features the most exotic, long-forgotten and off-the-beaten-path locales on the planet if not to encourage willing tourists to see and experience the destination for themselves?

Three words jump out at the visitor to their website which sums up the society entirely: to explore, educate and conserve. Since its earliest inception in 1888 (!) the society has sought to understand our world, educate others about it and do its level best to ensure the treasures of nature and mankind are preserved for all to enjoy. The photography is award-winning, the journalism first-rate and the research impeccable, so what is my problem?

They don't seem to want me to go, that's the problem! Like so many around the world I rely on National Geographic to introduce me to forgotten history such as the empire of Timur the Lame or "Tamerlane" of Central Asia or the Etruscans of Italy. Pick any island or region in Greece and National Geographic will have a new article on some unique culture, empire or political movement based there. Yet with each find, with every discovery there is a caution not to tread on the precious soil.

Plants and animals have their own rhythm and are susceptible to life-threatening disruptions in foraging, mating, pollinating or recognizing threats if we disturb their daily routine. Over-fishing, poaching and land cultivation threaten stocks, ranges and the very existence of creatures the world over as wildlife competes with man for lebensraum. "Every new home, road or acre of arable land is one more defeat for Mother Nature from which she is less and less likely to recover" is the apparent message.

Civilizations old and new are not immune to the ravages of time and ignorance. Cleopatra's Needle, the obelisk at the center of Place de la Concorde in Paris is threatened by auto pollution as it stands in the middle of what has become nothing more than a traffic roundabout at the end of the Champs Elysees. Greece, Italy and Egypt are constantly unearthing ancient dwellings and artifacts and must decide how best to preserve them as they pave over their respective corners of the world in lock-step with the rest of the planet.

The ultimate for me was the amount of light pollution spoiling the night sky and blocking the view of the heavens from major urban centers. Light pollution!? What was Athens like 3000 years ago? Could a major city today take even one night out of the year burning nothing more than candles?

In the beginning world travel consisted of immigrants and conquerors. As recently as the 1950s tourism remained the playground of the rich and famous willing and able to spend days at sea, on trains and even flying to the far corners of Earth. Today few destinations on the planet cannot be reached in less than a day and for under $1000, making the work of the Society that much more critical for future generations.

There has to be a balance of some kind in preservation through smart tourism. It's not high on my list to visit the limestone canyons of Madagascar so the lemurs are fairly safe from me but I have wanted to see Samarkand and the rest of Uzbekistan since that article on Timur the Lame over 15 years ago. I'm sure the local economy would appreciate new tourism revenues as well.
I'm insatiably curious about the world around me and I'm also willing to learn how to visit a destination in as environmentally friendly a fashion as possible.

I further promise to try and leave no more than I have to behind.

Gotta go!

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