There Is No Right Answer
Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Bonaire, which is having an epic and unusual rainy season. It’s not bothering me, because clouds keep the temperature down, but I think the people who live here are finding it a bit worrisome. The mosquitos, of course, are having a party.
There is no right answer
Bonaire is the first place we’ve been since the pandemic started that is entirely dependent on tourism. It’s in a slightly better position than many Caribbean islands, because there is some funding from the Netherlands, but the only other industry on the island is salt production: the salt that your city uses to de-ice roads may come from here.
Tourism, of course, came to a screeching halt last spring, and has not yet resumed. The sadness on the island is palpable—business owners are desperate for customers, but the health care system here is incapable of handling a significant number of cases, and a lot of residents feel that reopening to tourists would directly endanger their lives. They’re probably right.
It’s a different twist on the dilemma Bonaire has been grappling with for a while now. Bonaire’s tourism is successful because of its glorious coral reefs. The waters surrounding the island were designated a national park in 1979, and have been carefully protected ever since. Unfortunately, the growth of mass tourism (and the arrival of cruise ships) in the last few years have been taking a toll on the very attraction that provides the island’s livelihood. Community conversations about the island’s future had already begun when the pandemic struck.
The current (and ongoing?) shutdown of the global travel industry is giving a lot of countries—not just Bonaire—an opportunity to rethink their relationship with tourism. Places where tourists go are popular for a reason. For quite a few years now, some destinations have been struggling with the numbers—Venice, Dubrovnik, Thailand. Others have been working hard to limit the damage—we were particularly impressed by the efforts being made at Machu Picchu. (Note: if/when you go to the historic Inca city, which is truly breathtaking, be aware that there are no toilets inside the park. That’s one way to ensure visitors don’t dawdle.)
When we were in Mexico in March, I read an article about a place in the Yucatán that I very much wanted to see—Bacalar (an apparently pristine, gorgeous turquoise blue lagoon)—but I had mixed feelings. I don’t want to break that fragile environment, but at the same time, if my tourist dollars will put money into the hands of a family that can’t currently afford to connect their home to the sewage system, & will therefore end up dumping their waste into the lagoon, which is the whole attraction of the place (in addition to being an ecological treasure), then would my presence be a benefit? I don’t know. I never had to decide, because we fled Mexico in a pandemic panic, but as we begin to look forward, with news of a vaccine on the horizon, I’ll need to revisit some of these difficult dilemmas.
The New York Times publishes an article every January that recommends 52 places to visit in the coming year. Obviously, the 2020 list was assembled pre-Covid, but it actually included (and discussed) several precarious places that might not survive without tourism:
“The most compelling reason to visit this biodiversity hotspot on the island of Borneo is to help preserve it. Every year, thousands of acres of pristine rainforest are burned down to make way for new palm oil plantations, but tourism could provide an incentive to protect these primeval jungles.”
Transylvanian Alps, Romania:
“There’s never been a more important moment to see and celebrate these forests: Despite the efforts of conservationists including Britain’s Prince Charles, who called them ‘a priceless natural treasure in a continent that has long since destroyed most of its wildernesses,’ logging continues, some of it illegal. Travelers coming in greater numbers could have a real impact, sending the message that these trees are worth more alive than dead.”
In our five years of travel, the Galápagos Islands are the best example we’ve seen of this dilemma: how do I justify my presence on those pristine islands? The naturalist who guided us says he reconciles it by telling tourists to be ambassadors for the place—but that doesn’t mean telling the world to go there; it means encouraging people to donate. Okay, I’m in. You should all go make a donation to the Galápagos Conservancy. We did.
But are you really going to feel the urgency if you’ve never seen it? And to see it, to really appreciate it, you have to go there. Watching David Attenborough (while an excellent introduction) just isn’t the same.
When we started nomading in 2015, I had grand ideas about how much lighter our presence on the planet would be. We won’t own a car! We won’t live in a single-family home on a big piece of land! We won’t buy lots of stuff! Yes, even then I was aware of how patently contradictory flying was to that idea; I had a complicated mental algorithm that made everything work in a way that I could live with, even as it ignored the blatant fallacy in my thinking. We humans tend to do that.
Sometimes (usually, actually) we don’t realize just how fragile a place is until we get there, and by then it’s too late; we’ve taken the flight, booked the room at the hotel that turns out to be owned by a wealthy foreigner, slept on the sheets that were washed with water that locals might’ve needed for drinking and agriculture.
The Galápagos are no different from any other ‘nature’ destination, in this particular regard. If we could all see the thing up close and personal (gorillas, giant tortoises, orangutans, lemurs, pandas, endangered hummingbirds), perhaps we’d be more conscious about the tiny daily choices we make. But if we all showed up in those fragile places, we’d break them in no time flat. The fragility is difficult to comprehend: a friend of ours went trekking with gorillas in Uganda, and one of the rules is that you can’t go if you have a cold. Because the gorillas might catch it from you, and get sick and die, and then there won’t be any more gorillas. The math really is that simple—sometimes.
Our entry fee helps support the Galápagos Park, so that’s a good thing. But our shoes might have mainland seeds on them that could sprout and grow and destroy a habitat that is found, literally, nowhere else on the planet. Or an accidentally-blown-overboard plastic bag could choke a fifty-year-old sea turtle.
A century and a half ago, sailors dropped off live goats on some of the islands, so they’d reproduce and provide a reliable food source for passing ships. Predictably, the goat population exploded rapidly, and began to edge out native species. The descendants of those goats have been successfully eradicated from some of the smaller islands, but their presence on the larger, inhabited islands is a potent reminder of how difficult it is to balance the most basic needs of humans with the more fragile places in the world. We all have to eat—the children who live on the Galápagos Islands have to eat, too—but some places are more difficult to repair than others.
What is there to say about the Galápagos? Everyone should go. No one should go. There is no right answer.
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