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August 13, 2008

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DAVID'S DEN                               Disappearing Destinations



by David Zuchowski

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  • Book review: Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them
    Cautionary tales about disappearing destinations.
    Review by Dave Zuchowski

    One of the joys of traveling is becoming awestruck by a gorgeous vista or a wild, pristine and scenic panorama; to be enthralled by a visit to a remote, yet favorite hot spot such as China's Great Wall, Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal. Yet often, the very appeal of these places begins the cycle of visitation and degradation that threatens to eventually spoil and defile them.

    For a close look at how man's role as a consumer, builder and traveler is negatively impacting natural wonders, places of beauty and world-renowned cultural treasures, pick up a copy of Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them (Random House, 2008) by Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen.

    What makes the book so poignant is that the authors usually begin each chapter describing the allure, charms or unique attributes of the 37 places they chose to consider. The section on the Rio Grande, for instance, begins with an idyllic narrative by American author and environmentalist, Edward Abbey, who once took a pontoon boat ride on a section of river just outside Big Bend National Park in Texas.

    The authors then go on to describe the current condition of the 1,960-mile long river, which actually disappears under the sand just south of El Paso and flows underground for a couple hundred miles before reemerging at a point where the Rio Concho, flowing north from Mexico, nourishes its waters.

    The once great river is slowly shrinking, contend the authors, due to diminished rainfall, growing cities along its course and inept water management on the part of government officials.

    In Appalachia, mountaintop mining has already claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of forested terrain, affecting the rich diversity of flora and fauna found there as well as the human inhabitants who've developed a dynamic relationship with the ecology over scores of years of residence. As the mountaintops are being razed to get at their rich coal deposits, all forms of life are being impacted.

    "I came off a recent flyover, and I just had this thought flash through my head that this is what it must be like to view corpses," said Vivian Stockman, outreach coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "It really takes an emotional toll."

    Environmental degradation, it seems, is a global phenomenon and climate change has far-reaching repercussions. In Japan, the ancient city of Kyoto "is falling victim to developers, who are razing centuries-old buildings to make way for multi-story concrete apartment blocks," writes travel author Pico Iyer in his introduction to the book.

    In Oahu, a residential development hot spot, seawall construction is abetting beach erosion, rising seas are expected to swell another 20 feet by 2100 and are already threatening the Pacific islands of Tuvalu and the Maldives with inundation, warming oceans are bleaching coral reefs and a brown halo of smog encircles the Taj Mahal.

    Off the coast of British Columbia, huge excursion ships making the thousand-mile journey through the narrow channels of the Inside Passage are thought to be polluting the waterway with sewage, wastewater and toxic material.

    Across the globe, forests and glaciers that took centuries to form are fading away at an alarming pace due to development and global warming. Even remote areas are being touched such as Canada's Banks Island, 400 miles above the Arctic Circle, where aboriginal communities are reporting that non-native birds like robins and barn swallows have taken up residence and new plants are expanding northward out of their natural range.

    While the world's climate is seemingly in flux, one of the most highly publicized tourism destinations, Machu Picchu, is being impacted not by the weather but by the sheer number of tourists making the trek to the high mountains of Peru.

    Originally constructed to accommodate 1,000 inhabitants as the summer retreat of the Incan ruler and his entourage, Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and subsequently received a modest 9,000 visitors in 1992. Just 10 years later, that figure jumped to 150,000 and in 2005, an estimated 700,000 visitors trod over the site.

    Tourism officials estimate that visitation will grow between 15 and 20 per cent annually from here on out and bring with it the threat of damage to the stone houses, plazas and temples from hordes of casual or even careless visitors.

    While it may seem as though the authors are cautioning against an excess of visitors to this and other sites experiencing some of the same struggles, they are in fact merely suggesting that tourists be environmentally conscious and trod with a wary foot when visiting these all too fragile destinations. Be prepared and be aware rather than stay away appears to be their message.

    For those who might want to get involved in the efforts to sustain the viability of these world treasures, they've included indexes in the back of the book listing both responsible travel resources like Ecotourism Australia and Sustainable Travel International as well as regional advocacy organizations working to preserve the sites for the enjoyment of future generations.

    Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them, ISBN# 978-0-307-27736-7, available online at Suggested retail price: $10.85.

    Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for twenty years and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. Currently, he is the travel correspondent for the New Castle News, a daily in the Pittsburgh area. In his spare time, he also puts his horticultural interests to good use on his 15-acre farm located near Centerville, Pa.

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