7 Ecologically Fragile Places You Shouldn’t Visit

The sight of emperor penguins and their chicks can be very heartwarmingIt’s tempting to think that seeing penguins in person would be even more amazing, which is why Antarctica has experienced a tourism boom — much to the continent’s detriment. This region of the world, like many other ecologically fragile sites, is best left alone and enjoyed at a distance through photographs, documentaries and reports from researchers working to protect it.

Humans are often the Earth’s worst enemy, especially when it comes to tourism. Inevitably, tourists leave a large ecological footprint between the resources they use to arrive at a beautiful place and the resources they consume while they’re there — tourists need food, lodging, medical services and more to enjoy their stays. Moreover, those who are passionate about the environment are sometimes ironically the worst for the environment, as they may traipse into forests, across beaches, and onto other regions that are incredibly fragile, destroying native plants and other organisms, disrupting animals, and infringing upon once pristine spaces.

In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver highlighted the problem in the case of Antarctica with a tongue-in-cheek segment, but the issues he profiled were very, very real:

While it’s tempting to hit some of the places on this list, given how renowned they are for their natural beauty, it’s better to leave your passport in your desk drawer instead.

1. Mount Everest

It’s one of the most famous mountains on Earth, and it’s become easier to climb than ever before. Thanks to extensive all-inclusive tourism packages, Everest has become a crowded vacation spot during the climbing season, and the consequences for the mountain are severe. The slopes are littered with garbage, particularly spent canisters from climbers using supplemental oxygen near the summit, and the area around the mountain has suffered severe environmental degradation. Everest is gorgeous, and summiting can feel like an amazing personal achievement, but fortunately there are numerous beautiful photos and documentaries about the mountain to enjoy, and you can stick with a personal achievement closer to home — like championing a local cause and seeing it through.

2. Coral Reefs

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by climate change, but also by tourism and related activities. The world’s reefs are suffering from damage by anchors, untreated sewage, garbage and damage caused as divers bump into or even deliberately break off pieces of coral. Visiting reefs in person can be a stunning experience, and a chance to see truly unique animals that may soon disappear from the face of the Earth, but coral reefs are also meticulously documented in a huge array of photographs and documentaries, including immersive three dimensional experiences. Instead, try visiting an aquarium that maintains an artificial reef for people to visit without disrupting the real thing — and while you’re at it, you can donate to reef conservation.

3. Antarctica

John Oliver is right — this region of the world is too fragile for an influx of visitors. The unique environment of the seventh continent has evolved over the course of millions of years, but visitors can undo those millennia of development in just a few hours. Oliver highlighted one of the most obvious sources of damage: visitors walking on fragile mosses and lichens, damaging them and disrupting the Antarctic habitat. Treading on land also harms the animal populations of Antarctica, and the resources involved in getting there are substantial; talk about an ecological footprint. Try snuggling in with March of the Penguins and a bowl of popcorn instead.

4. The Galapagos Islands

Long viewed as a fascinating and amazing destination due to their role in scientific history as well as their beautiful environment, the Galapagos islands are actually in danger from tourism. Island environments in general are extremely sensitive to human visitors, and because many host very small, fragile populations of plants and animals found nowhere else, once the environment is disrupted, it can trigger a ripple effect of extinctions. Those organisms won’t be seen again, which is a tremendous loss for biodiversity and science. Luckily, there are tons of books about the region (Origin of Species aside) as well as fantastic images, videos and more.

5. The Amazon Rainforest

One of the most famous ecologically sensitive areas of the world, the rainforest is host to a dizzying array of diverse plant and animal species found no where else on Earth. It’s amazingly beautiful, and visitors can see a rich array of terrain and environments within the region. However, tourism is becoming a growing threat to the health of the rainforest, as more and more visitors flock to the region in part because they want to see it before it vanishes forever. Even firms offering “ecotourism” and “responsible tourism” are contributing to the problem, though with a smaller environmental footprint. Try visiting temperate and less environmentally sensitive rainforests in other regions of the world, like the Pacific Northwest.

6. The Mediterranean

Humans have been living here for millennia, and they’ve been visiting it for almost as long. No wonder, because the temperate weather and beautiful environment make it a great place to be. However, the popularity of the region, especially along the shorefront, has created a growing tourism problem as communities overdevelop to meet tourism needs, encroaching upon natural habitats, destroying the environment, and clogging that once crystal-clear water with sewage, garbage, algal blooms and more. If you enjoy regions with a mild climate and laid back, friendly people, try California’s central coast, or bask in the wealth of photos, cookbooks and more from regions like Greece and Italy.

7. Yellowstone

The environmental integrity of one of America’s most venerable national parks is beginning to crumble as a result of tourism. The site has become a victim of its own popularity. Between tourists throwing objects in the site’s famous hot springs, substantial garbage generated by visitors, and the environmental impact of three million visitors annually, the park is struggling. Yellowstone represents a classic example of the tension between protecting and destroying a beautiful place. The park contributes substantial income and jobs to the surrounding region, it offers an unparalleled educational opportunity, and it reminds visitors to value the environment. On the flip side, those very visitors are disrupting the environment — so maybe it’s time to flip through one of numerous stunning coffee table books on the subject from the comfort of home.

Photo credit: Christopher Michele

98 comments

Anna R
Janine R2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Anna R
Janine R2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing

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Julia Oleynik
Julia Oleynik4 years ago

Thank you for sharing

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Julia Cabrera-Woscek

Leave no trace.

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Valentina R.
Valentina R4 years ago

All places I would love to see :-(
Eco-friendly tourism should be the only way but it's not so affordable.

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H4 years ago

Those places would be amazing to see but I couldn't do it just for these reasons. Granted, I have done the Yellowstone trek many years ago. Now it seems people don't care how special these places are and trash them. Mt. Everest used to be an event now it is an every day occurance. These places need our absence to survive not our presence.

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Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago

Not planning on going any of these places but I'm sure millions of others will.
Sad.

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Miriam O.

Thank you so much for sharing with us! Very interesting.

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell4 years ago

Thanks

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