This summer I went sailing in a yacht in Norway – on the Northern most coast of Europe where the North Cape lies. Visually it has been a mind-blowing endeavor. The colors up there are just brighter and clearer than I am used to.
I have travelled in most of Western Europe and in some of the Eastern European countries and I have been to the U.S several times. On my last U.S. trip I went to Hawaii – which I highly recommend everybody to do – it is paradise on earth and there is so much to do there as a tourist. In 2004 I went to Cuba for a month. I had just finished my masters in political science and needed a break. We went there for 4 weeks. It was an eye-opener to me as a political scientist to actually get a scent of what it is like to live in a Communist country. Another thing I have come to think about is that I had an authentic travel experience. Cuba back then was Cuba and there was not much done to entertain and suit the tourists. Most nights we used the so-called casa particulares – a kind of B&B where you rent a room in someone’s house and get to meet the family and dine in the living room. We ate lobster almost nightly because the sea provided, while markets were scarce for other foods. The trip to Cuba and our travels around the country still stand to me as a genuine/authentic visit to another country. I think things have changed since then – for good and for bad. Americans can now visit the country and the new leadership has let loose of some of the many constraints there used to be in relation to, for instance, setting up businesses.
What has that got to do with The North Cape, you might ask? A lot, actually. We sailed for 10 days, covering a few hundred kilometers of coastline. In those 10 days we saw five other boats on the sea (not counting fishing boats) – one of which looked like a non-commercial ship. That is not a lot. Finnmark Fylke is as big (or small) as the whole of Denmark where I am from, and only 75.000 people live there. It is not easy to estimate but about 200.000 people visit the region each year. They come mainly by the “Hurtigruten” or in mobile homes. I did see two or three tourist attractions in those 12 days we were there. An ice bar in Honningsvåg and a bird safari in Gjærsvar that had two trips a day in the season to visit a rock a little off shore with so many birds that you wouldn’t believe it. And of course there is the tourist facility on The North Cape itself which we actually didn’t go to because we were sailing and not driving. As our journey went along and I realized that it was just us in such a natural landscape, I again felt like a very lucky tourist getting an authentic experience. As with Cuba, however, there is a dilemma here. I feel lucky because our little group was more or less the only tourists we saw and there were not many tourist attractions to visit. There were A LOT of attractions but not with the purpose of serving tourists. So how can the region balance its desires for raising its income from tourists while protecting the region’s specific quality as a remote, honest and natural place on Earth? How can they do this while also balancing demands of tourist development on the ecosystems and people? I do not have the answer to that question. It may be simply a balance, but balance takes knowledge. There is much unknown about how increases in tourism may shift the ability to “live and experience life authentically.” A re-made ecosystem, such as is happening with the Red King Crab’s introduction and incorporation into both the Finnmark fishing and tourism economies, may transform local and visitor experiences alike. Maybe there is a form or a graph that can depict the ideal level of tourism in a place like that – I don’t know – I am not a researcher. I am just a privileged person to have visited the Northern coast of Norway and seen it as it is and not a version presented to tourists.
The question of balance between tourism demand and the preservation of landscapes, ecosystems, and cultures is indeed a very difficult one and therefore has, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of academics, policy-makers and business communities to a great extent. In the academic research on tourism development, economics and management, some of this discussion is led under the headline “last chance tourism”. I think, for many cases this is indeed a very appropriate term. As the Cuba example demonstrates, the country has changed quite a bit over the last decade and the chances to experience its culture as it was are more or less gone by now. But, could that process have been stopped? And would that have been desirable? I guess this is a matter of perspective. I have been born and raised up in former Eastern Germany, a socialist country just like Cuba. 30 years ago, travelling to this part of Germany was a totally different experience, too. However, neither tourists – like my relatives living in the Western part of Germany – nor myself and many other people from Eastern Germany, probably wish that this state would have been preserved, even though, every development, including the political and economic change in Eastern Europe, brings about good and bad novel aspects. Likewise, I would assume that Cuban people enjoy more freedom and Americans are happy to be able to travel there, while tourists from Europe or Asia might be somewhat sad that trips to Cuba nowadays are different.
However, there are of course many cases where the importance of the conservation issue might be more obvious, especially when it comes to the protection of ecosystems and the natural character of landscapes. “Last chance tourism” is in fact a double-edged sword. If people think that there is only a “last chance” to visit a place before its original state is gone forever, the place’s attractiveness is even more increasing. For example, all the media attention on climate change issues has dramatically increased people’s perception of the Arctic as a last chance destination resulting in increasing demand from tourists and related negative effects. On the other hand, increasing attention to regions as they are perceived as “last chance tourism” destinations, can also serve to raise awareness and visibility for a problem, and may therefore promote conservation efforts.
Bhutan is an example for a country that has adopted a very cautious approach for developing tourism. The government set a high daily tariff of 200-250 USD (depending on season) for tourists visiting the country, thereby implicitly controlling the number of tourists who can afford to come. Furthermore, each tourist must be accompanied by a certified guide and travel is always organized as a package. This also limits tourists’ ability to affect the culture and environment in Bhutan. However, Bhutan is a small, landlocked kingdom in the Himalaya Mountains of South Asia, where it may be relatively easy to control access. For much larger, and less regulated regions like the Arctic, an approach like this cannot be applied. Hence, other strategies need to be developed to ensure that the vulnerable area can both benefit from tourism while at the same time protected from negative human influence on ecosystems, landscapes, and cultures. Educating (potential) tourists is probably one thing that is necessary here and tourism stakeholders should start developing ideas how this can be done efficiently.
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