Newspaper and magazine stories and brochures are luring travelers to commune with nature in Bali, to snorkel with friendly sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, to explore sacred religious and cultural sites in Bhutan, to swim the beaches in India and to study the natural heritage of Costa Rica.
As a result, more and more of us are traveling to those areas. So many that we may be threatening their existence.
Recently, West German tourists on vacation to the beaches of Goa, India, were greeted at the airport by a group of professors, nuns and other concerned citizens bearing leaflets and placards. "Go home," the leaflets said. "Mass tourism is destroying our society."
Six hundred miles off Ecuador the Galapagos Islands have become saturated with tourists. Organized tourism to the islands began in 1970 with a cruise ship and about 60 passengers. Ecuadorean officials became concerned 10 years later when tourists numbered more than 20,000, and set a limit at 25,000 a year.
That number was breached, however, in 1986, when 26,000 visitors hit the islands. And it has gotten worse. During the first three months of 1988, 15,000 tourists showed up--a 40% increase over the same period the year before.
Antarctica at Risk
A similar trend is developing in, of all places, Antarctica. Each year about 2,000 tourists arrive in the remote areas near King George Island and Anders Island, as well as the area's northern tip.
But an oil spill from a tourist cruise ship last February, as well as a growing amount of garbage left by tourists, has led to calls for freezing out tourists entirely.
Last year 500,000 tourists invaded Bermuda. Another 6.1 million converged on Hawaii. How much tourism is too much?
Yosemite National Park provides more than just a glimpse of one of our great natural treasures. It's so filled with tourists that even getting around in the park, let alone getting a reservation, is difficult. Thus, some serious questions about the ethics of mass tourism need to be asked.
The statistics are staggering. The park has 2,300 campsites, 1,700 room accommodations, 40 water systems, 60 sewer systems and 400 miles of roads. Tourists to Yosemite produce 25,000 pounds of garbage a day. Obviously, the park is overcrowded. Its resources are being strained. And the future does not look good.
"The question is--can we show visitors a part of America the way it was when they come to Yosemite?" a naturalist asked. It's a tough question.
"The answers are even tougher," actor/environmentalist Robert Redford said. Redford recently served as executive producer on "Yosemite: Fate of Heaven," a one-hour documentary that will air later this summer.
"The situation is really quite depressing," says Redford, who also narrates the special. "This film was a sad venture for me, but an important one. People need to know what's happening to our environment, but I'm afraid we're a great country for turning our backs on some problems, especially when it comes to preserving natural resources."
The documentary is beautifully photographed, and juxtaposes the idyllic scenery with jarring images of tourism's manifest destiny in an increasingly mobile age. Yosemite is slowly becoming a focal point in the battle between preservation and promotion, tourism and the invocation of the territorial imperative to simply save a particular destination.
It is happening in Nepal, in Bhutan and in Bermuda. It is happening in Tibet, in Africa and in Hawaii--anywhere a fragile ecosystem and infrastructure is threatened by hordes of invading tourists.
For a while last year Bhutan virtually closed its borders to tourists in an attempt to protect the "religious integrity" of its shrines and temples from damage and disrespect that the country's leaders said was caused by unrestricted tourism.
Bermuda has imposed a limit on the number of cruise ships that can visit its harbors in any one year.
Nepal is fighting an internal battle against deforestation, which continues to supply its tourist trade with firewood.
Any travel industry guru will tell you that a tourist destination becomes successful when it can maintain the high numbers. But at what price?
Rights of Citizens
"We live in a democracy," Redford said. "Is it right to deny our citizens the right to enjoy the beauty of Yosemite? And how, then, do we manage this resource?"
In Redford's documentary he tells the story of the discovery of Yosemite and its subsequent development. During the Indian Wars of 1851 U.S. soldiers advanced into an unexplored valley in the Sierra Nevada. They were the first and last white men to see Yosemite unspoiled.
Says one naturalist in the film: "People just love Yosemite to death."
One of the problems, says Redford, "is looking at the environment being managed as a business, where marketing strategy is as much a part of the park as the people coming to see the environment. I first saw the park when I was 10 years old. I saw a very different park.