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11 Endangered Bucket List Destinations (and How to Visit Them Responsibly)

Climate change and overtourism make daily headlines now and are stark reminders that some of the most beautiful places in the world are at risk of disappearing. For many travelers, the natural response to this is “last chance tourism,” or a rush to see endangered places while they’re still here.

But before writing obituaries for these endangered destinations, consider instead taking actionable steps before and during your trip to keep them from disappearing. Here are 11 at-risk destinations and what you can do to help preserve them.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Teeming with biodiversity, beauty, and Finding Nemo references, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most impressive natural wonders of the world. Sadly, climate change and irresponsible tourism have placed a strain on this natural wonder. About half of the reef is estimated to have died since 2016.

What you can do to help: Switch to reef-safe, oxybenzone-free sun care products.

Where to stay: Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is secluded, peaceful, and on its way to being 100 percent sustainable by 2020.

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Venice, Italy

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The unfortunate poster child for overtourism, Venice struggles with pollution, overcrowding, and the mass exodus of its locals. It’s also slowly sinking. Fast and convenient water taxis are often the preferred mode of transportation for tourists in the city, but it’s these same water taxis that contribute to many of the issues facing this historic city. Moto Ondoso, or wake pollution, is an issue distinct to Venice in which waves corrode the city’s structure and put it at risk of sinking.

What you can do to help: Go the scenic route and walk or enjoy a gondola ride instead. 

Where to stay: Formerly a monastery, the 500-year-old Santa Chiara Hotel lets you experience the city like it was before the giant cruise ships came.

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Machu Picchu, Peru

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Machu Picchu survived the fall of the Inca Empire, but it might not survive tourists. After earning a well-deserved place as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the breathtaking archeological site continues to see an extreme surge in tourism. The groups that arrive en masse are not always at their best—leaving trash behind on the Inca Trail and even vandalizing stones. One detrimental behavior that even conscious travelers often engage in is not respecting marked trails. Stepping over the ugly rope seems harmless and gets you a better Instagram picture, but when millions of people do it, the effect is substantial.

What you can do to help: Stay within the marked paths to help preserve this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site. Or, consider visiting one of the similar but lesser-known “lost” Inca cities like Choquequirao instead.

Where to stay: An upscale ecological retreat far from the noise of Aguas Calientes and the commercialization of Cuzco, explora Valle Sagrado is committed to responsible tourism across the Sacred Valley and to Machu Picchu itself.

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The Florida Everglades

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Nicknamed the “River of Grass,” the Florida Everglades is a unique and largely underappreciated ecosystem. Having already lost almost nine of its 11 million acres, the Everglades is officially the most endangered national park in the United States.

What you can do to help: The most eco-friendly way to see the Everglades is a walk through the swamp. (Yes, a walk.) Photographer Clyde Butcher offers guided swamp walks that will have you wading waist-deep in the water. If you’re not ready to get so close to nature, a minimal-impact airboat tour might be your best bet. 

Where to stay: The locally-owned Ivey House is a stone’s throw away from the Everglades’ wilderness

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The Amazon

Spanning nine countries, the Amazon rainforest contains unimaginable biodiversity and hundreds of indigenous communities. But massive deforestation in the name of cattle ranching and mining is assailing the “lungs of the world,” threatening not just the Amazon but the health of the planet as a whole.

What you can do to help: When you visit the Amazon, choose a tour company that supports local communities most directly affected by the deforestation. Gondwana Ecotours, for example, works with indigenous communities to help them preserve their autonomy and customs. It also offers a carbon offset program for your flight to Ecuador.

Where to stay: Enjoy comfort in the heart of the jungle at Kapawi Ecolodge. 

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Though one of the most remote places on earth, Antarctica is on the front lines of the effects of climate change. Ice is melting at an alarming rate, and overfishing of krill threatens the region’s entire food chain.

What you can do to help: You should endeavor to have as little impact as possible when you visit, and one of the best ways to do this is to go cozy rather than big when choosing a cruise ship. Smaller ships have a smaller carbon footprint and produce less waste; they also allow you more time on land, since only 100 people are allowed on shore at any given time. On bigger ships, you’ll have to wait your turn. 

Where to stay: Though you’ll spend most of your nights on board, One Ocean offers on-shore camping options for travelers. They also use their vessels to help conduct scientific research. 

Borneo, Malaysia and Indonesia

While in Borneo, you’ll probably want to take in the beaches, hike Mount Kinabalu, and trek through the forest. In the past 30 years, the Bornean forest has been reduced by a third due to legal and illegal logging and palm oil plantations. The good news is that this is one example where visiting this endangered natural habitat can actually help the situation.

What you can do to help: Activists argue that spending money on park fees and sustainable tours will convince the government that preserving the forest is good for business, prompting leadership to support conservation efforts rather than the exploitation of the forest. 

Where to stay: Borneo Rainforest Lodge provides a five-star eco experience right in the middle of the rainforest. 

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Big Sur, California

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The extreme and somewhat unforgiving geographical conditions of Big Sur are also what makes it so breathtaking. The area has always been prone to heavy rainfall and landslides, but as climate change worsens, so do these natural catastrophes. To the dismay of lovers of dramatic landscapes and bohemian history, the scenic drive through Big Sur might not be possible in the future.

What you can do to help: Rent a hybrid or electric car for your road trip. The impact might seem miniscule, but if every one of the five million annual visitors who pass through Big Sur did this, it’d be anything but. 

Where to stay: Get scenic ocean and mountain views at the locally owned Post Ranch Inn.

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The Alps

Global warming strikes yet again, and this time the victims are the iconic ice caps of the Alps. With rising temperatures, ice throughout this European mountain range is melting. Since many towns around the Alps depend economically on winter sport tourism, they are resorting to covering the snow with blankets and overusing snowmaking machines. The problem is that these machines contribute to global warming, and trap the towns in a vicious cycle of trying to preserve their livelihood in a way that contributes to its destruction.

What you can do to help: Enjoy the beauty of the Alps in summer. You’ll get lower prices and also help tip the balance towards activities that don’t depend on manmade snow.

Where to stay: The Austrian town of Werfenweng is leading efforts toward sustainable tourism in the Alps with carbon-neutral vacation offerings. Stay at Hochhausl Pension to support these efforts; the views aren’t too bad either.

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The Great Wall of China

One of ancient humanity’s greatest accomplishments is endangered, in part, because people won’t stop tearing it apart. Whether to build other structures or to sell bits and pieces as souvenirs, locals are stealing parts of the wall and tourists are more than happy to buy them. The situation is so dire that almost a third of the wall built during the Ming Dynasty is gone.

What you can do to help: This one’s pretty obvious. Don’t buy parts of the wall.

Where to stay: Stay at Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu Great Wall to escape being rushed through the most frequented parts of the wall. 

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The Galapagos

If you visit the Galapagos today, you’ll still be able to see around 95 percent of the species Charles Darwin saw. However, scientists warn that if tourism continues to grow at its current rate, that might not be the case for long.

What you can do to help: Besides practicing common sustainable tourism practices like not feeding wild animals and staying within marked paths, you can also watch what you eat while traveling around the Galapagos. Overfishing and illegal fishing are endangering species like sea cucumbers, lobsters, and sharks. Avoid eating these and try to find restaurants that buy from artisanal fishers. If you’re really craving lobster, the WWF recommends buying it live rather than going for the tail. Doing this can increase the price, which raises profits and lowers demands on fishermen. 

Where to stay: Many people travel through the Galapagos on boat, but land travel is a great way to interact with the local community. Check out G Adventure’s land-based Island Hopping Tour and read more about how the company is helping sustainable tourism reach one of the lesser-known islands in the famous archipelago, here.

Stay at locally owned Galapagos Eco Friendly for a relaxed, no-frills experience.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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