This seems like Tourism 101, but I’m continually amazed when I come across places that don’t protect the very thing that makes people want to visit.
Last week I was at the Red Sea snorkeling in Soma Bay with my daughter. During just one hour in the water, I witnessed several scuba divers bumping into coral as they tried to film it (the underwater equivalent of driving while talking on a mobile), a German boy standing on the coral with flippers looking for his father, a Russian snorkeler standing on the coral to clean his mask, several snorkelers feeding fish, and a large yacht anchoring in the area by tying its bowline to a chunk of coral.
I pulled the snorkel out of my mouth and shouted to the Russian man standing on the coral. “Get off the reef, you’re killing it!”
He shrugged and signaled to me that he wasn’t yet finished cleaning his mask. I looked around for support from fellow snorkelers or a divemaster, but there was none.
In some areas of this popular underwater site, about 50% of the coral is already dead and broken, with more getting broken everyday. Investors at Abu Soma are currently rubbing their hands together to figure out how many more visitors they can squeeze into this popular snorkeling/diving bay. And there’s certainly potential for smart development. But if there’s almost no coral left, they may be losing money faster than they can build.
There’s a pretty simple fix. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it’s far better than doing nothing. I’m thinking primarily of the first two items of the list below. They shouldn’t cost a thing. Item #3 is a bonus for places that want to take things more seriously.
- Mandate that all divers and snorkelers watch a short video on the eco rules of diving/snorkeling and sign a form staying that they promise to obey them.
- Instruct divemasters and snorkel group leaders to remind their groups about this before entering the water.
- Place some “underwater park rangers” in the area for safety and to enforce regulations and hand out fines to those who break the rules.
The vast majority of visitors are happy to obey the rules and help support the protection of nature. But many don’t even know what the rules are.
I don’t mean to single out Soma Bay or Egypt. I’ve had plastic bags stick to my face while swimming in Brazil, seen batteries and other trash littering popular hiking trails in Indonesia and Nepal, and watched a popular windsurf spot put up hotels that blocked the wind of the very windsurfers they wanted to attract.
And then there’s another eyesore: overcrowding. People expect a crowded Times Square experience on New Year’s Eve. But they don’t want it on hiking trails in fjords of Norway or in America’s National Parks or just about anywhere else. Many popular destinations are experiencing enormous bottlenecks at key spots along the visitor experience. And as tourism grows rapidly, it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse.
For a bit more on this, please have a look at my TEDx Talk: How To Fix Travel