My mother wasn’t a fan of fairy tales. Her idea of a bedtime story was an anecdote about her travels through central Italy, circa 1960. I drifted to sleep with images of an American ingenué discovering the Piazza San Marco and the sleepy hilltop idyll of Perugia.
Fast-forward a half-century, and that Italy is no longer recognizable. Venice real estate has become so valuable that most of its population has moved away, leaving a gorgeous theme park of hotels, tourists, boutiques and museums. Perugia is the center of an international tabloid scandal, its still-lovely historic center riddled with paparazzi and ringed with ugly suburbs.
Of course, the great Italian cities will always be wonderful destinations for their incomparable history, art, and beauty. But global mass tourism has taken its inevitable toll, and visitors are no longer able to experience the most popular towns as the living, breathing, evolving places they once were.
I wondered, which destinations will be next to succumb to the transformative impact of mass popularity? And a related question: Which natural wonders should be made a priority for perservation before they vanish?
In the second category are many of the world’s spectacularly icy places. Alarms have been sounding for years regarding the melting polar ice, and large swaths of Alaska are reportedly greener than in the past.
If you love skiing, though, head to the Alps right away. Some of the world’s most popular resorts lie amid the mountain glaciers of Switzerland, France and Italy — Chamonix, Courchevel, Zermatt — and according to scientists, they are seriously endangered by global warming.
While plenty of other ski spots are going strong, the resorts of Alpine Europe offer what is for many people an unbeatable combination of distinctive cuisine, sophisticated small towns and breathtaking landscapes. The Alps also have the advantage of proximity to numerous cities like Geneva, Lyon, Turin and Milan, so a sporting vacation can include a bit of urban culture — something that can’t be easily said for many ski spots in North America.
The Smithsonian Institution has a list with a few intriguingly endangered destinations many people have never heard of. The Dampier Rock Art Complex, for instance, is a peculiar collection of 20,000-year-old petroglyphs etched into the volcanic rocks on an island off northwestern Australia. The combination of ancient cultural sites and an otherworldly landscape make this place a compelling retreat from the modern world. But, according to the Smithsonian, rapid industrialization is encroaching and threatening to degrade the delicate topography.
Culturally endangered places are sadly common, as waves of tourists overwhelm small, quaint spots. The latest victim, by many accounts, is Prague. When the Eastern Bloc opened up for tourism in the early 1990s, the Czech capital — with its stunning architecture and distinctive Central-European culture — was the first destination to be discovered by international crowds, and it quickly morphed into a capital of cool. Today, its historic center is frequently overwhelmed by tourists, and its popularity and rising prices have prompted many former residents to move to the suburbs.
Two other destinations formerly behind the Iron Curtain — Croatia and Hungary — are on the endangered list. Europeans have known about Croatia’s impossibly gorgeous Dalmatian coastline for years; the historic cities of Dubrovnik and Split and many of the nearby beaches offer an enticing blend of culture and tourist infrastructure that may be approaching a saturation point. Now is the time to explore.
Further down the same coast, tiny Montenegro is placing its economic bets on luxury tourism. But today the country is still cheap, the culture very local, and the Adriatic beaches just as lovely as those of Italy. If you’re looking for a slice of unpretentious, rural Mediterranean society at a bargain price, go now — before $300-a-night megaresorts take over.
Budapest, hailed by many as the new Prague, has its share of tourists, but it is still large enough — and remote enough from much of Europe — that its Hungarian identity remains distinctive. It is one of few Eastern-bloc cities with a well-preserved historic infrastructure that is largely unblemished by Socialist architecture, and its prices are gentle. Once word gets out, it could well suffer the overpopularity that plagues Prague.
Cartagena, Colombia is also on the list. For years synonymous with drug-ring violence, a newly safe Colombia has lately emerged as one of the hottest destinations in Latin America, and the historic walled city of Cartagena is its touristic jewel. Already, hordes of curious Europeans are descending, cruise ships are docking and prices are rising. Mass tourism could easily overwhelm a city this small in scale, but so far, it hasn’t.
Then there are sites, many of them listed on UNESCO World Heritage, that face danger from multiple sources — environmental, cultural and structural. An example is the historic walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan; on the major trade route through Central Asia, Baku is where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures mingled in the Middle Ages and afterward. Yet earthquakes, poor preservation, and urban development are serious threats to its medieval infrastructure. The recent earthquakes in Southern Italy, Turkey and — of course — Haiti are sobering reminders of how temporal even the most timeless places really are.
But visit them and you’ll likely have fascinating stories for your children someday.