Nature travel: imagination vs. reality

I also live in the Pacific Northwest, and to me mule deer are city creatures. They don’t signify wilderness in the least. This is because I grew up in Port Townsend (a smallish town near Seattle) where deer are everywhere. My observations.

I can’t really answer the primary question, because I don’t travel often and when I do it’s never for the primary purpose of observing nature. I will consider it next time.


I work in a national park in a developing nation, running a conservation project here to assist with biodiversity conservation and critically endangered species conservation. This is an “ecotourism” area and I’m heavily involved in the conservation and impact side of it, and have spoken at conferences about the impacts of ecotourism and help to advise the ongoing discussions regarding the expansion of the nearby World Heritage Site.

I’ve worked on 3 continents and spent time in 2 more, much of that involved with conservation activities.

I have to say that the the overwhelming majority of cases around the world the current ecotourism model is about as far from actual ecotourism as it is possible to get.

One of the problems is that the idea people have in their heads when the word “ecotourism” comes up is the exception, the places where it actually is working (eg, Serengeti, Rwanda, some of the US National Parks and Wilderness Areas, etc) and that massivly biasses their ideas as to the effectiveness and reality of ecotourism globally.

The places where it works are ones where there is absolute control over how many people come, where they can go, how long they can stay, and what they can do. There also needs to be financial transparency, direct benefit to local people, and long-term commitment from the national down to local governments, as well as by local people. The places where that happens are vanishingly rare, yet they receive the majority of attention when it comes to discussions and perceptions of ecotourism.

In nearly every other place “ecotourism” is just regular high impact tourism that is being greenwashed by slapping the “eco-” prefix on everything.

If you’re interested I can provide a set of reference papers and resources detailing how badly ecotourism and nature tourism has failed to live up to its advertised potential around the world.


Hmm, eye opening for sure, and even maybe disillusioning,

I guess, I maybe more interested In criteria allowing me to discern valid and supportive eco tours from potentially harmful tourism.

Unfortunately, that’s far less clear and is extremely difficult to do unless you’re on the ground and are looking at each specific situation in detail. The information you’d need to make that assessment is often not available at all unless you happen to know people working in the area.

Even then there is the question of whether the activities are sustainable in aggregate for an area even if the individual agencies you’re looking at are adhering to your criteria in and of themselves. An individual resort, tour company, etc may be being “responsible” but if the area as a whole is getting more visitors than it can sustain, then it doesn’t really matter how responsible that individual organization is being as the aggregate number of visitors is simply higher than the environmental capacity of the area.


Wow, thank you everyone who replied. I guess this discussion resonated with a lot of people.

No. Mainly I think of no expanses of habitation. As in, you look at a map in a travel guide that shows a road going out to a town that it calls “remote.” What the map doesn’t show is that all along that road there are nearly constant clusters of settlement, with largely agricultural landscapes in between. Not my idea of remote; I had been imagining a road through wild, deserted country, with the “remote” town like a forest outpost. Actually, I seem to recall a travel guide using that descriptor – “outpost in the jungle” – for a city that was anything but.

Which goes completely against the idea of wilderness, as expressed by e.g. Aldo Leopold or John Muir, or, dare I say, Edward Abbey. I have been put off from visiting many, many places precisely because of those requirements.

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Well, you have to understand a few things about “wilderness” and the assumptions made about it by those folks and others.

First off, the idea of “untrammeled wilderness” is a fantasy born out of colonialism, diseases, and genocide (inadvertent or not). The modern idea of “wilderness”, the one that conservation has been working with until recently, the one that most people have in their heads, that of a place where no people have set foot and nature reigns over all, came out of European colonists moving across the Americas and entering areas on the heels of virulent diseases they’d brought with them that wiped out 85-100% of the native people it encountered as the diseases spread across two continents.

What people saw as “wilderness” with no people in it was a system in the midst of a radical ecological overturn as a keystone species had been dropped from that position. Coupled with this was the inability of the colonialists to recognize the land management practices native people used, so even when the encountered managed lands they often though they were “empty” lands.

The only places on Earth in the last 1000 years that have had “wilderness” in the manner people think of it are Antartica, some small, remote islands people never reached, and a few extremely inhospitable environments, mainly cold ones. Everywhere else has humans occupying and using it at least part of the time. As much as I like and admire Lepold and Muir, there was a lot they didn’t know or understand as they lacked some of the necessary pieces of the larger picture. Edward Abbey is a larger than life character, but he is also somewhat of a caricature as well, something I think he would not only agree with, but that he reveled in, and his take on many things is more than a little libertarian and irresponsible (eg. measuring distances by how many beers you drink along the way, and throwing the cans out the window because cleaning them up gives the Boy Scouts and others “something to do”).

Setting the history of the concept of “wilderness” aside, environments have a carrying capacity. That’s a fundamental aspect of ecology and biology (and social sciences too, for that matter). Every person, no matter how well meaning nor how careful, has an impact. At a moderate number that impact is below the threshold of permanent damage, or within the recovery capacity of the environment, if you prefer. Above that threshold the impacts are too great and permanent (at least on a human relevant timescale) damage is done; there is no way around this, it’s a basic, unavoidable fact, like gravity.

Sure, you can try to mitigate it, but many of the mitigation techniques require infrastructure (eg. a few people going into a natural area can shit where they like, but more than X amount and you need to start putting in bathrooms and sewage systems) which exacerbates the impact. Again, unavoidable fact, like gravity.

It’s a bit like your house (eco → oikos → home after all); maybe 3 or 4 people can live there comfortably if everyone pulls their weight. For a few months maybe you can add a few extra guests without posing significant stress, but they can’t live with you permanently. You can throw a weekend party with 20-30 people no problem, but they can’t all stay the night. You can have a hundred or so people for an hour or two, but beyond that there are problems as its far too many people for your 2.5 bathrooms to keep up with.

Responsible ecological management absolutely must take into account the capacity of the environment to cope with the added stresses people place on it when they visit. To do otherwise is little different from strip-mining an area for its coal or copper, we just do it for its beauty for as long as that beauty lasts, all the while chipping away at what creates that beauty (biodiversity, lack of infrastructure, quiet, cleanliness, lack of roads, etc), then move on leaving desolation in our wake.

The places that have those requirements (as long as they are set intelligently and responsibly) are exactly the sorts of places that need greater support, even though the restrictions feel stifling at times.


That’s often the case. Google maps is not a good source for current info. If you open Google Earth and click on the historical imagery tab, then scroll through the dates you’ll see that some of the images Google Maps uses are a decade or more out of date.

Google Maps is aimed at providing an image clear of cloud cover, not a current or accurate image.

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Yes, I’d prefer checking Street View, it at least shows the date it was created.

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For the online version that works well. There are large parts of the world that aren’t on Street View though.

It’s not high rez (30m, but you can pansharpen to 15m), but if you want current info of an area without paying an exorbitant fee the thing to do is download the free Landsat data, combine the layers, and view them in GIS software. You can the select your bands to view things like photosynthetic activity, hardscape coverage, etc, but you have both a lot more work to do and there is the cloud cover issue.

A few times a year I go through the archives of satellite passes and download all the clean images that exist of my work area. Makes for an interesting look at the changes in an area and a useful counter to politicians who say, “Oh, it’s just a little bit of development, not much impact.” You an show them just how little is left after decades of, “just a little impact.”


Maybe the best way to appreciate a wilderness is to not know too much about it. So many wildlife magazines here contain an article about Britain’s last wilderness there must be dozens of them, from saltmarsh to peat bog to moorland. None of them are wildernesses, but you could be convinced if you don’t know the land’s history.

The Scottish mountains would probably win a vote for a British wilderness, but those picturesque bare hills are largely a product of centuries of over-grazing. Now it is fashionable to rewild them, which basically means massive tree planting schemes, because natural colonisation by trees would be far too slow to meet government targets and no one would profit from leaving it to natural processes. But advertise that you intend to create a new wild forest and people will throw money at you.


Kayaking (multi-day excursions) is how I get away from the beaten path and close to nature when I travel.

There really isn’t any place on Earth that is untouched by human impacts. It was almost forty years ago that I was marvelling at the beauty of an Arctic landscape where I was one of four people working when the wind dropped and I heard the unmistakable sound of jet engines. I looked up and a trans-Atlantic flight on a polar circle route was passing over. There was a second contrail from a flight that had already moved on. Along that coast there was garbage from who knows where, some of it just weird in such an isolated place. Every so often, on the tundra you’d encounter the slowly decomposing garbage of some long ago enterprise that was left behind to rot because it was too expensive to fly it out. If you find a place where human presence isn’t obvious it just means it isn’t obvious.

At some point in the next 2 or 3 years the human population will surpass the 8 billion mark. If one tenth of one percent of that population fosters a desire to visit the remnants of wilderness that’s 8 million people looking to visit the dwindling pockets of nature buffered from obvious human impacts. If 10 percent of those make something like a real effort, that’s 800,000 breaking trails and carrying invasive seeds and critters as they go to satisfy their urge. It will take almost no time to reduce “wilderness” to zero. Twenty years from now we will have added another billion. Controls on access are good.

The only unexplored frontier left on Earth is the open ocean depths. Not a lot of room there for amateurs. With the exception of some really difficult localized mountain terrain and parts of continental ice sheets the rest of it has all been explored or lived in by Homo sapiens in various ways at various times.

If you want to see the last wild spaces my advice would be similar to what some others have suggested. Choose a career or volunteer your time in efforts to conserve nature and make your visits count for something positive. Otherwise don’t wish for something that doesn’t exist anymore - if it ever really did. There are lots of places that are a little off the beaten track where you can spend a few days pretending to be Roald Amundsen or whomever. There are no places left that are unimpacted by Homo sapiens. As @earthknight has noted, that’s not really new. The human species has been almost everywhere for a very long time. What has changed is the magnitude of impacts that go with numbers and increased mean footprint. Increased footprint includes people travelling long distances with relative ease to impose their presence on relatively unperturbed habitats, snap a few photos and go home for a burger and a hot shower.


The posts by @earthknight and @pmeisenheimer reminded me of the William Cronon essay, The Trouble With Wilderness:


Thank you, that was worth the read for this:

“Learning to honor the wild—learning to remember and acknowledge the autonomy of the other—means striving for critical self-consciousness in all of our actions. It means the deep reflection and respect must accompany each act of use, and means too that we must always consider the possibility of non-use. It means looking at the part of nature we intend to turn toward our own ends and asking whether we can use it again and again and again—sustainably—without its being diminished in the process. It means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails. Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and gratitude, for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come together to make the world as we know it. If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.”


I may have a slightly different perspective in managing expectations because of my proclivity for mothing. When I set up the moth sheet and light, I photograph EVERYTHING that alights on the sheet, sometimes capturing numerous images of moths that I have photographed ELSEWHERE, but still a NEW sighting for that location and worth noting. Seeing something for the first time in a new location is as exciting for me as the sighting of that same species in 100 different locations. Each waypoint tells its own unique story. So I guess you can ask yourself if you are there to wail at the mound of trash left behind at the foot of the mountain, or revel at the exhiliration of the climb.


Oh, I’ve done things like that – and the experience was marred by the guilt of a self-conscious elitist, that I was experiencing a place that was denied to others.

Actually, I thought it was worth the read for this:

The dam was eventually built, but what today seems no less significant is that so many people fought to prevent its completion. Even as the fight was being lost, Hetch Hetchy became the battle cry of an emerging movement to preserve wilderness. Fifty years earlier, such opposition would have been unthinkable. Few would have questioned the merits of “reclaiming” a wasteland like this in order to put it to human use. Now the defenders of Hetch Hetchy attracted widespread national attention by portraying such an act not as improvement or progress but as desecration and vandalism.

“Fifty years earlier, such opposition would have been unthinkable” because we had not yet made enough moral progress to understand. And those who still today who would call the damming of Hetch Hetchy improvement or progress rather than desecration or vandalism are rightly seen as atavistic.

I see the self-consciousness but the charge of elitism is a bit difficult to square with facts. People whose access is gained by their willingness to get their hands dirty on behalf of wild things are pretty much the exact opposite of elitists. On the other hand, there is nothing but elitism on the consumer side of most ecotourism, including the well-managed examples, in which people with money buy access that is denied those who can’t pay the price. Ecotourism’s virtue is entirely rooted in its ability to marry the interests of nature and the well-being of the communities who benefit from the money spent by elites. In that context, even the backpacking shoestring tourists who visit developing economies for the pleasure of it are elites relative to most of the people dependent on their tourism.


Moral progress is one hypothesis but its primacy as a driver of change is a pretty hard case to make convincingly when everything is considered. Priorities have shifted, social consensus has evolved, understanding of some things has increased but people are still people.

In most of the world hydro-electric is touted as green energy. So are wind and solar. Vast swathes of rural and wild landscapes are being flooded for hydro-power and industrialized for wind and solar power with the enthusiastic support of many (not all) people who consider themselves environmentally progressive. The new calculus is all about carbon footprints; the tradeoffs look different but they are really no easier for societies to parse than they ever were.

Anyway, glad we agree it was worth the read.


Whether a person considers changes in moral beliefs to represent moral progress may depend on how closely the new beliefs align with his/her own. Given the last 4 years with our past president, and the insurrection on the capitol building, i certainly won’t argue the case for progress, although some of the 74 million who voted for a second term might.