Hiking up the Athabasca glacier, we first have to walk past all the markers that denote where the foot of the glacier used to be. It is a bit sad, due to glacier recession, this majestic wonder may not be around for our great-grandchildren. Our reflective mood was interrupted by the roar of the latest Ice Explorer to join the line snaking its way up to the glacier viewing platform. 

In the time that it would take our guided tour of about 20 people to walk up the glacier, at least ten times that number of tourists will be riding up the glacier in these 50,000 lb ATVs to get their 15 min glacier experience. Our guide, Bernard, points out the seeming irony of promoting environmentalism through educating the public about glacier recession and the reliance on fossil fuels to keep the iconic glacier ride running.

In managing natural resources, there is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, allowing people to enjoy and form emotional connections to the environment is key to engaging and inspiring them to make an effort at conservation. On the other hand, lowering the barrier of entry to our natural spaces carry with it a destructive risk.

Everest is perhaps a well known example. Scaling Everest used to be an achievement possible to an expert group of mountaineers. Now, the achievement is yours, as long as you can afford it. The resulting amount of trash left on the mountain by uncaring tourists has made the climb less attractive to those who used to go there to seek solitude and adventure in the mountain’s pristine surroundings.

We see this on a smaller scale, with the blooming popularity of some local hiking trails. When I mentioned to a colleague that Joffre Lakes is one of my favourite local hikes recently, she countered, “You must not have been on that hike in the last few years.” 

In Richmond, the discussion around opening up use of the Garden City Lands (a large and largely untouched piece of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve) in the past few years echos similar concerns. I remember the wonder I experienced when I saw alpine flowers there, in the middle of our bustling non-mountainous city. These flower grow there as remnants of Richmond’s geological past. Would my kids experience this same wonder?

In another local example, the Vancouver Parks Board’s ban on keeping cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2017 in the name of animal welfare drew criticism for going against the public engagement and marine wildlife rescue and research efforts by the aquarium. 

What is the answer to this? One answer, from a user’s perspective, is purposeful travel, whether it it to another country or a day trip in your hometown.

Tourism is always egotistical. That does not preclude it from being purposeful and intentional. Organizations like the Polar Citizen Science Collective partner with the tourism industry to enable tourists to make a valuable scientific contribution while they fulfill their travel wishes. Tourism should not be a passive undertaking, an item to check off on a bucket list. 

Part of being an intentional traveller is planning enough time to experience a place. Walking helps. When trying to maximize a trip, value quality over quantity. Before going on a trip, ask yourself, “why?” Then, make the necessary preparations to make sure those goals are met.