To Go or Not To Go? - Controversial Destinations

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There's always a dilemma about traveling to an endangered destination. Whether it's the threat of global climate change, commercial enterprise or sightseer wear and tear, your conscience might stop you from buying your ticket. But for those who decide to fulfill their dream of experiencing a natural wonder like the Antarctic or the remnants of an ancient civilization like Angkor Wat, there are ways to ensure a visit will inject some much-needed cash into the local economy, as well as being low-impact.

Here is our selection of the world's most endangered places, along with eco-friendly tour companies and locally owned accommodations dedicated to the preservation of these threatened world treasures.
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To Go or Not To Go?

There's always a dilemma about traveling to an endangered destination. Whether it's the threat of global climate change, commercial enterprise or sightseer wear and tear, your conscience might stop you from buying your ticket. But for those who decide to fulfill their dream of experiencing a natural wonder like the Antarctic or the remnants of an ancient civilization like Angkor Wat, there are ways to ensure a visit will inject some much-needed cash into the local economy, as well as being low-impact.

Here is our selection of the world's most endangered places, along with eco-friendly tour companies and locally owned accommodations dedicated to the preservation of these threatened world treasures.

To Go or Not To Go?

The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is populated by rare birds, turtles and mammals that are unique because of their isolation from the rest of the world. Today, 150 years after Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory on natural selection in the Galapagos was published, life and death in Darwin's Eden has become a fight for survival against human invasion and the competition of non-native flora and fauna brought to the islands by visitors. Concerns for the habitat of endangered species like the Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos giant tortoise, and Galapagos Penguin landed the islands on World Heritage's Danger List in 2007. The Ecuadorean government has responded with stricter tourism regulations and high park fees ($100 per person) for visitors to the islands.

If You Go: Tread carefully, stay on approved paths, and do not touch or feed any wildlife. To ensure you are the best steward possible, enlist a tour company that's been approved by Galapagos Conservancy, a U.S.-based advocacy group that works closely with the international Charles Darwin Foundation, which continues Darwin's studies on the island.

To Go or Not To Go?

Tibet, the highest populated region on earth with an average elevation of 16,000 feet, is dotted with remnants of the forgotten kingdom, including ancient monasteries where Buddhist monks meditate on the pure blue skies over Mount Everest and the sacred Mount Kailash. In recent history, Tibet has struggled to hold onto its cultural identity against the Chinese empire that has occupied the once-sovereign nation since 1950. Once closed off from the world except for backpacker pilgrimages across the plateau, the Qingzang railway has enabled a massive increase of tourists. The monasteries of Tibet's biggest city Lhasa, such as the Dalai Lama's former residence, the Potala Palace, are now Chinese-sanctioned attractions. Tibet is visited by 5.6 million tourists a year, with only a small portion of money from those travelers reaching the Tibetan people, since most tour outfits and hotels are Chinese-owned.

If You Go: You'll need a Chinese visa and a special permit to visit Tibet. Don't engage in political discussions, be respectful of cultural traditions and hire a tour company that deals exclusively with local Tibetan guides such as the Lhasa-based Snow Lion Tours.

To Go or Not To Go?

Antarctica, the shrinking continent on the southernmost point of the globe, spans 5.4 million square miles with ice that's more than a mile thick. Once only a destination for the boldest of explorers and research scientists, now modern cruise ships can navigate through the frigid waters, allowing anyone to witness leopard seals, emperor penguins and humpback whales in their own habitats. But this frozen wonderland is also at the center of the debate on global climate change, with ice shelves retreating at an alarming rate, having lost more than 1,500 square miles of ice since 1998. Concern over the prospect of evacuating passengers from ships damaged by icebergs (on the increase due to climate change), as well as fears that visitors could introduce invasive species to Antarctica, has led a coalition of nations with ties to Antarctica to restrict the number of cruise ships that visit each year. Now only boats with fewer than 500 passengers can enter Antarctic waters and only 100 passengers each day can disembark.

If You Go: Select a cruise company that's part of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an organization that's dedicated to responsible tourism in Antarctica.

To Go or Not To Go?

The Amazon Rainforest encompasses 1.4 billion acres of jungle, fed by the mighty Amazon River as it wends its way across South America. The rainforest is home to the largest collection of plants and animals on earth, including jaguars, spider monkeys, macaws and poison dart frogs. The world's largest rainforest has been on the endangered radar since the early 1990s when surveys revealed that deforestation was happening at a rapid pace due to the slash-and-burn method used to clear the land for cattle farms. It's been projected that in two decades nearly half of the current rainforest will be lost, and with it, the habitat of 2,000 species of birds and animals, not to mention the indigenous tribes that still live deep in the jungle.

If You Go: Always travel with a guide in the jungle and bunker down at an eco-lodge that is actively engaged in preservation of the rainforest, such as Christalino Jungle Lodge.

To Go or Not To Go?

It's remarkable that the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat in the jungles of Cambodia is still standing considering the numerous wars it has survived since it was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Today it's armies of tour buses and tuk tuks full of tourists that invade the moated citadel from nearby Siem Reap. While only 7,600 people visited the temple in 1993-the year after it was deemed an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992-that number has now multiplied to nearly 2 million, an influx that's straining the very foundations of the structure. In recent years, sections of the spiral towers have been closed-off by officials because of wear and tear, while other parts of the sandstone temples are literally sinking into the ground due to the drainage of ancient aquifers by hotels that have cropped up around the landmark.

If You Go: When visiting the citadel, stick to the designated routes and treat the structure as an archeological museum (that means look but don't touch). Instead of a hotel, stay in a family-run guesthouse dedicated to preservation of the ancient monument such as Jasmine Lodge.

To Go or Not To Go?

It's estimated that almost two million scuba divers and snorkelers take the plunge into the Great Barrier Reef every year. Stretching for 1,600 miles just off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the world's largest coral reef is made up of trillions of living coral polyps that create a vibrant home for more than 1,500 species of fish as well as turtles, giant clams and seahorses. During the 1980s, grave concerns about the ecological footprint caused by tourism and commercial fishing forced the Australian government to take a more active role in its management. Today, most of the reef is protected as a marine park, limiting tourism to mostly the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns regions. However, rising water temperature caused by climate change is killing the living reef, resulting in a renewed call to restrict diving and tour boats.

If You Go: Be careful if you're diving, avoid coming into contact with the coral, and hire an eco-friendly tour boat company like Quicksilver Cruises.

To Go or Not To Go?

The glaciers of Hemingway's famous short story have inspired intrepid climbers from across the world to attempt the dangerous ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. Sadly, the ice fields atop Tanzania's renowned peak are under serious threat due to global warming. Over 85 percent of the ice cover has been lost since the peak was first mapped in 1912, and may disappear completely by 2020. Climbers who scale to the ice top of the 19,300-foot mountain today will be surprised to find the glacier reduced to icy patches with a massive hole in the crowning Furtwängler Glacier that reaches all the way to the bedrock, which could split the glacier in half in the very near future. What's more unsettling than the loss of this beautiful destination is that fact the runoff from the ice fields supplies water to a wide population of Tanzanians and wildlife downstream.

If You Go: Be mindful of your impact on the mountain and group up with a local tour company such as East African Voyage.

To Go or Not To Go?

The Florida Everglades is one of the nation's most fragile parks, created to protect a small portion of what was once a much larger subtropical wetland of mangrove swamps, saw grass marsh, and cypress habitat. The 1.5 million acres of wetlands, fed by tributaries of Lake Okeechobee, are the breeding ground of a wide variety of North American wading birds and home to endangered animals such as the American alligator, Florida panther, and West Indian manatee. Urban encroachment has drained more than half of the wetlands for development over the past century and put the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades at risk, along with illegal poaching of alligators and loggerhead sea turtles. Florida as of late has increased conservation efforts and enforced stricter ordinances to safeguard the national park, which is visited by a million tourists a year. Protection of the wetlands may soon be further complicated if the crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's deep-sea leak reaches the Everglades' shore.

If You Go: With possibility of oil contaminating the wetlands, you may want to postpone your trip until the crisis has passed. If you do decide to go, take a low-impact canoe ride through the Everglades with a local tour company such as North American Canoe Tours.

To Go or Not To Go?

The wild grasslands of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya are ruled over by lions, cheetahs and other savanna hunters. This African crossroads is where wildebeests, zebras and gazelle migrate every year by the millions from Tanzania's Serengeti up onto the Mara Plains. The attraction of such a prime game playground is the Masai Mara reserve, one of the world's most popular wildlife parks, drawing jeep-loads of safari tourists daily, keen to glimpse the feline predators in action as well as elephants, giraffes, and, if they're lucky, the endangered black rhinoceros. While the days of quasi-legal big-game hunting are a thing of the past, irresponsible tourism in the reserve is straining park roads, scaring off game and disrupting wildlife migration patterns. Illegal camps have sprouted up inside the reserve, despite government efforts to limit the number of lodges inside the parkland borders. Recent studies have shown a dramatic decline in the number of Mara game species in the last 20 years, including a 95 percent loss in giraffe numbers, according to a 2009 report by the British Journal of Zoology.

If You Go: Keep your distance from the wildlife, don't use flash photography, and stay at an eco-lodge that works alongside local Maasi tribespeople such as Campi Ya Kanzi.

To Go or Not To Go?

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