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Feb. 22, 2018

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How far would you travel to see something that will disappear within your lifetime? Travelers worldwide are facing this question in a world rapidly changing due to climate change. "Last chance tourism" is the moniker for such adventures, where tourists are drawn to destinations often far away and exotic to experience a location on the verge of extinction.

Wilfrid Laurier University faculty member Christopher Lemieux, who researches protected areas management, is working with Mark Groulx, a faculty member from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), to explore the motivations of tourists at Jasper National Park and how they see themselves in relation to the ever-dwindling Athabasca Glacier.

"Jasper National Park is a world heritage site and a globally known area of outstanding value," said Lemieux, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. "The glacier has been receding steadily and within the next 50 years that resource could be gone. It will be a significant loss to Jasper National Park and to Canadians in general."

Lemieux and Groulx have published a handful of papers on this topic. In their latest paper entitled, "The End of the Ice Age?": Disappearing World Heritage and the Climate Change Communication Imperative," published in the scientific journal Environmental Communication, they explore if "last chance tourism" is a motivation for glacier-viewing tourists and how it relates to glacier tourists' characteristics, including their sense of nature relatedness and sense of place. The study surveyed nearly 400 visitors to Jasper National Park over the summer of 2013.

"Our results showed an interest to see the glaciers before they're gone," said Lemieux. "People who are drawn to these destinations are natural explorers, prefer a more natural and authentic experience and want to share this experience with others. For parks management, we have to look at what this means for greater protected areas and decide what to do about that."

Lemieux says there are several competing issues at play in parks management. As a tourist destination, Jasper National Park provides a swell of educational resources to inform millions of people about the impact of climate change and encourage them to become advocates for the issue; however, travel is a key contributor to climate change and thus the loss of the glacier.

While Jasper is also a protected park and part of a greater conservation effort across Canada, tourists are a significant revenue source, for the park and for rural communities surrounding the area. The park has to conserve the site while appealing to tourism interests. With the loss of the glacier, communities and parks will have to be prepared to adapt to this loss of revenue.

"Relative to their total socio-economic benefit, there is little public funding that goes into protected areas," said Lemieux. "Parks Canada is an agency that operates on a revenue-retention model and functions largely through visitor expenditures. With potential decreased visitation to the Athabasca Glacier under climate change, there will be a significant loss of revenue that is commonly reinvested in conservation efforts. We need a greater follow through with conservation commitments from the federal government and sustainable funding models for these areas."

Part of the research delved further into the ethical paradoxes of tourists who at once appreciated nature, but also contributed to its degradation by travelling to these more remote locations.

"If you're a steward for natural areas, what are you doing to protect it?" said Groulx, assistant professor at UNBC's School of Environmental Planning. "Despite the fact that most people are concerned about climate change, only half of people we studied were willing to pay for a carbon offset, which is a longstanding finding on climate psychology, trying to get over the attitude versus behaviour gap."

They found that people were also interested in being "advocates" through "voluntourism" types of experiences, which can create richer, transformative experiences for people. There was also a strong motivation to learn about climate change on the glacier.

"We need to protect the best of what we have, in terms of natural and cultural resources," said Lemieux. "These sites are rare, irreplaceable and are recognized with universal value. It's not just important to Canada, it's important to the world, it's that unique and that special."

Groulx has also led research on "last chance tourism" in Churchill, Manitoba - a region that attracts tourists from around the world due to its placement on polar bear migration routes. Read the story here

This research was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant.


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