'Last chance tourism' an opportunity to educate people about climate change, study suggests

Visits to disappearing glaciers often motivated by desire to learn how humans are affecting the environment, U of A researcher finds.

In the early morning of Aug. 10, 2012, more than half of Jasper National Park's Ghost Glacier broke free and crashed into Edith Cavell Pond. The ensuing tidal wave of snow and ice levelled most of the visitor service infrastructure, including, ironically, a Parks Canada interpretive board explaining how climate change is reshaping the alpine.

"More and more, when people head to the mountains they want to learn how human activity is linked to these climate change impacts and want messages to take away and act on in their everyday lives,'" said Elizabeth Halpenny, a University of Alberta tourism, recreation and parks researcher.

To show that climate change messaging is in fact a welcome sight, Halpenny co-authored a study published last year that suggests there may be educational opportunities associated with a new form of travel coined "last chance tourism," where tourists flock to natural wonders, such as glaciers, before they are gone for good.

She and her team surveyed 399 visitors to the climate-vulnerable Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park to establish whether they were there because of the environmental threat, and to better understand possible communication strategies employed by park agencies and other stakeholders.

Two of the study's top five motivational factors relate to the disappearance of the glacier, suggesting that visitors to the Athabasca Glacier are aware of the glacier's accelerating retreat, and are coming to visit the glacier at least in part to see evidence of it.

Seventy per cent of participants said an important motivation for visiting Athabasca Glacier was to view an iconic feature, which has receded more than 1.5 kilometres and lost over half its volume in the past 125 years.

Sixty per cent said they wanted to connect with the disappearing glacier before it vanishes, and 45 per cent indicated it was important to learn about the impact of climate change on the glacier.

"People, especially young people, are living in a situation where they're trying to cope with not falling into this malaise or depressive reaction to changing climate and the lack of effort or action to try to address these problems, and instead, I think they're looking for messaging about what they can do differently," said Halpenny. She illustrated this with examples in the recently released Alpine Club of Canada's 2019 State of the Mountains Report.

Science-informed messages

She said it is important to give visitors positive, science-informed messages that link human activity to climate change, and not guilt-ridden missives. She recommended after-visit messaging links to websites and organizations that are engaged in climate change action or environmental conservation.

And while promoting a site may put additional environmental pressure on an already vulnerable landscape, Halpenny said staying away is neither a realistic expectation nor necessarily healthy.

"We all need leisure to restore our minds and bodies, build bonds with family members and appreciate the places we live in, but we can make smarter choices about how we get there," she said. "It is also dangerous for managers to ignore the realities that utilization of our parks is on the rise."

Halpenny said it is also important to invest in both government agencies-Parks Canada and Alberta Parks-in a way that they can move forward in protecting the landscapes we value so much in the mountain environments.

"Part of the job of parks is to work with the private sector to encourage sustainable practices of these tourism operators, help them understand and make sure they are following the guidelines around the best practice of tourism provision," she said.

Ultimately, however, Halpenny said it is consumers who need to support businesses that are making sustainable choices.

"Consumers need to support the operators that are working the hardest to adhere to sustainability and sustainable tourism," she said.

"This is an incredible opportunity to talk about climate change and how we're losing our glaciers in the mountain parks. Visitors can be more aware of this decline and related climate change impacts, understand the science that we can use to mitigate negative impacts and then take action."