Sharing or sparing?18th September 2018
Having what is called a bucket list, a list of places that you would like to visit while you can, is common these days but I wonder if such a thing is all that desirable. By the its nature, the problems start when compiling a list of such ideas because chances are that you will select places that already are popular. That applies as much when perusing travel magazines or holiday brochures as it does when using social media.
One consequence of this is that certain locations become too popular for the sake of sustainability and that leads to restrictions that affect the independent traveller. South American destinations like Machu Pichu and Torres del Paine National Park come to mind here but the problem is spread around the world. Scotland’s Isle of Skye has experienced problems that never made the news before and you only have to see how many visit well promoted attractions like the Cliffs of Moher to see how many people visit a small number of locations in Ireland at a time during the high season.
This then poses something of a dilemma: do you cater for the visitor numbers or do you restrict them? With wilderness and conservation areas, there is a tendency to do the latter though it does have the consequence of pushing up visitor costs and that may have its benefits for local tourism businesses as you may find on a trip to places in either the Canadian Rockies or Alaska. When you add in short summer tourism seasons, the effect by necessity is more pronounced.
In other destinations, they add in facilities for the extra visitors with some decrying the effect that this has had on Spain’s Mediterranean coastline because of hotel and holiday apartment construction. Parts of the Alps are afflicted like this but in a different way: it is the infrastructure of skiing resorts that hardly help appearances in mountain country during the summer season. Both examples make you wonder at the appropriateness of such developments and they must tug at the heartstrings of anyone who adores mountain and coastal scenery.
Another aspect of any overdevelopment is that you can install something that encourages the otherwise unprepared into wild places without realise the possible dangers that are there. For instance, I seem to have inherited my father’s unease at cliff edges and my knowledge of how slippery limestone can be almost made me shout at people to keep back from the edge on a damp day hike around the Cliffs of Moher and Doolin. It is little wonder that staff are equipped with whistles to direct the unaware away from peril.
There is overcaution too and one example is the boardwalk on Cuilcagh Mountain and how incongruous it looks in the landscape through which it conveys people to the top of the hill shared between Cavan and Fermanagh, between Éire and Northern Ireland. It also does not help that it stops short of the top too but the boggy morass deters most. Another location where path development attracted adverse comment was at Sliabh Liag in County Donegal but it might be that some sense prevailed there in the end.
Hillwalking is a growing pastime in Ireland so there remains a lot to learn in a country where there is neither experience nor tradition of path and track building in such places. Thankfully, organisations like Mountain Meitheal and Mountaineering Ireland together with initiatives like Helping the Hills are starting to address this so lessons are learned from places like Scotland and applied to get sensible solutions to the growing problem of erosion on popular hills. It is something that needs attention as much as securing access for hill wandering in the first place.
The mention of countryside access brings me to another factor that causes some places to feel overloaded: a lack of alternatives. It is not everywhere that has the liberal access rights that are enjoyed in Scotland and across Scandinavia so there can be a very really reduction in the number of places where you can explore. The options may not stop you going to those better known places like Norway’s Preikestolen before finding other quieter hikes nearby as knowledge grows and maps feel more confiding.
It is this last point that inspires the title and the theme runs through Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty, a book that I read last autumn. It is not for nothing park rangers in Denali National Park tell you not to walk one after another in a group so a path never develops and that everyone’s backcountry journey is their own. When there is plenty of land for all, we can spread out and find our own space to recharge weary spirits. That is easier when we are not retracing the steps of others all the while and it can have a lighter impact on the countryside too with less erosion caused by many feet and much path widening. While it can be true that we get confined by or own lack of knowledge, physical restrictions caused by not having enough other places to go hardly help either. Overcoming both might be the ultimate answer to the visitor management conundrum.
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