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Do Tourists Care?

By: Victoria Anstead

August 04, 2015

This question provoked passionate — and divided — responses from participants at a recent Innovators Think Tank on the effects of climate change on travel in the Caribbean and other coastal areas. Held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, it was sponsored by the Washington, DC based Center for Responsible Travel (CREST).

I was there with the aim of expanding the dialogue associated with climate change from one of dueling dire predictions and dramatic uncertainty to one that factored in the intellectual and emotional effects of the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, individually and collectively.

I grappled publicly with the ways climate change can be a catalyst, an opportunity, for the travel industry to forge stronger, more meaningful and sustained connections with their clients and with local communities. Because we are metaphorically all in the same boat, this kind of dialogue can help both travelers and locals discover a deeper connection to place and to each other.

Some areas are — and will be — affected more significantly than others, the Caribbean and New York City for example. But everyone is and will be affected. Most people are beginning to understand this and as a result feel confused, anxious and then tune out.

Climate change needs to be viewed as the broader story of our relationship with the natural world and this story translated into ones of real people and places that resonate with individuals on a powerful personal basis. Even the local mitigation and resiliency efforts being made around the world can be translated into fascinating creative communication that empowers people to think more deeply and broadly about solutions on individual and community levels.

So, do tourists care about climate change? Some do and some don't. Some will and some won't. Clearly, there are different types of travelers just as there are numerous reasons we leave home: exploration, relaxation, health, self-discovery, or business. Whatever the reason, travel can open eyes and we can see things anew. Given the anonymous sameness of airports and accommodations today, there's a risk of going everywhere, but being nowhere. However, with the right combination of exposure and affinity, visitors can become curious and, even better, empathetic about their new surroundings. This potential for deep connection with place can be a powerful tool understanding our role in the bigger picture of life on this planet.

Screengrab of whale sighting at the ESB
Screengrab: Photo posted by Racing Extinction of projection of humpback whale onto the ESB

Looking out the window of the plane, just prior to landing in New York City from Punta Cana, I was touched by how the urban landscape possesses both natural fragility and natural resilience. I saw this duality in the ocean defining the shoreline, in the porous borders of the wetlands, and in the curving lines of the Hudson and East Rivers as the water edge sometimes caressed and sometimes did battle against the hard contours of the city's built environment.

The Caribbean and New York City are both world-class destinations, places people love to visit. Significantly, the two destinations, as coastal developments made up of islands, are also places of water.

Marine scientists tell us that our ocean, whether we call it the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic or Antarctic, is in reality one ocean. The realization that the water that I was flying over was in fact the same water that I had witnessed on take off from the Dominican Republic was moving.

Sad to say, this unity can be easily forgotten. It's convenient to think of the rising sea level, coral bleaching, plastics pollution and overfishing, as problems contained within an individual region, usually we think of bad things as happening someplace else. If something affects one part of the sea, it stays there. But we know this is not true.

How absurd that while walking along a beach anywhere in the world we likely know next to nothing about what is contained within that seemingly endless expanse of blue. That's almost three quarters of the earth we are clueless about.

We need to make the invisible visible, connect the dots so to speak, in order to understand the interdependency of places.

Being a city of water is a challenge, and an opportunity, for New York to tell the stories of its enduring and often challenging relationship with the water that has shaped it both in physical and historical terms — just as it has the Caribbean nations. Water is an integral part of the economic and cultural life of both. Use it to tell stories in ways that connect people to it. That's a great way to awaken, inform and enliven visitors — as well as locals. The lure of travel today is less about "let's get away from it all" and more about exploring and discovering what brings us together.

To tell the stories of the infrastructure and livelihoods behind such a force for transformation inspires and empowers both storyteller and audience to think deeply and creatively about new and effective ways of living with the natural world.

A few years back, a section of the East River near Pier 35 became a conversation-pit for the fish below and passers-by on the shore. Amphibious Architecture, a collaborative installation by artist/technologist Natalie Jeremijenko and artist/architect David Benjamin, was sixteen buoys fitted with sensors that monitored water quality and LEDs that flashed when fish swam by.

The floating "riverline" mimicked the skyline above and highlighted the life below beyond our view. If the visual connection wasn't enough, the fish had a SMS number and could "respond" with their own descriptions of their environment. "Hey there! There are 11 of us, and it's pretty nice down here. I mean, dissolved oxygen is higher than last week..."

At the spectacle end of the story-telling spectrum, Racing Extinction launched August 1st using the Empire State Building as its canvas. Called a "weapon of mass instruction" by its creators, this series of photos celebrating endangered species projected onto the building both promotes an upcoming film of the same name and is a monumental call-to-action through both local and global, and personal and collective steps detailed on the website racingextinction (dot) com

New York hosts an abundance of creative talent as well as a thriving social and mobile media tech sector that can design vehicles for capturing and sharing the stories of visitors and locals in ways that harness their ideas, enthusiasm and potentially innovative ideas for action that we can put to use now and in the future.

Victoria Anstead, LEED-AP, is founder and principal of Tactical Aesthetics a consultancy that produces creative projects focusing on the human factor in the drive toward sustainability.

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