When NBC's TODAY Show Travel Editor Peter Greenberg asked me to contribute a list of the top 10 places people should avoid when they travel, to include in his new book, Don't Go There! (www.PeterGreenberg.com), I was a little reluctant at first. I am a firm believer that travel, no matter the destination, can be a powerful learning experience. In fact, some of my worst trips have been among the most interesting. They are the places I still tell stories about. But when looked through the lens of sustainable tourism principles—being environmentally friendly, helping to protect cultural and natural heritage, supporting the well-being of local people—there are some places that stand out, and its not for the better. So here is my top 10 must-avoid travel destinations list (or at least consider this warning so that you know what you are getting into before you go).
Cancun, Mexico - In the 1970s, Cancun was a small, coastal island with fishermen, local merchants and a few small pensions. Today it is a stretch of high-rises sporting some 30,000 hotel rooms. Mangrove forests were cut to accommodate this megadevelopment, clear-water lagoons were filled in, and wildlife disappeared, along with any sense that you are still in Mexico. Stand on Cancun's miracle mile of tourism and wet T-shirt contests and Jell-o shot bars pass for today's local culture. Mexico is one of the greatest travel destinations in the world, but Cancun is pure generic mass tourism.
Santorini, Greece - One of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean has become a text book example of paving paradise. Sure, it has amazing views and spectacular sunsets—just be prepared to share them with as many as 15,000 cruise ship passengers, all off-loading at the same time during the summer and pushing past each other for the best spot to take a photo. Condo, hotel, and tourist sprawl are spreading like a fungus over the landscape. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg—find your Greece island inspiration elsewhere.
Orlando, Florida - It really is a small world after all. Every family in America would do better to experience it first hand by having a genuine cross-cultural experience of learning and discovery, rather than get taken for a ride by the marketing engine of overdeveloped and environmentally unfriendly theme parks.
Kuta, Bali - Take an unspoiled tropical beach, add a vibrant ancient culture, cap it off with friendly local villagers eager to share their rich heritage, and then trample it all with a parade of western brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, T.G.I. Friday's, and KFC. Certainly, tourism destinations change over time, but that does not mean they should be trashed beyond recognition. Skip this one and instead consider Bali's artistic capital, Ubud, where a more balanced path embraces the local culture rather than conquers it.
Dubai City, United Arab Emirates - Just one of Dubai's golf courses requires a million gallons of desalinated water a day to keep the grass green under the scorching desert sun. And it takes more than a gallon of crude to make one gallon of desalinated water. And that is before powering the air-conditioned indoor ski slopes, the gilded shopping malls, and the giant man-made islands shaped like palm trees just off shore that are causing sedimentation runoff onto fragile coral reefs. Is this really the way to make the desert bloom? Seek an alternative.
Myanmar - Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Noble Peace Prize winner living under house arrest for courageously opposing one of the most brutal military regimes in history, has called for international travelers to boycott Myanmar. Nelson Mandela did the same while under arrest during the height of apartheid rule in South Africa. Some tour operators run trips to Myanmar (formerly Burma) with the justification that giving the local people an opportunity to interact with the outside world is a good thing; meanwhile, they are making a business profit. Follow the real leaders and respect the travel boycott.
Antarctica - This is a "must see" on everyone's travel list, and that's the problem. Rapidly increasing tourism—some 40,000 tourists in 2008—to one of the most fragile and untouched environments on the planet could have a devastating impact. For instance, 49,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the waters of Antarctica when one cruise ship sank. (No one was hurt.) Another ship ran aground. Now major cruise companies want to bring in even more tourists on ever larger ships—Princess Cruises' Star Princess carries 3,800 passengers to Antarctica in one voyage. Time to call on the 46-nation Antarctic Treaty System to set limits before it's too late. Until then, think twice before making the trip.
China Beach, Vietnam - Local and foreign investors have scooped up nearly the entire vast tract of beautiful China Beach in central Vietnam, including ancestral burial grounds found there. Villagers have been forced to break open the coffins of their ancestors and take out the remains before the bulldozers level and bury the place, all in the name of building a parade of new mass tourism resorts. Do you really want to sleep in a hotel built right on top of a traditional burial ground where villagers honored dead ancestors for centuries and then, grief-stricken, were forced to remove their remains? Things did not have to go this route, so let's not reward it.
Costa Rica's Over-Developed Coast - There is a battle going on in Costa Rica, once the darling of ecotourism. The battle is between those who are working overtime to make the country a true green travel destination, and unscrupulous developers who like marketing the green label, but couldn't care less about practicing the principles. The latter are winning in Tamarindo, Jaco, and a string of other coastal areas that have succeeded in carving up the landscape into large condos and megahotels. Your travel choice makes a difference in this struggle. The Costa Rican Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) helps identify the good guys.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania - Definitely stay on the crater rim in one of the great safari lodges and sip a gin and tonic while looking down into what naturalists have called the Eighth Wonder of the World—an ancient, unflooded, collapsed caldera that forms a natural zoological garden—if it survives, that is. Don't drive into the crater, unless you like your wildlife viewing in a parade of 4x4 vehicles. Save the up-close wildlife encounters for the 5,700 square miles of neighboring Serengeti National Park and let the inner crater have time to heal from tourism's wounds.
Do you agree with these selects? Do you have destinations to add? Let us know by posting your comments below.