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DESTINATIONS: Handle with Care

    We travelers love the world’s great destinations, but too often, we don’t respect them — and we’re killing a lot of them as a result.

    Late last November, the world came out from Venice that this ancient and fragile Italian city would no longer allow tourists to bring wheeled luggage.

    One reason supposedly was that the city’s dwindling population was aggravated by the constant noise of little plastic wheels bouncing and rattling over the ancient stone walkways. But it was the other reason that hooked my attention:

    The wheels were said to be wearing on those stone walkways, as well as the footbridges and marble steps of Venice.

    Built in middle of a lagoon and sitting atop millions of wooden pilings, Venice has been pulling visitors for centuries with its history, the romantic beauty of its architecture, where roads are canals and intersections are the hundreds of footbridges that arch above them.

    But that beauty has always been fragile, threatened by wave erosion and rising seas, then industrial pollution from shore — not to mention the very hordes of visitors who so love the place

    After the mass media uproar that ensued when word of the wheel luggage ban went global, Venice’s powers backed off somewhat, saying the ban was aimed at large commercial carts, not the tourists on whom the city’s economic life now depends.

    Whew, that was close.

    Still, it got me thinking about the world’s most beloved tourist attractions, and how many of them are under threat from mass-market tourism.

    From us, in other words.

    Ancient historic sites are under attack from all manner of sources, everything from weather to acid rain. The sheer number of tourists tramping around, all over and through ancient sites made vulnerable over time.

    The mere art of breathing inside ancient Egyptian tombs by a constant stream of tourists creates a humid microclimate that spurs the growth of fungus that eats away at frescoes thousands of years old.

    The other damage we do is thoughtless, even malicious. Litter. Garbage. Spilled food and drink. Graffiti. Initials carved into ancient walls. Stones chipped and broken at Stonehenge — or smiley faces painted on them — because some clown thought it would be funny.

    This doesn’t apply only to those famous sites that are easily reached by anyone with a passport and a credit card. Tourism has done damage and left trash by the truckload in some of the remotest spots on Earth.

    Don’t believe it? The slopes of Mount Everest are littered with everything from food wrappers and empty oxygen bottles to the bodies of climbers — more than 200 of them — who were simply left where they died, in full view.

    (Some of those bodies are actually used today as landmarks by other climbers. Google the term “green boots Everest” and you literally will see what I mean.)

    In places like Easter Island, world-famous for its gigantic, mysterious ancient stone statues known as moai, harm done by tourists — and the tons of garbage they leave behind — has led to calls from locals to restrict the flow of visitors.

    In Rome, authorities have banned food and drink at many of its famous landmarks, including the Spanish Steps. Are they serious, you ask? Fines that can run you more than $500 suggest they are.

    This is a global issue that civic leaders and the travel industry worldwide will struggle with forever. Somehow, we need to balance the desires of the visitor with the need to protect the places he or she wants to visit.

    We love the idea of seeing the world’s great destinations. We need to make sure we respect them once we get there.

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