Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (Photo: Dan Linstead)

Threatened wonders 2010

We highlight seven destinations that could benefit from a new approach to tourism, and three that could do with more visitors

Wanderlust staff | Issue 109 | February 2010

1. Wadi Rum, Jordan

What's the problem?

Over the past two decades the sandstone cliffs and wild spaces of Wadi Rum have drawn increasing numbers in search of desert adventure, but options and infrastructure remain limited. Although a protected area, the land is divided between three Bedouin tribes and officially administered by ASEZA, a semi-autonomous body set up to drive economic development in the nearby beach resort of Aqaba. 

The result is a confusing array of 4WD tours run by different tribes in their respective territories, and no overall responsibility for environmental protection.Tony Howard, a British climber who first visited in 1984 and who has written widely about Rum, returns frequently. “The desert is now beaten to a pulp south of Rum village,” he says. A new visitor centre has been built, but campsite facilities are basic and the most common form of transport remains aged 4WDs. 

The absence of creature comforts has led at least one high-end UK tour operator to pull out of Rum altogether. 

What’s the solution?

With vision and the right measures in place, the awe-inspiring Wadi Rum has the potential to be a world leader in desert ecotourism. Engaging with local people is key: money needs to stay within the community, rather than being siphoned off to the cities. Luxury resorts are planned, but does Rum need glitzy private development? Small-scale public investment could make a big difference – the government could support Rum’s Bedouin-run businesses by buying new 4WDs and helping entrepreneurs create better camps.A proper scheme for mountain guide training is essential. 

In 1999 Howard arranged a fortnight’s training for three Rum Bedouin at the Plas y Brenin mountaineering school in Wales. Those guides – Sabbah Eid, Attayak Aouda and Sabbah Atieq – are still working today. They pass on skills informally to their peers, but formal qualifications would be a first step to raising Rum’s profile. There is talk of France’s National Ski and Alpinism School leading training courses in Rum – but for now talented Jordanians, such as Yamaan Safady, who took silver in Wanderlust’s Paul Morrison Guide Awards 2009, must train abroad. 

We, the tourists, can play a part. Don’t buy cut-price desert tours from cheap hotels in Petra and Aqaba: make sure your money stays in Rum by booking in advance direct with local guides – though, frustratingly, Rum has no information office. The only way to find a guide is to search online or check recommendations in guidebooks.

2. Yangshuo, China

What’s the problem?

Yangshuo in south-west China used to be the haven away from nearby, touristy Guilin. It was first popular among Western travellers, who came for the fantastic karst limestone scenery, the laid-back atmosphere of the quiet little town, and the easy-going banana-pancake café culture. However, as the Chinese domestic tourist market has expanded, Yangshuo has been firmly added to the tour group itinerary. 

Now the town attracts more than three million visitors a year – more than it can easily sustain. The Li River that mumbles through the town is polluted and every street is lined with rowdy guesthouses. Most locals have sold up to enterprising outsiders who make money selling souvenirs – there’s an abundance of stalls here.

What’s the solution?

Though much of the charm of the town has been lost, it’s easy enough to find a bit of peace and quiet and enjoy the scenery. The best way is to hire a bicycle and nip down the road to the nearby hamlets, pedalling between the rice paddies and picturesque mountains. Other options include hiking trails and rock-climbing – this is one of Asia’s fastest-growing climbing spots.

3. Tulum, Mexico

What's the problem?

When Cancún was built in the 1970s, Mexico’s coral-fringed Caribbean coast was home to little more than Maya fishing villages and manatees. Since then tourist conurbations, theme parks and holiday homes have spread ever further south, and local Maya have been disenfranchised: their language is not taught in schools. 

Development has now arrived in Tulum – the last remaining and most important Maya community, surrounded by some of the wildest beaches in the Caribbean and on the edge of the Unesco World Heritage Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. 

What’s the solution?

Plans to build an international airport and large-scale resorts in Tulum mean the area will change forever, but it is still possible to visit the region with minimal impact. Small bungalow resorts dot the beaches around Tulum at present – stay here rather than the larger hotels. A handful practise genuine ecotourism: the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (www.cesiak.org) and  Las Ranitas (www.lasranitas.com) are two of the best.

Visit the Yucatec Maya-managed ProNatura Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh spider monkey reserve (18km from the ruins at Coba) or other patches of Riviera Maya wilderness with sustainable operators such as the Amigos de Sian Ka’an (www.amigosdesiankaan.org) or Eco Colors (www.ecotravelmexico.com). Do respect the indigenous culture: visitors should keep away from Tulum’s church (which serves as a Maya temple) unless invited.

4. Stonehenge, UK

What's the problem?

The globally renowned monument at the heart of the most significant prehistoric environment in the British Isles is brutally divorced from its context. Nearly a million visitors a year pay an entrance fee to traipse through a concrete underpass from a car park to a remote viewing area near the noisy junction of the A303 and A344.

A Commons Select Committee has described the situation as a ‘national disgrace’.“Seeing Stonehenge without its surrounding landscape, which encompasses the ceremonial sacred Avenue and numerous long barrows, is like entering a cathedral and looking only at the altar,” suggests Annabel Lawson, director of archaeology tour company Andante Travels.

What’s the solution? 

The obvious remedy is a tunnel taking the A303 underground, which has been put forward. This would leave the stones in glorious open country, and would allow the site to embrace the Avenue, long barrows and other features. Instead, the government seems hell-bent on ignoring this solution in favour of a new ‘visitor centre’ 2km away, with the uncalmed traffic still thundering by. “The tunnel is a workable solution. If it is not built, a great opportunity will be missed,” says Lawson.

5. Machu Picchu, Peru

What's the problem?

While strict limits have been placed on trekkers taking the Inca Trail to Peru’s star attraction, the site itself continues to suffer from its popularity. It has withstood war and earthquakes, but wasn’t designed to be trampled by 2,500 tourists each day. 

A bridge installed at Santa Teresa in 2007 means there’s now another route to the citadel, which brings the minibuses even closer. The damage and litter brought by such large numbers has led the World Monument Fund (www.wmf.org) to add Machu Picchu to its endangered 2010 Watch list.

What’s the solution?

Use a responsible tour operator. “Do your research,” says Ben Box, editor of the Footprint Latin American Handbook. “How many people will be in your group? How is litter dealt with? Ask what your guide can tell you about the site, the flora and fauna and how they are respected.”If trekking the Inca Trail, check your porters’ pay and the load they carry. 

For an independent view of operators and routes, see not-for-profit sites www.andeantravelweb.com and www.saexplorers.org. Many operators also offer treks to alternative Inca sites such as Vilcabamba and Choquequirao, which can be equally impressive. Alex Stewart, co-author of Trailblazer’s The Inca Trail, says: “The architecture at Choquequirao may not be as grand as Machu Picchu but it is more dramatically sited. And there are precious few people.”

6. Jaisalmer, India

What's the problem?

This golden fort rising out of Rajasthan’s Thar desert attracted 300,000 visitors in 2008: three times as many as ten years ago. The growing numbers staying in the fort itself, as opposed to the encircling town, are putting pressure on the aged infrastructure. Water seeping through old pipes is dissolving the city’s sandstone foundations, leading to gaping cracks; more tourists means increased water usage, so the process is accelerating.

What’s the solution? 

One in three families in Jaisalmer depend on tourism for a living; stopping it would be a shattering blow. The real solution is to upgrade the city’s drainage system, a complex and lengthy process. The World Monuments Fund and the charity Jaisalmer in Jeopardy (www.jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org) are working with the local government towards this, and restoring the city’s buildings.

In the meantime, many guidebooks and tour operators discourage visitors from staying in the fort itself – although local hoteliers complain this threatens their livelihood and reduces their ability to restore buildings, while making scant difference to water usage. Jaisalmer in Jeopardy trustee Veronica Gledhill Hall says: “If you are going to stay in the fort, at least be aware of the damage water can cause. Don’t leave the taps running.”

7. Timbuktu, Mali

What's the problem?

The drip-drip of security concerns around this iconic Saharan city reached a climax in November 2009, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office placed Timbuktu and most of northern Mali on its ‘Don’t Go’ list. 

Citing a high risk of terrorism and kidnapping – and following the execution of a British traveller by Al Qaeda in June – the advice also renewed the FCO’s warning against attending the Tuareg-led Festival of the Desert, held 60km north of Timbuktu at Essakane, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in January 2010.

What’s the solution?

Ultimately, improved security in Mali: the US has already launched a five-year Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, and the British government has also pledged support against militants moving freely within a vast and unpoliced territory. Timbuktu tourist numbers – never exactly huge – have already halved in a year, and locals complain that it is poverty, not terrorism, that is their real threat. 

Those who do visit the area should seek specialist insurance, and travel with an established operator with reliable local contacts. For a safer alternative to Timbuktu, choose the riverside capital of Bamako and the buzzing nearby Festival on the Niger at Ségou (3-7 February 2010).

8. Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

What's the problem?

It was meant to be Australia’s best-kept secret. Now this 30km stretch of beach paradise is at the heart of a heated dispute. After Lonely Planet placed the Bay of Fires on its ‘best spots for 2009’ list, state premier David Bartlett announced his plan to turn the area into a national park. But local Aborigines have other plans. They claim the strip, which is dotted with burial sites and middens, as their own.

What’s the solution?

The northern half of the Bay of Fires, Mount Williams, is already a national park. Avoid Binalong Bay, the southern part where Lonely Planet recommends staying, and you’ll escape the crowds as well as the controversy. 

James Stewart, author of the Rough Guide to Tasmania, says: “Binalong is a complete free-for-all in summer. The local kids descend and set up camp. You’re hard pressed to find any space.” Instead, he advises trekking Mount William’s unspoilt coastline on the four-day guided Bay of Fires Walk with accommodation at the Forester Beach Camp and the Bay of Fires ecolodge (£1,100 per person including all accommodation, food and drinks; www.bayoffires.com.au)

Three places that need MORE travellers


Thanks to the actions of President Mugabe, tourism in this once-roaring safari destination has quietened to a whisper. But with improved political and economic stability, and the 30th anniversary of independence to mark, 2010 is the year to return and reward the world-class guides and lodges who have stuck out the wilderness years. Wildlife sightings remain excellent; we’ll have a full-length feature early in 2010.

North-east Thailand

Clobbered by a triple whammy of credit crunch, swine flu and political unrest, 2009 was an annus horribilis for Thailand: international visitors were down over 15%. Good news for those who do go, though: the country continues to top value-for-money polls, and in the little-visited north-east region of Isaan, it’s enjoyably easy to escape the backpacker trail and explore Khmer ruins, hornbill-rich forests and the lazy curls of the Mekong.


A year of political strife has had grim consequences for the endemic wildlife of the African island, including the temporary closure of Marojejy NP and the poaching of endangered lemurs. “I believe that the cause and cure for this resumption of killing lemurs for food is tourism,” says guidebook pioneer and Madagascar expert Hilary Bradt. “Lack of tourists was the main cause; more tourists would be part of the cure. Ecotourism puts money into the pockets of villagers living adjacent to the reserves, and also provides an informal policing of the forest.”

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