Six Disappearing Destinations…

8th October 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

Forget bucket lists. Here are six destinations to visit before they die. 

1. The Maldives

Their name is synonymous with long-haul luxury, but the 1,200-island archipelago that forms the Maldives (pictured) is in danger of disappearing beneath the waves. With no island more than two metres above sea level, rising oceans threaten to sink the South Asian nation before the century is out.

After his election in 2008, former Maldivian President Mohamad Nasheed staged several publicity stunts to draw attention to his country’s plight – including an underwater cabinet meeting. He also pledged to create a sovereign fund to buy a new homeland for his 350,000 citizens.

Despite the gimmicky nature of these stunts, climate change is a very real threat (no part of the country is taller than a basketball hoop). The capital of Male has been buffered by a concrete sea wall, the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck hard and El Nino caused a barrage of coral bleaching in the late 1990s.

2. The Alps

The Alps have been a ski hotspot for decades. But if global warming trends continue, they could end up simply being a hotspot. According to a report released in the noughties by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), global warming could force the closure of half of all Alpine ski resorts by 2050.

The science is pretty simple. As temperatures increase, melting glaciers and less reliable powder could see the Alpine snowline rise by 1,000 feet in the next 50 years. That would place some of the region’s most popular resorts – including Kitzbühel in Austria and Gstaad in Switzerland – below the threshold.

For skiers, that’s likely to mean shorter seasons, more snowfalls like that of the disastrous 2006/7 season, or confining trips to high-altitude resorts like Austria’s St Anton or Alpe d’Huez in France.

Skiing is worth millions to Alpine communities, however, and efforts are underway to solve the problem. Many resorts have made significant investments in snow canons, dumping artificial powder on top of whatever nature will provide. Other areas are lobbying to open new high-altitude resorts. Ironically, of course, both are likely to mean even further carbon emissions.

3. Timbuktu, Mali

Bordering the Sahara in Mali, Timbuktu has long been a Boy’s Own-style byword for adventure, a fabled city whose golden age continues to excite the Western imagination (even Donald Duck used it as a hideaway).

Today, it’s a different story. This once-glorious nexus of culture has steadily been succumbing to desertification, with sands regularly billowing down the city streets. Exacerbated by land cultivation and grazing, the encroaching desert has begun to threaten treasures like the Djingareyber, Sankoré and Sidi Yahia mosques, and global warming may boost temperatures still further in the region.

It’s not just heat that troubles Timbuktu, however. The city’s great manuscripts and private libraries – which the dry desert air actually helps to protect – are also threatened by rising precipitation in rainy seasons. Recently, Timbuktu featured on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

4. Iran

Recent contacts between President Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani have led to a fresh wave of hope, but Iran is perpetually cast as a war-zone in waiting.

Demonstrations met with violence, inflammatory rhetoric and the West’s fear of its nuclear ambitions all threaten whatever ‘stability’ there may be in Iran.

Despite its image problem, however – and its potential for joining the unenviable list of disappearing destinations – Iran is a fascinating country. A warm, intelligent people; dynamic cities, ancient culture, surprising cuisine and a host of desert and mountain adventures are all waiting to be peeled back in the search for truth beneath the stereotypes.

5. Venice, Italy

“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” as Truman Capote said. But for how long can this sweet selection of architecture and art stay above the waves?

When Venice flooded in 1966, the pictures made international news headlines. When it floods nowadays, we barely bat an eyelid. Why? St. Mark’s Square overflows so regularly the sight of improvised walkways are commonplace.

Venice sits in a lagoon which is vulnerable both to sinking soil levels and high tides. As a result, the city has subsided by over 13cm in the last century, whilst sea levels continue to rise. A system of moveable barriers looks set to protect the city from floods by 2016, but however effective they are against local tides, what impact can they have on global warming? 

6. The Dead Sea, Jordan

Whilst Venice and the Maldives face the threat of rising sea levels, the Dead Sea is going in the opposite direction. Currently losing around three feet a year in depth, its recession has left a plain of salty muck in its wake, and the prospect of a complete disappearance is now very real.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (at 1,400 feet below sea level) and famous for being so salty that humans can float on top of it. Tourism is increasingly threatened, however. Take the Israeli Ein Gedi Spa – when it opened over 20 years ago, guests stepped out the back door to within a few feet of the water. Today, it’s a one-mile hike away.

Why is this happening? For several decades, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians have been siphoning off the River Jordan – the Dead Sea’s primary water source – to satisfy human and agricultural needs. Its flow today is a trickle, and unless Jordan’s plans to replenish it by conveying water from the Red Sea bear fruit, the Dead Sea has little chance of coming back to life.