The Greek historian Herodotus is said to have made one of the earliest lists of seven wonders of the world. These were man-made structures, including the still mysterious feat of ancient horticulture known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More recent times saw natural alternatives to these marvels of classical architecture proposed: waterfalls, mountains, canyons, reefs. Dramatic landscapes, features and wildlife, and the pleasure and excitement they offer to visitors, are staples of tourism.

As environmental consciousness has risen in the west, attitudes to such sightseeing have changed. Yes, it is thrilling to visit remote forests or spot rare species. But travelling to far-flung destinations is carbon-intensive when flights or long road journeys are involved, and conservation can be made more difficult as well as assisted by sightseers. There is a balance to be struck, and ethical governments and businesses around the world try to maximise the benefits while minimising the harms. Colombia, for example, recently introduced laws aimed at promoting sustainable tourism.

Most of us, in the rich countries where people take most holidays, understand better than ever that there are costs as well as benefits associated with exploring. One of the six pledges proposed by an environmental campaign launched last month, The Jump, is to “holiday local”, taking short-haul flights once every three years and long-haul flights very rarely. Fortunately, the UK’s 15 national parks, 86 areas of outstanding natural beauty (known in Scotland as national scenic areas), and countless other landscapes that are without formal status, but beloved nonetheless, mean that there is no shortage of special places for domestic nature tourists to visit – while a host of European beauty spots are accessible by rail.

One recent survey found that Windsor Great Park and Kew have become Britain’s most popular attractions, while Covid has created difficulties for indoor spaces which do not apply to outdoor ones. Visitor numbers at wildlife trusts are high, with waiting lists for beaver-spotting. Some companies that formerly ran foreign trips have adapted to the pandemic by taking people to watch dolphins and other marine life off British coasts instead.

This is not to minimise the destruction of nature that is also taking place. Sewage outflows are out of control due to failed water industry regulation. The owners of a popular rewilded estate in West Sussex – Knepp – have warned that plans to build 3,500 homes next to their land would be catastrophic for the species that live there. But as we confront an environmental emergency that grows ever more dangerous, it is essential to cultivate appreciation for the nature that surrounds us. In a small way, holiday outings to watch dragonflies, kingfishers or seals, or be surrounded by trees that are coming into leaf, could help us to focus on what matters.


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