Arnie WeissmannThere were several factors that went into the decision to stop flying the supersonic Concorde, but chief among them was that it flew half empty much of the time.

However, after it was announced that it would cease operations, Concordes began shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic with a load factor approaching 100%. Once it had become an endangered experience, it was a matter of some urgency to book a seat on it.

In Bill Bryson's wonderful book about Australia, "In a Sunburned Country" (Broadway Books, 2000), he writes, "Perhaps it's my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can."

Bryson was writing about endangered plant life Down Under, but he could easily have been writing about the snowpack atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the waning days of the Concorde or polar bear-watching expeditions.

There has been a bit of back-and-forth in our letters section recently over a previous column I wrote in which Roni Madhvani, who owns safari lodges in Uganda and Kenya, expressed concern about the effect that exploitation of oil reserves along Africa's Rift Valley will have on game-viewing in the region.

"It's important to visit Africa and see it in the next five to 10 years, before everything changes," he said.

Jim Holden, president of African Travel, a tour operator, interpreted Madhvani's comments to mean that tourism there will "disappear," and replied that governments and aid groups can effectively come to the animals' defense.

Madhvani responded that he agreed efforts can be made to mitigate the impact on tourism, but wrote: "My point was that there are dramatic changes taking place [and that] the experience [will be] different to what it currently is over time."

Most examples of see-it-while-you-can travel opportunities involve a specific threat to a specific attraction, but in fact, all destinations change over time. Sometimes, change can be for the better. Crime in New York is no longer the problem it once was. Millennium Park has revitalized Chicago's lakefront.

Entire cities can be transformed by tourism. Think Orlando. Think Las Vegas. Think Dubai.

I recently returned from Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom bordered by China and India, east of Nepal. If all goes as its government hopes, tourism is poised to increase fivefold in just one year, from 20,000 in 2011 to 100,000 in 2012.

In a series of Dispatches that beganFriday and in a cover story next week, I write about what is surely one of the most fascinating experiments in tourism development we're likely to see in our lifetime. There are few, if any, places in the world that have remained as isolated from global influences as Bhutan has.

Tourism officials there are keenly aware of the potential threats and benefits of tourism and are rolling out a thoughtful approach that focuses on low-impact, high-revenue visitation. The country has a population of only 600,000 (plus 100,000 Indian workers), but the government hopes to dilute the impact of tourism by distributing visitors across the seasons and throughout the nation (Bhutan is about the size of Switzerland).

A policy requiring visitors to be accompanied by a guide will remain in place. The guides both educate about the culture and ensure, as the prime minister told me, that guests behave in a way that is respectful.

Bhutan's remote location and its relatively high cost (a minimum spend of $200 per person, per day) makes its goal of 100,000 visitors in 2012 ambitious, but it is such an attractive destination that I have no doubt it will see regular increases of visitors until it reaches its ultimate goal of 200,000.

Is Bhutan an example of a country that needs to be seen, in Madhvani's words, "in the next five to 10 years, before everything changes"?

There's no question that visitors who arrive in 2011 or 2012 will have a unique opportunity to see an unspoiled country whose attitudes toward visitors is genuinely open and welcoming. And the Bhutanese are approaching tourism intelligently. The country could well remain an outstanding destination for decades.

That said, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing for the industry if consumers embrace the notion of urgency. Yes, I had a seat on one of those final Concorde flights. Potential change is a powerful motivator to travel.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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