It was a beautiful afternoon along the southern coast of Italy as we climbed on board a boat to visit an active volcano. Maybe not the brightest thing we could have done, but you gotta live dangerously every once in a while to remember that you’re still living. We had the opportunity to take an hour long boat ride from Tropea to a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea just north of Sicily that some scholars have suggested was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mordor destination, Mt. Doom. How does one pass up such a chance encounter with literature. It is also the site Jules Verne chose to end his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. It really hadn’t had a major eruption since 2009, so why not roll the dice if it meant getting a chance to see a minor eruption or two. It did not disappoint.
Stromboli is part of a chain of active volcanic islands that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an Italian Nature Reserve.
This World Heritage designation means that the Italians will preserve this landscape and the surrounding islands as a legacy to all humanity. It means that it is significant enough to be of interest to people beyond the Italian population, people from anywhere in the world. Actually, this designation generally means an increase in tourist dollars which is why countries often nominate their “special” landscapes and locations to become World Heritage sites. They have to abide by some restrictions set through UNESCO (a branch of the UN) in order to have the designation (this is probably why you don’t see more World Heritage sites in the US), but in exchange they become a “spot on the map.” That spot acts as a magnet for tourists, and usually an uptick in the local economy and job market as they service those tourists.
Certainly the beautiful black sand beaches (crushed lava) and classic fishing village “feel” to the port should be attraction enough; but tourism is about PR, and nothing says come check out our cool stuff like an international designation. For the “eco-tourist” the World Heritage designation is the gold standard. On this journey through Europe we are scholars, pilgrims and yes, eco-tourists as well.
I wish to be clear, I don’t think the designation is meaningless, just a PR scam, or without merit. In fact, quite the contrary! I think it is well worth supporting, not the only because it points out some amazing places on the planet, and provides them a level of protection; but also because it is a participation in the international management of landscapes that should matter to all of us regardless of nationality. We do, at the end of the day, share the same planet, and it is the only one currently inhabitable by human beings. The entire planet is our home and the concept of having a “world heritage” suggests that we are a global community with a shared identity and a shared heritage. This should not replace the local celebration of our differences, but it can act as a bridge to help us understand we have common values and identity as well. Both our local identities and our common world identity are tied to and shaped by the landscape, and the World Heritage designation of UNESCO reminds us of that. If it can also boost a local economy through increased tourism, so much the better, as long as the landscape itself is not “loved to death.” I’m not sure if we have crossed that threshold with Stromboli yet or not, but as we left at night, I was glad it made it on the list. The eruption, much like the geysers of Yellowstone, came in a predictable way so we could all get that “picture/experience of a lifetime”.
As the volcano blew, but not too much, I was grateful for the times we can count on nature to dazzle in a “manageable” way. When I watch the many signs of nature not staying so “contained” in an era of climate change (hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc.), I will take this one chance to say “wow”, and thanks….