Aciego recognizes that tourism can damage fragile ecosystems and produce high carbon emissions. To minimize harm, she keeps tour groups small, avoids disturbing pristine areas and teaches responsible wilderness practices such as reducing litter. And she hopes that clients leave with a greater awareness of environmental issues. Helen Giacoma, of Dallas, Texas, went to Iceland with Aciego last autumn, and was able to see for herself how far a glacier had retreated over one year. “It just hits you, how real it is”, she says. She now follows science news more closely.
Scientists have many options for outreach, ranging from making videos to giving talks. But for some researchers, nothing compares to travelling the globe to show tourists the science behind landscapes, ecosystems or the night sky. These jobs offer opportunities to see new places, revisit beloved spots and communicate to a captive audience over several days. “You’re getting paid to travel,” says Dominic Rollinson, a senior birdwatching guide at Birding Ecotours in Cape Town, South Africa.
The work isn’t a series of holidays, however. Trips can involve long hours, difficult clients and many logistical duties. Long absences from home can strain relationships with family and friends. And the pay is often modest.
The downsides haven’t deterred scientists such as Bob Jackson, founder of the travel company Geology Adventures in Ravensdale, Washington, and a former geology consultant. “It has its ups and its downs,” he says. “But it is definitely the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
Tourism has exploded over the past few decades: the United Nations World Tourism Organization in Madrid estimates that the number of international tourist arrivals rose from 531 million to 1.3 billion from 1995 to 2017. Although statistics on science-themed tourism are sparse, signs of growth are emerging. Birding tourism has “gone through the roof” over the past decade, partly as a result of interest in citizen science and the promotion of birding events through social media, says Chris Lotz, founder of Birding Ecotours. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris, on average, about eight Global Geoparks — areas with international geological significance — have been established annually over the past decade, and there are currently about 140 such sites worldwide.
Tourists are seeking “a more enriching, educational travel experience”, says Tao Tao Holmes, director of trip design and operations at Atlas Obscura — a company based in New York City that runs trips and an online database about places and foods from around the world. This year, about 15% of the firm’s tours have a science or wildlife theme. Holmes says that science-themed trips regularly fill up, and clients often sign up for more afterwards.
Scientists take a variety of paths into the industry. Rollinson led day tours for a birdwatching travel company while he was a PhD student at the University of Cape Town. Lotz, whom he met through birdwatching circles, then offered him a full-time job. Jackson led geology field trips for elementary school students, and the popularity of these excursions prompted him to start Geology Adventures. He now runs trips full-time for more than 1,500 travellers each year in western North America, Spain and Australia.
Researchers can suggest ideas to travel companies. Atlas Obscura is open to proposals for trips that offer special access or knowledge, Holmes says. For instance, during a Utah trip that the company ran this year with an avian biologist, travellers got to help researchers find tiny and elusive flammulated owls. Partnering with a company can relieve a scientist-guide of some responsibilities; Atlas Obscura takes care of details such as advertising, payments and liability insurance.
Some cruise companies hire biologists, geologists or astronomers to give talks and point out natural phenomena. Ornithologist Samuel Temidayo Osinubi started working for the cruise line Silversea in Monaco, after being recommended by another lecturer. Now a postdoc at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he spends about two months each year on cruises and has sailed around west Africa, the British Isles, the Arctic and Antarctica.