Should Antarctic tourism be encouraged?

Should Antarctic tourism be encouraged?

Antarctica’s growing tourism industry:

Antarctica’s been hailed as one of the world’s last ‘tourism frontiers’. Ironically, its extremity has both deterred and attracted explorers across history, and its wilderness is put at risk by the people who seek out just that. If tourism on and around the continent is is to continue without causing significant harm to the ecosystem that attracts visitors to start with, far more comprehensive regulations must be put in place. Antarctica is a fragile environment, and its terrestrial and marine life (60-70% of which are endemic to the continent) are easily put at risk by the invasive species and diseases tourism can bring.

Antarctica tourist figures – coolantarctica.com

Modern shipborne tourism began around Antarctic waters in 1958. By the 1980s four ships (including the first, the Lindblad Explorer) were operating in the area. To this day, Lindblad Expeditions still operate private expeditions in partnership with National Geographic to continue Eric Lindblad’s wish to ‘foster an understanding and appreciation of the most remote and pristine places on the globe’.

The late 1970s saw the introduction of large-scale airborne tourism with overflights by Qantas and Air New Zealand, a method of Antarctic exploration that only the former still maintains after Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into the side of Mount Erebus on November 28th, 1979, killing all 257 people on board.

Small boat landings, small boat cruises, and larger ship tours form the bulk of tourist visits to the continent. The 2016-2017 summer season saw over 44,000 visitors compared to around 19,000 at the turn of the 21st century: continued and consistent growth in visitor figures is set to rise, alongside increasing concerns regarding the risks posed to the Antarctic ecosystem by such rising foot-fall.

Regulation on the continent:

In 1991, 7 tour companies formed the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) to advocate for, and maintain, the safe practice of the growing Antarctic tourism industry. Given that Antarctica is an internationally recognised ‘global commons‘ with no one state holding sovereignty over any activities, the tourism industry on the continent is self-regulated.

The IAATO abide by the regulations laid out in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) that came into force in 1961. The purpose of the ATS (and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty that was later subsumed within it) was (and still is) to safeguard peace and the freedom of science on the continent, and so the IAATO work to continue these aims.

The dangers of Antarctic tourism:

In an environment as pristine and sensitive as Antarctica’s, the risks of increasing footfall are high. The fact that a footprint left in Antarctic moss is likely to remain ten years later is reflective of this: swap the footprint for a pen, for example, or even a minor oil spill and the implications for wildlife are worrying.

Antarctica is a ‘laboratory of global scientific importance’, and the international community has a duty to weigh up the pros and cons of allowing an increasing number of tourists to traverse its landscape under the regulation of one, self-imposed organisation. Criticising the IAATO and the in-depth monitoring they do would be unfair, but it is a fact that a comprehensive, strictly regulated, independent system for the tourism industry does not exist in the same way that it does for mining and extraction. Some argue that the precautionary principle is too weakly applied in the case of the tourism industry and place political opportunism as the cause of the discrepancy between the regulation of tourism and that of mining.

photo by Cassie Matias

From tourist ship oil spills and pollution by individual tourists to the disruption of nests and the trampling of vegetation, the risks associated with tourism are aplenty: as ‘ecotourism‘ grows, it’s likely such risks will too. The impact of tourism on the continent is also heightened by the fact that landing sites are confined ‘spatially’ and by the relatively short time period within which tourists can visit Antarctica (November to March). Both practicalities further concentrate the pressures of the industry on specific sites.

Do the benefits outweigh the negatives?

However paradoxical the Antarctic tourism industry may be, it is without a doubt necessary. The cultural dimensions of Antarctic tourism are of vital importance: making people feel attached to an environment is, in terms of environmental advocacy and cultural significance, immensely importance. By making Antarctica a real and tangible place in people’s minds, the continent becomes not only a place to aspire to visit, but a place to protect and maintain.

The question isn’t whether Antarctic tourism should be banned, but a question of how best to manage it. Having spoken to environmental scientist Professor Viv Jones, it’s clear that Antarctic tourism is highly regulated and that tour operators do adhere to the stringent rules put out by the IAATO.  The guidelines and regulations formulated by IAATO are incredibly comprehensive. Its ‘Do Not Pack a Pest to Antarctica‘ webpage, for example, takes potential visitors to the continent through an in-depth description of how to avoid bringing invasive species with you once stepping on land. Similar resources cover wildlife watching and ‘going ashore’ briefings, and the ATS website puts out guidelines for appropriate behaviour on specific sites on Antarctica, including information on giving ‘commuting penguins’ the right of way…

Going Ashore in Antarctica – IAATO Briefing Film 2018 (ENGLISH) from IAATO on Vimeo.

It’s insufficient, however, for the IAATO to be the only institution working to regulate tourism on the continent. Intergovernmental regimes and individual nations need to take a bigger role in managing the industry and independent systems of monitoring and observation must be established if an ecosystem as precarious as that of Antarctica’s is to be protected in the future.

Do you think tourism in Antarctica is ethical? Let me know below.


Cover image by Cassie Matias

13 thoughts on “Should Antarctic tourism be encouraged?”

  • “Tourism ” …Just the word makes me shiver in relation to Antarctica. It has so many potential negative implications that I feel that calling tgem something like ‘Science based environmental protection excursions” (?)

    Just to try and alter the mindset of visitors RIGHT FROM THE FIRST POINT OF CONTACT. Calculate the absolute minimum amount permitted each year, and link the visit into whatever us or has been going on from a research POV.

    THEN Antarctica becomes SO PRECIOUS you can’t get there any more unless you sign up to assist on a scientific research project .

    Everyone walks on tiptoes and pucks up dropped eyelashes.

    You continue with ANTARCTIC TOURISM. they jump off the boat, look for somewhere to make yellow snow and stompabout saying “This place could really use McDonald’s…”



    • I know what you mean Stuart, it doesn’t seem like the right word, does it? Maybe that’s the way forward, linking all trips to the continent into scientific research or assistance!

  • Loved reading the post. I’m not sure where I stand with the tourism question because I still have much to learn…reading your posts are helping!

    P.S. my 7 yr old little sister is obsessed with all things Antarctica (especially Emperor Penguins!)so I’ve been pulling some facts from your blog to read to her to go along with her bedtime stories based around Antarctica! She’s loving it. Thank you!


    • Me neither…although I do know I absolutely want to visit at some point in my life. Contradictory, maybe?
      That is so sweet! and really lovely to hear. Thanks for the support x

  • Wow. Reading this is very eye-opening. I had no idea tourism was happening on such a large scale. It’s intriguing yet disgusting. I really don’t know how to feel.

    • I think in reality most people who visit the continent are very environmentally aware and conscious with a deep passion for Antarctica. That doesn’t, however, negate the risks associated it…it’s a hard one to figure out for sure.

  • I feel like it is important to educate as many people as possible about the effects we are having on beautiful places like the Antarctic. However, I don’t know whether tourism is the way to do it. If we can do it in a way that doesn’t harm the fragile environment, then it is necessary.

    • I think I agree Madison. Although I do think ‘tourism’ implies negative connotations when the majority of visitors to the continent have positive intentions to protect and cherish the area!

  • Hello! I just wanted to start off by saying that I really loved how educational yet interesting your blog is. As an American college student, I haven’t been informed very much about Antarctica let alone climate change as it can be a bit of a taboo, controversial topic in the classroom. So this has been an eye opening, mind blowing reading journey for me and I’ve loved it.
    In response to this article about tourism in Antarctica, I feel it is something that we as a society need to strongly discourage. Not only are there many risks involved in allowing tourism to become part of cultural normality but also Antarctica isn’t a place where there are many human inhabitants so allowing human interaction to take place there could destroy many ecosystems or make adaptation necessary for the animals/wildlife present disrupting the whole circle of life that takes place there. As John Durban, a British killer whale researcher has pointed out: “It’s just a pointless exercise for the sake of saying you’ve done something abstract, while burning tons of fossil fuel in the process”. As cool as it would be to cross off going to Antarctica and cuddling with penguins on my bucket list, the preservation of Antarctica cannot be done with the influx of tourism.
    Thank you again for your bravery on discussing and researching such a topic. Climate change is a heavy ridden topic and definitely one that people can take offense to so it’s awesome to see someone out there bravely tackling it. 🙂 Please continue uploading more posts because I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s nice to finally be learning about all of this although its taking over 12 years of education to finally learn about it.

    • That quote is pretty spot on…it’s a more complex issue that you’d first think. I agree that mass tourism to Antarctica has the potential to hugely hinder preservation efforts. But I do think that more important would be stringent regulation with equally as stringent enforcement powers behind the regulations.

      Thanks for reading and caring! I definitely won’t stop posting after this assessment ends. Stay tuned!

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