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.
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.
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
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
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