3/21/2013 09:00:00 AM

Is Tourism a Threat to Antarctica?

Tourists kayak in Antarctica; photo by Polar Cruises via Flickr
The number of tourists visiting Antarctica is expected to reach 35,000 for the 2012-2013 season, a number concerning to environmental and tourism experts, the Associated Press reports. It may not seem like a large number, but in the fragile ecosystem, pollution from boats and cruise ships, and the potential for oil spills or the introduction of foreign microbes and species could be devastating. And with few onsite facilities, the roughness of the seas and the remoteness of the location, help is far away should cruise ships encounter trouble.

The biggest problem? Lack of regulation. Tourism is loosely regulated by the 28-country Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee. They’ve only made two mandatory rules since 1966—that tourism operators be insured to cover rescue and medical evacuations and that ships carrying more than 500 passengers be prohibited from landing. Neither regulation has been put into practice yet.

What do you think? Should Antarctica tourism be more heavily regulated? Is the continent on your bucket list?


  1. In reference to Colleen Clark’s "Is Tourism a Threat to Antarctica?", we would like to make a few clarifications and amplifications of the points raised.

    The article mentions that the Antarctic Consultative Meeting (ATCM) has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and that neither of those is yet in force. While the tourism industry has no control over the speed or seriousness with which individual Treaty Parties enact these rules through domestic legislation, thus giving them the authority of law, several worthwhile facts should be mentioned:

    1) Many of these resolutions and measures agreed at ATCM are derived from industry-led standards and practices established by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). For example, the 2009 agreement cited, which bars ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing tourists, is actually based on an IAATO requirement dating back a decade earlier. Such requirements are in our bylaws, and members must adhere to them.

    2) For IAATO operators, the notion that an ATCM recommendation, resolution or measure is binding or not isn’t as significant as the fact that all IAATO members conduct operations as if they were binding, from the moment they are adopted by the Treaty Parties. This position has been articulated many times at ATCM and is, again, one of the practices that we’ve established in order to ensure safe and environmentally responsible Antarctic tourism.

    Regarding the potential impact of pollution, it is true that tourists outnumber scientists and support staff during peak summer months. However, the latter group makes more of an impact because they stay longer. In an article written by Australian academic Julia Jabour in the book Health of Antarctica Wildlife, it is estimated that tourism’s footfall is around 32,350 days in the average season compared with 282,690 days by national program personnel, a factor of nearly nine times.

    This discrepancy carries over into the threat of introducing non-native species into the Antarctic environment. A recent study led by Prof. Steven Chown, director of the DSF-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, found that the largest risk of seed transfer was associated with scientific personnel and tourism support personnel rather than with tourists themselves.

    IAATO members take this threat very seriously, and regularly review and update our procedures to prevent such occurrence. These practices have become a recognized cornerstone of IAATO members' commitment to environmentally responsible tourism to the Antarctic, and in many respects have led the way among the whole Antarctic community.

    IAATO members – who currently represent 100% of the SOLAS passenger vessel operators to Antarctica – pursue and obtain their permits and authorizations from their respective Treaty Party governments; e.g. environmental impact, contingency planning, and much more. This is not only in keeping with the need to ensure safe and responsible travel to Antarctica by our operators and for their clients. It also speaks directly to the responsibility of everyone to keep the continent pristine for future generations.

    Steve Wellmeier
    Administrative Director

  2. The article states: “The biggest problem? Lack of regulation”. This lacks a global view. The biggest environmental problem Antarctica faces: global warming, at least 10,000 fold more significant than tourism’s potential impact. Next biggest: ocean health and fisheries, both present and past (developing krill fisheries – don’t starve the penguins! – to the unregulated longline pirate fishing of Chilean Seabass, to the historical removal of nearly the entire population of whales of the Antarctic). And as IAATO’s Steve Wellmeier points out above, national parties account for 10x the human presence in Antarctica of tourism. This isn’t to say tourism should be ignored. Indeed, if tourism received more attention the world might note that we have been trying to get national parties to abide by the same high level of environmental operation standards that we expedition leaders commit to. Some do, some don’t. The following is a comment I posted to the original article:

    It’s a pleasure to read an article that has some balance, instead of screaming how tourism is ruining the world’s last pristine wilderness. As an expedition leader for, and co-owner of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris, I go to Antarctica because I believe it to be the most beautiful place on the planet. I’d far sooner change my business entirely than cause harm to a place that is sacred to me. Yes, every foot on the continent has an impact, but realize there is both positive and negative. How can we love what we do not know, and how can we care for what we do not love? The biggest single force changing Antarctica is climate change, so bringing people to Antarctica on in-depth expeditions that open eyes to how fast, in fact, we are heating up the planet is a critical part of creating the public will to break down political inertia on this front. Yes, traveling contributes to climate change, which we in part seek to address through initiatives within the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) addressing Antarctic tourism’s contribution to climate change.

    Every tourist with a camera and a conscience has the tools to be environmental police. Far less scrutinized is the ten times greater presence of research and national party personnel in Antarctica (who definitely have a right to be there, but as well should be held to similarly high standards of minimizing environmental impact). And then there is fishing, from the removal of whales in the last century, to illegal and unregulated fishing of Chilean Seabass, to the growing krill fishery that, if expanded to an unsustainable level could threaten the cornerstone of the entire marine ecosystem (ie, starve the penguins!) Eye on the ball: tourism is a manageable threat to Antarctica, while bringing people to see, experience and learn about this incredible wilderness. Let’s keep a close eye on tourism to Antarctica, but let’s also realize that tourism is part of the solution to keeping Antarctica pristine.

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