More people are visiting the frozen continent than ever before. Has the very idea of Antarctic tourism become unethical?
It was an arresting image: a Boeing 787 Dreamliner parked on the Antarctic ice, smiling flight attendants in knee-length dresses posing in front of it. The shot, taken to mark the first landing of one of the world’s largest planes on a runway of ice and snow late last year, seemed to mark a new phase for Antarctic tourism.
Fortunately the flight in question was delivering personnel and supplies for research rather than tourism (unlike a 2021 Airbus A340 flight that landed in Antarctica carrying supplies for an exclusive adventure camp) – but travel to Earth’s southernmost continent has nonetheless reached a new milestone.
The number of visitors will hit 100,000 for the first time this tourist season (October 2023-March 2024), a 40% jump over the previous record, and has brought a new urgency to the question of how much, if any, tourism should be allowed on the icy continent.
“That number has really lit a fire under folks,” said Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a coalition of non-governmental organisations that has been advocating for Antarctic conservation for more than 40 years. “We are now seeing an urgency [about] the need to properly manage this industry and its effect on a very fragile and rapidly changing environment.“
The International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO) now lists 95 vessels in its directory, including 21 yachts, which carry wealthy tourists drawn by the lure of a “last frontier” destination, a place – as one operator put it – “so pristine and remote you can hear snowflakes hitting the water”. Some ships carry upwards of 400 tourists a time, with most departing from the tip of South America for the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts northwards out of the West Antarctic ice mass.
With increased competition comes a swathe of new tourist activities beyond the usual shore excursions to visit penguin and seal colonies and sightseeing trips on Zodiac inflatables for up-close views of icebergs, humpbacks and orcas.
“The industry is expanding and there is a big diversification of activities including kayaking, submersibles and helicopters,” said Elizabeth Leane, professor of Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. “At some point it’s going to get too big – but we don’t know what that number is.”
Many IAATO members say promoting Antarctic conservation is part of their mission.
The opportunity to educate and inspire “is pivotal to safeguarding the wild and awe-inspiring places we visit”, said Hayley Peacock-Gower, chief marketing officer of Aurora Expeditions. “We believe that small ship expeditions are the way forward, with a smaller number of passengers, led by experts and operating with the utmost respect for the environment.”
In addition to introducing new ships that generate fewer CO2 emissions, many cruise companies analyse every aspect of their operations, even low-impact activities such as snow shoeing. “We ensure that our expedition team covers any tracks so penguins don’t get stuck,” saidDamian Perry, managing director at Hurtigruten Asia-Pacific.
In fact, IAATO members follow strict rules designed to protect the environment, including removing all waste from the continent and adhering to sterilisation protocols to avoid inadvertently introducing non-native species. Nonetheless a number of biosecurity studies – including one that vacuumed tourists’ pockets, socks, shoes and camera gear – found a large number of non-native species present.
“We were not surprised by the findings – it was what we anticipated,” said Antarctic ecologist Dana Bergstrom, now a visiting professor at the University of Wollongong, who helped conduct the study. And the risks are real. An invasive lawn species has established a foothold on one of Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands, while avian flu recently reached the Sub-Antarctic Islands, where it has had a devastating effect on the seal population.
“It will probably reach Antarctica sometime this season, which would be awful,” said Leane, noting that the virus is more likely to reach Antarctica via birds rather than tourists. “We don’t know how susceptible penguins are, but seals and sea birds are definitely susceptible.”
Despite these looming threats, Bergstrom says biosecurity is not the biggest hazard facing Antarctica’s wilderness areas. “Tourists can mitigate [biosecurity risks] by taking new clothing to Antarctica,” she said, “but we know the carbon impact is a real issue.”
The sheer distance most visitors travel to reach Antarctic makes carbon emissions a serious problem. The average per-person carbon emissions for an Antarctic tourist are 3.76 tonnes – about the total sum that an individual typically generates in an entire year.
Studies have shown that on the Antarctic Peninsula, home to popular landing sites such as Cuverville Island on Neko Harbour, the snow has a higher concentration of black carbon from ship exhaust, which soaks up more heat and speeds up snow melt.
One study calculated that each tourist between 2016 and 2020 was effectively melting around 83 tonnes of snow, due largely to emissions from cruise ships.
The Antarctic is vulnerable not just because of the fragility of its environment, but due to the lack of a single governing body. The Antarctic Treaty, established in 1961 to provide governance for the continent, operates on a consultative basis, which means all 56 parties have to agree before a change can be implemented.
“The last major decision on tourism was a measure passed in 2009 that prohibits cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers from making landings,” explained Christian. That regulation has still not officially been implemented as not every signatory country has ratified it domestically. It has nonetheless been adopted by IAATO, which also restricts how many ships can visit any given site per day as well as the number of passengers who can be ashore at any one time.
“IAATO tend to lead in this area, because they are much more reactive,” added Bergstrom. “What you can’t expect them to do, as an industry body, is to cap numbers.”
There is clear consensus that something needs to change, but no agreement on what those changes should be. Should landings be made at a larger number of sites for instance, or should we aim to keep the human footprint as small as possible?
“We are already seeing adventure-style tourism spreading down to the Ross Sea,” Leane said. “Perhaps we say the peninsula is the part of Antarctica that has the great human impact, and we leave the rest alone.”
Christian believes that any caps – whether on number of sites or on the numbers of ships visiting – would be contentious and suggests an alternative might be to treat Antarctica as a national park and start charging entrance fees.
“Frankly there is so little regulation now that almost anything that will protect fragile areas and ensure industry is regulated by an official legal source rather than self-regulated, would be really positive,” she said.
Researchers recommend that anyone thinking about visiting Antarctica should take a hard look at their motivation and the impacts of their choice.
“As a researcher, it’s a moral decision that I make every time I go, whether what I’m doing is worth the impact,” said Leane, who says tourists should also weigh up the consequences.
“If your motivation is simply because you have stepped on six continents already and you want to step on the seventh – personally I think that’s a fairly frivolous reason.”
Bergstrom also suggests would-be travellers think twice. “If what you really want is to connect with snow and ice and you’re in the northern hemisphere, can you catch a train to the nearest snow region instead?” she said. “Or if you really want to make this trip, then look at trade-offs. Look at how much carbon you will use and consider how you can save on carbon elsewhere [in your life].”
Thoughtful Travel is a BBC Travel series that helps people explore places responsibly and sustainably, all while making them better through regenerative and responsible travel.
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