As last chance tourism booms in the icy wilderness of Antarctica, there is an urgent need to weigh the cost and benefits of travel.
If you travel to the very end of the world, you’ll find penguins, ice – though it is melting a bit – and with more and more frequency, tourists. Considered the last untouched place on our planet, Antarctica is alluring due to its gorgeous glacial landscapes, unique wildlife, and potential for adventure. There isn’t any other place like it in the world, which is why scientists, explorers, and curious travelers flock to it despite harsh conditions. There’s another driving factor in recent years: we don’t know how much longer a place like Antarctica will be around, causing a surge of “last chance tourism”. As Antarctica is exposed to more tourists each year, hitting a record 74,401 in the 2019-2020 season, there have been rising concerns about how travel harms an environment that is already under threat. No matter how fascinating Antarctica is, there’s a big question that must be answered: can travel to the icy continent really be sustainable?
Although there are currently regulations in place, rising tourism numbers put pressure on a fragile ecosystem. Some feel the need to reassert that Antarctica should be protected and ensure that travel to Antarctica is done minimally and for the right reasons. Others feel that casual travel should be slowed or stopped entirely. And some are waiting for Antarctica to become mainstream enough to make a business out of it. No matter what, all travelers need to be mindful of their impact in order to preserve Antarctica as waves of last chance tourists come ashore.
History and Regulations
Antarctica was first discovered in 1820 and was soon determined unsuitable for human settlement because of its freezing temperatures, strong winds, and the occasional volcanic eruption. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed, keeping the landmass politically neutral in face of the Cold War. Ever since, Antarctica has mainly played host to researchers and explorers challenged by extreme conditions.
Though the Antarctic climate is for the most part unlivable, it didn’t stop – and instead, may have encouraged – exploration and discovery. Tourists have joined curious minds in Antarctica since the 1950s with a surprising surge in numbers in recent years. Since the 1980s, there has been a 600% increase in tourists as technology makes the region more accessible. Having no permanent settlements and no government, regulation of the region’s tourism is handled by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).
The IAATO was formed in 1991 in response to the Environmental Protocol established by the Antarctic Treaty. Since their founding, the IAATO has placed vital regulations on who can visit the continent, how many can visit, and how they interact with the environment. For the most part, IAATO has been largely successful in minimizing harm from tourism. In addition to making trips safer and more sustainable, guests are encouraged to learn about their surroundings and assist with research in hopes that they will advocate for the region themselves.
However, IAATO membership is voluntary and there are always those that ignore rules and regulations. Even with the organization in place, there have been surges of tourists in the past that left them woefully unprepared. In recent years, both the numbers of visitors arriving to Antarctica on ship and those who actually step foot on its land has been on the rise, hitting over 55,000 in the year 2019, which then increased by 32% in 2020. After a brief pause due to the pandemic in the travel year 2020-2021, visitors are expected to return and surpass previous records in 2022. Although Antarctica may not be suffering through over-tourism the same way as Rome or other densely populated destinations, it still suffers from foreign guests. This harm is likely to increase and become less manageable with more tourists coming each year. For this reason, many are pressing for stronger, mandatory regulations.
How Humans Harm Antarctica
Antarctica is known for its untamed wilderness, including severe weather and hard to maneuver landscape. Due to these challenges, when tourists come ashore they tend to settle in the same place and cause land erosion. This is exacerbated by the brief 5-month long tourism season that Antarctica is able to offer from November through March.
In addition to land erosion, tourists can disturb penguins, elephant seals, and other wildlife during their expeditions. Guests are required to maintain a distance of around 15 feet/ 0.004 kilometers, but they may still cause unnecessary stress to wildlife during their breeding season, which happens to be peak-tourism season.
There is also a risk of waste being improperly disposed of, or oil spills and other marine pollution from improperly regulated ships. One ship, the MV Explorer sank in the Antarctic waters in 2007, spilling 50,000 gallons of oil that continues to impact native Antarctic species today. Large cruise ships are not allowed to come to shore as of 2009, but medium vessels are not blameless either. Each ship that enters Antarctic waters has the possibility of introducing invasive species to a delicate ecosystem if not properly inspected and cleaned.
Tourism is not the only source of harm. Since Antarctica’s discovery, it has been a hotspot for whale and seal hunting, driving down populations down to near extinction. Populations of seals and whales have rebounded thanks to lowering demands of furs and blubber for oil and regulations were put in place in the 60s. Today the overfishing of toothfish and krill, an important part of many sea-creatures’ diets, puts the Antarctic’s ecosystem at risk yet again.
And although travelers may contribute, most conclude that climate change is the real villain of the story. It’s worth noting that this does not absolve tourists entirely from contributing to the problem. The travel industry’s carbon footprint is intimidatingly large as people fly without attempting carbon neutrality. The Antarctic region is certainly not a place for sustainable luxury tourism, which is becoming more popular among those seeking a remote, exclusive, and expensive experience. Importing goods takes fuel, and recreational activities like jet-skiing and heli-skiing damage the landscape – and that’s after people fly in on their private jets.
The Best Way to Interact With Antarctica
Tourism to Antarctica has some negative impacts, but all hope is not lost. It’s possible to be sustainable and minimize harm while experiencing the wonders of Antarctica. Companies like Quark Expeditions that adhere to the IAATO guidelines can have a profound impact on their guests while being mindful of how they interact with the surrounding environment. Quark makes a point to inform their passengers and have them engage with the research being conducted. These kinds of interactions from passengers ready to learn and understand can have a profound impact on how they view Antarctica and what they do for conservation moving forward.
One person who was inspired enough by the White Continent to spend a lifetime fighting for its preservation is explorer Robert Swan. After becoming the first person to hike both the North and South Poles he founded the 2041 foundation in 1984 to kick off a 50 year mission to preserve the continent. The organization is named for the year that the Antarctic Treaty is up for re-negotiation. Swan advocates for the continuation of Antarctica’s political neutrality and environmental protection, limiting human interactions with the environment to scientific research. 2041 has led several successful expeditions over the years and shown that inspiring Antarctic exploration can be done using sustainable products and renewable energy. The project still warns that the last untouched land needs to remain as untouched as possible, and we are on a timer to make the necessary changes for Antarctica’s preservation.
The Last “Untouched” Continent
As tourism in the Last Continent becomes more frequent, we are still left wondering… what will happen when the last untouched place on Earth is just another destination? And is that a future we need to prevent? It seems unlikely that people will stop visiting Antarctica entirely. But, as the land becomes more accessible and mainstream, all individuals will have to become more responsible if they want Antarctica to have its best chance of survival. Tourism must continue to be strongly regulated in order to protect its unique wildlife and climate, and this is only possible help from people around the world recognizing their impact and ability to fight for sustainability on all fronts.
The future is uncertain, and there is no single answer on how to save Antarctica. What is certain is that there is a need to reevaluate the cost of traveling there, whether one’s conclusion is to not go at all or to go to the Antarctic with a focus on true sustainability. If we find a balance between appreciation and protection, there wouldn’t be a motivating fear of missing out on natural sights, but instead the reassurance that they will be around for years to come.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
Travel Industry Takes Crucial First Step Toward Combating Climate Change – The New York Times
Human impacts in Antarctica – Australian Antarctic Program
Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment – Cool Antarctica
The threat to Antarctica from mining and exploiting oil and gas – Cool Antarctica
Discovering Antarctica through Sustainable Tourism – Ecotourism World
Antarctic Conservation Act and Permits | NSF – National Science Foundation
Tourism in Antarctica: Edging Toward the (Risky) Mainstream – The New York Times
We need to talk about the future of Antarctic tourism – Adventure.com