Despite the expense of traveling to Antarctica, it is easy to understand its appeal: magnificent icebergs, charismatic seals and penguins, majestic whales, not to mention the excitement of visiting one of the world's most remote and pristine places. But a growing human presence, even if transitory, presents many environmental and safety problems. Tourism must be conducted in a manner that safeguards the Antarctic environment.
Although tourist trips to Antarctica began in the late 1950s, tourism remained at low levels until the early 1990s when it began to increase dramatically. From a base of 4,698 tourists in the 1990/91 summer, annual numbers have risen to 36,875 over the 2009/2010 season. Although tourist residence time is shorter, this means that vastly more tourists than scientists and support staff on national programs now visit the Antarctic each year. Industry figures project a continuing increase in tourism numbers through this decade, although the recent economic downturn appears to have slowed increases dramatically. Although the majority of these tourists still travel in small or medium sized vessels, the industry is rapidly diversifying. Large passenger vessels (which often lack ice-strengthening features) capable of carrying up to 800 passengers (and with correspondingly large crews) are now active in the Antarctic. Mass-tourism has arrived. Alongside this, niche-marketed "adventure tourism" has developed - just about anything you may want to do involving parachutes, skis, motorbikes, can now be pandered to by commercial operators. Large numbers of people now land at key wildlife and historic sites in Antarctica and, increasingly, light aircraft, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles allow penetration further in from the coast. So-called "fly-sail" operations, whereby tourists are ferried by aircraft to ships in Antarctica, have also begun.
As larger and larger ships are used for Antarctic cruises, the risks to the environment and human life grow. Two recent accidents, the sinking of the MS Explorer in 2007 and the temporary grounding of the Ocean Nova in 2009, raise concerns about the prospect of similar accidents with much larger ships. Both ships had experienced crews and were lucky that there was no loss of life or environmental damage, but larger ships would likely not be so fortunate. Significant quantities of fuel oil from a large ship could spill into Antarctic waters in the event of an accident, and the Antarctic is also not conducive to quick rescue. After the Explorer sinking, an Argentine navy commander commented that, "people cruising around Antarctica should know that we have no real ability to rescue them if they get into trouble." ASOC believes that these risks should be taken seriously - just because a serious accident has not occurred yet is no reason to be complacent. The recent decision to prevent ships with more than 500 passengers from embarking on land is a positive initial step.
Within a relatively short time, as the numbers of tourists continue to increase, and as the present Soviet-era fleet chartered by the tourism industry reaches obsolescence, we may see the emergence of air-supported mass tourism in Antarctica - and an increasing tourism footprint on the continent. The problems of tourism, familiar everywhere else, have arrived in Antarctica. A few popular sites receive disproportionate numbers of visitors, which is troubling for a place like Antarctica, where a footprint can remain intact for decades, and where the footsteps of a small number of people can inflict lasting damage on plants and lichens.
Current Tourism Issues
What makes Antarctica a particular concern is that there is no regulation of tourism at present. Apart from an obligation to conduct prior Environmental Impact Assessments - which tourism operators are required to do - there is essentially no constraint on where you can go, what you can do, and how many of you can do it.
The practical consequence of this is that tourism is already exerting pressures on the Antarctic environment, and the increasing commercial interest is changing the nature of the Antarctic political regime. Remarkably, for close to a decade after the adoption of the Protocol no state sought to seriously examine the Antarctic tourism industry or suggest any need to effectively regulate it. In the absence of such interest, the industry developed an entrenched and influential position in the Antarctic Treaty system. Encouragingly, a number of key Antarctic states (led by France and New Zealand) have recently recognised the importance of tourism regulation. But the industry, and its association (IAATO) still argue that industry "self-regulation" is all that is required.
ASOC has argued that this is certainly not adequate, or equitable. Over the past several years ASOC has argued that the Antarctic Treaty states must take responsibility for regulating Antarctic tourism, in order to secure the Antarctic environment and protect the political stability of the Antarctic Treaty system. Tourism operators have good intentions
Our case is not that there should be a prohibition of Antarctic tourism. It is a legitimate activity. But its legitimacy is contingent. Tourism must be subject to some constraints, and it must not compromise Antarctica's established designation as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. If it is not to become a destructive facet of human activity in Antarctica, it cannot increase endlessly and it has to accept some limits on the types and locations of activities.
What You Can Do
Though there are no legally binding rules for tourists in Antarctica, there are guidelines for tourism that have been developed by the countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty. If you visit Antarctica, be sure you are familiar with these guidelines and understand them. They are very detailed, so be sure to ask tour personnel if you have any questions. ASOC produces a Know Before You Go brochure that will provide you with an overview of what to keep in mind during your visit.