A Small Footprint for the Tourist, a Giant Mark for Antarctica
“If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. And yet, it is something even greater; the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it” (Denton, 2011).
Contrary to this wish, however, the reality seems to unfold differently. Although Antarctica is the least visited continent –as it was just discovered in 1820- the level of tourist visitation has been increasing over the last few decades, and the expectation is that Antarctic tourist numbers will trend upward (Verbitsky, 2013). To meet consumers’ growing desire for natural, authentic experiences, tour operators conform to this trend by developing travel packages of “alternative” tourism to new “undiscovered” destinations (Student et al., 2016, p. 2). This newfound direction has sparked numerous discussions regarding the most effective practice to meet the many-faceted challenges of sustaining the physical habitat while providing an appropriate visitor experience. By delving into the historical aspect of the development of Antarctic tourism, an attempt will be made to retrieve answers to the contemporary controversy about the impacts of the tourists’ presence on the continent.
Figure 1: Tourists are approached by a curious Emperor penguin chick (Duffy, 2009).
The Course of Antarctic Tourism
As early as the 1920s, Thomas Cook identified Antarctica as a potential tourist resort and proceeded to organise cruises, which did not appeal to a wide audience (Headland, 1994). The first to make tourism in Antarctica successful was "Lars-Eric Lindblad, who in the 1950s and 1960s specialised in taking small parties of aristocrats to unconventional destinations" (Gargiulo, 2017). Lindblad's pattern based on cruises from South America, Australia and New Zealand worked well for Antarctica and soon became cheaper, shorter, and more abundant (Gargiulo, 2017). Gradually, the image of Antarctica as an enchanting frozen world, well worth anyone’s attention and money to visit, was established.
Over the last four decades, the budding tourism industry has grown. Even though it can mainly be described as shipborne, it is also constituted by adventure activities ashore and is characterised by the recent redevelopment of overflights. Especially after the 1990s, between mid-November and early March, when the ice conditions are milder, the number of voyages increased as tourism operators responded to the growing demand for Antarctic tourism (Snyder, 2007). The growth in aircraft capacity, combined with a relative decrease in the cost of air travel, as well as a rise in disposable time and income, have prompted more people than ever before to visit faraway places. As a result, the number of tourists who visited the continent annually began to rise sharply, and within twenty years, the numbers had increased by more than six hundred percent (IAATO, n.d.).
Figure 2: Antarctic tourism numbers over the last decades (Lamers, 2017).
Tourist activity is concentrated on cruise ship and flight operations in the Antarctic Peninsula and, to a lesser extent, the Ross Sea (Hall, 1992). According to the UNWTO annual reports, between 2,500 and 3,000 people visited the Antarctic each year over the past decade (The Antarctic Treaty, n.d.). As far as the profits made are concerned, although the numbers may be considered limited, the industry is worth almost $308M (£206M) a year; this is probably a low estimate considering that “deep field” trips, which cover the great area of the South Pole, cost tourists more than $50,000 (£33,550) (Marshall, 2016).
Tourism Industry: Not “Cool” Enough for the Antarctic?
With regard to the conduct of tourism in Antarctica and the ethical implications surrounding it, many debates have been ignited for the last few years. As far as the legitimacy of Antarctic tourism is concerned, various opinions have been expressed. The Australian Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) promote policies that would hinder any tourism from taking place in Antarctica (ACF, 2016), raising philosophical questions about whether the human race has the right to intrude on every part of the globe just because it is technically feasible.
In addition, further questions are raised on whether tourism is a positive activity. Unlike most other destinations, where tourism is accepted as a form of economic development for the local population's improvement of living standards, there is no such justification in Antarctica. Without the local people, it can be claimed that only tourists and tourism operators benefit directly from this activity (Lamers, 2012). An example demonstrating this one-sided advantage is the growing demand to use drones to take photos, although the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has currently banned them for recreational use (IAATO, 2019).
Figure 3: Tourists and scientists are coming into increasing contact with Antarctic penguins (Mint Images, 2018).
Substantial concerns also exist about tourism's impacts on Antarctica's cultural heritage since there is no government presence at the site to ensure that no damage occurs or that artefacts are not stolen (ICOMOS, 2022). The cultural heritage of the region is mainly of interest to tour operators. Several cultural and industrial (sealing and whaling) sites exist in the Antarctic Peninsula and on the sub-Arctic islands, and "several early exploration bases are of substantial historic significance, such as the nineteenth-century sealers’ sites in the South Shetland Islands and the historically significant Mawson’s Huts" (Hall, 1992).
Nevertheless, the most prominent issue surrounding tourism in Antarctica is the potential impact of tourism on the Antarctic environment, meaning the harvesting of marine life or the potential effect of oil and mineral exploration and extraction. Furthermore, the length of time visitors spend on land and their activities need further clarification, particularly as "ship-based tourism is extremely hard to regulate because of the mobility of cruise operations and their capacity to visit remote locations" (Hall, 1992). Furthermore, "cruise travel in the Antarctic summer coincides with the peak breeding periods for many species" (Hall, 1992) and may disturb wildlife breeding sites that are a key feature of the touristic attractiveness of Antarctica.
Figure 4: Current regulations mandate how close visitors to Antarctica can get to its wildlife (Marshall, 2016).
In addition, "ships can freely pollute over a wide area through indiscriminate disposal of intractable wastes and sewage" (Hall, 1992), while oil spills resulting from damage in the poorly charted Antarctic waters would have a significant influence on fragile ecosystems. Permanent onshore facilities and infrastructure have been reported to have the greatest impact on the Antarctic environment since early 2000 (Bastmeijer et al., 2008). Establishing tourism facilities poses major problems with sewage and waste disposal, food and water supply, and the provision of accommodation facilities associated with tourism operations. The increasing concerns about environmental degradation can be attributed to the fact that the Antarctic is the last remaining near-pristine continental wilderness and is regarded as a laboratory of global scientific importance for researching ozone depletion, climatic history, and global warming (Cool Antarctica, n.d.).
The Polar-Opposite View
Figure 5: A minke whale emerges near Zodiac boats carrying Lindblad Expeditions passengers in Paradise Bay, Antarctica (Nolan, 2021).
A strong sentiment has arisen in support of tourism as a means to save “save Antarctica” (Dunning, 2018), in contrast to an exclusively negative perspective. This stance is spread among well-educated travellers familiar with its resources. Their voices would be heard, therefore, in defence of conservation policies. A growing number of operators support that keeping some places on Earth out of bounds for tourism will often simply obscure challenges. Tourists can witness the ongoing changes in the Antarctic waters caused by climate change and further help raise awareness when they get home (Marshall, 2016). It has been further argued that Antarctica, with its wild nature, can even serve as a breeding ground for female empowerment to be displayed (IAATO, 2021). Female figures that stood up against adverse Antarctic conditions constitute inspiring examples of female perseverance and fierceness. Pat Falvey led an Irish team to reach the South Pole in August 2007, and Clare O'Leary in 2008 became the first Irish female to reach it. Similarly, Felicity Aston became the first person to ski alone across Antarctica, as well as the first woman to cross Antarctica alone in 2012 (Kiniry, 2022).
Despite the anticipated growth in tourists’ interest in the Antarctic, there is surprisingly little opposition from scientists to Antarctic tourism. Many representatives of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research at intergovernmental meetings have expressed optimistic views on the topic, stating that, despite the well-known risks, tourism will be well managed into the foreseeable future (SCAR, n.d.). It has been admitted that the prime strategy of the tourism industry is to capitalise on the country's unique features. This way, it ensures a marketable product and lowers the risk of competition from other destinations. To maintain their competitive edge, tourist destinations have been forced to search for types of tourism developments with the least negative effects on social and natural environments. Sustainable and socially conscious tourists have been associated with higher socioeconomic standing and are thought to spend more than their mass-tourism counterparts (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2016). Under this prism, the tourism industry often claims to support and enhance wilderness preservation, habitat maintenance, and the establishment of national parks.
Figure 6: The Consultative Meeting is the official deliberation forum of the Antarctic Treaty (Merco Press, 2010).
The Tip of the Iceberg?
However, in the Antarctic context, the long-term environmental impacts of tourism on natural resources still need to be determined because scarce scientific tools are available to detect subtle changes, such as alterations in the reproduction rates or the composition of plant species.
Establishing a comprehensive regulatory and management framework for the continent's tourism is complex because it involves a high level of international cooperation between the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties and those segments of the travel industry directly involved in Antarctica tours (The Antarctic Treaty, n.d.). This government-industry interaction is an unprecedented experiment whose success remains questionable.
An additional logistic concern is Antarctic shipping control, particularly given the possible introduction of larger cruise liners to take more significant numbers of tourists. Thus, there is a greater risk of shipborne tourism impacts. Therefore, a freight convention on shipping activities in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters must be established. This would ensure that vessels meet the minimum necessary safety and operational standards (The Antarctic Treaty, n.d.).
Figure 7: Australia's research and supply vessel, the RSV Nuyina, in Newcomb Bay, Antarctica (Ryan, 2022)
Despite being a virtually uninhabited landmass, Antarctica has experienced many-fold visitor increases over the last few decades. Given the newfound and growing tourist presence, various dilemmas have been raised regarding the legitimacy of Antarctic tourism. Could the ice breaker in this relationship cause the melting of Antarctica? For example, considering that tourism is already well established on the continent and that tourism activities may aggravate parts of the Antarctic ecosystem, the need to investigate current and future trends in the sustainability of commercial tourism operations comes to the forefront. The commercial and national interests, which are becoming increasingly active in Antarctic tourism, will play a significant role in determining the management and policy framework that will regulate the flow of visitation to the continent.
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Cover image: Hapad Lloyd Cruises. (2009). Growth of Antarctic tourism [Photograph]. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/travel/17cold.html
Figure 1: Duffy, I. (2009). Tourists are approached by a curious Emperor penguin chick [Photograph]. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ianduffy/4323701364/
Figure 2: Lamers M. (2017). Antarctic tourism numbers over the last decades [Graph]. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Antarctic-tourism-numbers-based-on-data-obtained-from-IAATO-2017_fig6_325763631
Figure 3: Mint Images (2018). Tourists and scientists are coming into increasing contact with Antarctic penguins [Photograph]. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/tourists-may-be-making-antarctica-s-penguins-sick
Figure 4: Marshall, A. (2016). Current regulations mandate how close visitors to Antarctica can get to its wildlife [Photograph]. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/26/antarctica-tourism-regulations-cruises-field-trips?fbclid=IwAR0isfCw0AtdsFBO-8tfa4-R0GKP2dVX9AfggPM50VdyB6TeRF0C6jaTeZQ
Figure 5: Nolan, M.S. (2021). A minke whale emerges near Zodiac boats carrying Linblad Expeditions passengers in Paradise Bay, Antarctica. [Photograph]. The Spokesman-Review. https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/apr/24/a-fragile-system-underpins-antarcticas-booming-tou/
Figure 6: Merco Press (2010). The Consultative Meeting is the official deliberation forum of the Antarctic Treaty. [ Photograph]. MercoPress. https://en.mercopress.com/2010/05/03/annual-antarctic-treaty-conference-opens-monday-in-uruguay
Figure 7: Jackson R. (2022). Australia's research and supply vessel, the RSV Nuyina, in Newcomb Bay, Antarctica. [Photograph]. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/science/climate/antarctica-is-melting-faster-thanks-to-pollution-from-tourism-and-research/