Tourism in Antarctica: Edging Toward the (Risky) Mainstream

“It’s important to understand that all of these impacts — climate change, fishing, tourism — are cumulative,” Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote in an email. “Given the sheer carbon footprint of Antarctic tourism, and the rapid growth in the industry, these operations will become increasingly difficult to justify.”

Antarctic Treaty parties are aware that tourism growth will require a new approach. But it’s not clear what steps they will take, nor how quickly they will act. And reaching consensus — which is what decision-making within the Antarctic Treaty system requires — can be a slow and arduous process.

In April 2019, the government of the Netherlands hosted an informal meeting to discuss how to manage Antarctic tourism. The participants — including representatives of 17 treaty parties, IAATO and ASOC, the civil society group, as well as other experts — identified “key concerns” related to the predicted growth in ship tourism: pressure on sites where tourists visit, the expansion of tourism to new areas, and the possible rise in tour operators who choose not to join IAATO, among other issues.

The group’s recommendations were presented to the Antarctic Treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection as well as to the most recent annual meeting of the treaty parties in July. The discussions seemed to go in the right direction, said Ms. Christian, but they are still a long way from implementing major changes.

Stronger regulations could come in many forms, including a prohibition on potentially disruptive activities such as heli-skiing or jet-skiing, both of which are currently allowed; a general strengthening of the Antarctic Treaty system’s existing guidelines for visitors, which already instruct people not to litter, take away souvenirs, or get too close to wildlife, among other things. Parties to the Antarctic Treaty system could also establish protected areas that could be made off limits to tourist vessels, or agree to enact domestic laws to enable authorities to prosecute visitors for Antarctic misbehavior (penguin cuddling, for instance) after they return home.

Or the treaty parties could go even further: They could require all passenger vessels to obtain IAATO membership before being granted a permit, or set a cap on the total number of visitors allowed each season. Most observers agree that both steps would be politically very difficult to enact, mainly because treaty parties have diverging views of what Antarctic tourism should look like.

Tour operators and some academics maintain that tourism in Antarctica is vital because it creates awareness and builds a network of people who will go home to fight for stronger protections in the region. but — as with scientific research, or any human activity in Antarctica — the risks and potential negative impacts of tourism must be weighed against its benefits.