The Antarctic tourist industry began in a modest way in January and February 1958, with tours to the Antarctic Peninsula area arranged by the Argentine Naval Transport Command. Every year since January 1966, tourist ships have plied Antarctic coastal waters, stopping here and there for visits at scientific stations and at penguin rookeries. In the mid-1970s sightseeing flights by commercial airliners were inaugurated. Tourist overflights lost popularity, however, after the November 1979 crash of a New Zealand airliner into Mount Erebus (Ross Island), with the loss of all 257 passengers and crew.
Courtesy Carlie Reum
The 1990–91 summer season alone saw more than 4,800 tourist visitors travel into Antarctic waters. A handful of more adventurous tourists have ventured into or across the continental interior by ski, dog team, or private aircraft. Of late, Antarctic tourism has exploded, greatly outnumbering national programme personnel – there were around 46,000 tourists in the 2007/2008 season, for instance, which represented a 14% increase on the previous year. The overwhelming majority travel from the southern tip of South America, where it takes a mere day or two to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. To the more remote Antarctic reaches south of New Zealand or Australia, it’s a 10-day sea journey through some of the roughest waters on the planet.
With polar tourism now a fact, balancing the different and sometimes conflicting needs of the environment, science, and tourism has become an issue. Polar regions are generally regarded as fragile environments, susceptible to change through human activity, and so environmental impact is the most prominent issue surrounding tourism in Antarctica. Arguably, though, the impact of tourism may be insignificant compared to the damage created by the construction of Antarctic bases, the refuse they generate, and the harvesting of marine life, or to the potential effects of oil and mineral exploration and extraction. Nevertheless, the effect on the biota and ecology of this sensitive region from any form of human intrusion must not be ignored, no matter what the purpose. Tourism threatens to increase human intrusion greatly and the risk posed from unregulated or ‘irresponsible’ visitation is a relevant question.
© Nancy Cox
On the other hand, given the allure of remote wilderness areas to humans, there is a very real upside to the phenomenon – visitors to the polar regions become staunch proponents of its protection – something not lost on governments and those championing the scientific programmes underway in these areas. Without government (and, ultimately, public) support, these initiatives could not exist. That visitation generates greater awareness and respect for the natural environment, its pristine but fragile nature, as well as the scientific research that is carried out there – is a case being made by those with long polar associations.
But it’s a matter of degree. Where, if at all, will the line be drawn? Polar visionaries once imagined an all-weather landing strip for wheeled jet aircraft at Marble Point near McMurdo Sound, one or more hotels nearby, perhaps in one of the McMurdo dry valleys and served by helicopter from the jet runway; and possibly even a centre for skiing and mountaineering. With such facilities, they believed, greatly increased numbers of tourists could be brought to the continent. New technologies for landing large wheeled aircraft on inland ice sheets have made tourist facilities in many parts of Antarctica a real possibility. Permanent accommodations for tourists ashore seem inevitable, especially in the Antarctic Peninsula.
© S Gordon
Activities in the Antarctic are subject to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and associated legal instruments, referred to collectively as the Antarctic Treaty System. In 1991 the Environmental Protocol of the treaty was adopted, designating Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science, and applying to both governmental and non-governmental activities in the Antarctic Treaty Area. Under the protocol, those responsible for organising and conducting tourism and non governmental activities must comply fully with national laws and regulations which implement the Antarctic Treaty System, as well as other national laws and regulations implementing international agreements on environmental protection, pollution and safety that relate to the Antarctic Treaty Area. Organisers should be aware that the Environmental Protocol requires that ‘activities shall be modified, suspended or cancelled if they result in or threaten to result in impacts upon the Antarctic environment or dependent or associated ecosystems.’
Read more about the Antarctic Treaty System
All photos courtesy Antarctica New Zealand